By Patrick Mackie | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
In his book Mozart in Motion, Patrick Mackie describes the era during which Mozart wrote his Divertimento for string trio in E flat, toward the end of the composer’s life, as a “manically golden age of gambling across Europe,” wherein his friends and contemporaries made and lost astonishing fortunes. Though his own involvement in this pursuit is, as poet Mackie describes, “unlikely to be resolved,” Mozart’s finances, with their periods of largesse and somewhat inexplicable poverty, indicate some quiet siphon at work. Be that as it may, it was during this period that Mozart—after having completed his symphonies in E flat, G minor, and C, and having assumed his court position in Vienna—penned his late work for string trio, when, says Mackie, “gambling and music were two key forms of experimental social life offered by this accelerating period.”
Excerpted from MOZART IN MOTION: His Work and His World in Pieces. Originally published in 2021 by Granta Books, Great Britain. Published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Patrick Mackie. All rights reserved.
Mozart was getting older now, a strange enough fate even for those who have not been singled out for a renown defined by youth. He was a perpetual son who now lacked a father; he threw himself into grand compositional projects as if time was suddenly chasing him. The divertimento came late enough in the resulting spate for him to have known what impressive fruits it was bringing. The piece reopens his imagination with renewed, limber tenderness to the world of manners and amusement that the divertimento genre conjures. But it does so with a certain curt freedom that comes from having traversed the vast territories of the summer’s symphonies. It must have been hard to step away from the architectural vigour of the symphonies and their sense of ramifying scale; writing them would have been both exhausting and addictive. The divertimento makes the great sideways move of pouring the momentum from those works into a vessel that claims delicacy and charm as its idioms, rather than into some more self-evidently serious genre of chamber music. The divertimento treats its own slightness with expansiveness and fervour, but it does stay relentlessly slight. Choosing such a small ensemble has sharply ambiguous consequences in this context; the sound-world can seem somehow both harshly pared down and deliciously light.
Maybe writing the piece was Mozart’s way of coming back down into a shared, pleasant social world after his weeks of exalted clambering on the heights of the symphonies. It does then still carry the charge of their mountainous air. But the divertimento seems to know just how hard it would be for the symphonies to find routes into the world that they also so richly grasped; it encodes Mozart’s fierce desire for formal reach within more modest and manoeuvrable shapes and attitudes. The ambitious styles of classical chamber music or of Haydn’s symphonies retain blurry links to the divertimento genre’s more arbitrary and skittish musical world. But a slipperiness of style and purpose is exactly what Mozart now exploits by using the label of divertimento for the first time in years; the strenuousness of the symphonies can be cast off, but the gains that it brought are flexibly retained. The composer gives the piece the six movements characteristic of divertimentos, and includes the two usual minuets; by this point much of his chamber music did not call for any dance movement at all. Its feel for the bodily and social rhythms and angles of eighteenth-century dance baits the divertimento with allusions to an entire historical world, one filled with elegant dance halls and shiny decor and flowing flesh. A fine work might have resulted if Mozart had wanted just to reconnect the progressive ardour of his 1780s chamber music style to this vision’s smooth flights and sparkly choreography. The crucial prism here comes instead from using the string trio as a group, a choice that turns out to reach far further than we might guess if we simply see it as a quartet that has lost a violin.
String instruments cannot easily harmonize their own lines or phrases as keyboard instruments can; the two hands of a violinist can only produce one note at a time except by the dramatic and often cumbersome expedient of double stopping, whereby the bow pulls across two strings in the same gesture. One result is that dropping from four to three string instruments in a group makes a massive difference to how richly or otherwise they can harmonize one another. The divertimento finds itself thrown onto a terrain of sonorities that has been emptied out, as if poverty and curtailment lurk deep within the social loveliness that nevertheless keeps bubbling up. Mozart’s trio of instruments gambles on making restriction and exposure work in its favour; the piece matches its tense harmonies with melodic lines that are themselves highly idiosyncratic and exposed, and its players face not so much grand interpretative choices as teeming opportunities for intricate and intimate touches and nuances. Instead of making the cello run through basic accompanimental motifs to fill out the group’s harmonic textures, the piece gets it to oscillate with an often quick-fire flexibility between accompaniment and soloistic excursions of its own. The violin and the viola must consequently work out their relations to each other on their own terms, a task complicated by how high in its range the viola plays, as its sonorities touch and tangle with the violin’s. The three instruments use rhythms and phrase lengths that are often drastically different, as the musical flow seeks waveringly singular ways of locking itself together.
The divertimento’s meditations on togetherness logically enough extend to patches of counterpoint; after all, the term refers to the most traditionally attested set of means for binding musical lines together into coherent textures. Counterpoint is used here in ways that are renowned for their elegance but that can be bitingly curt too, as the precision-tooled rigour that it brings bursts out of these wavering relationships before slipping back into their more playfully melodic gambits. Mozart merges a distinctively tight harmonic vision with the capaciousness of older genres like the Baroque suite. The divertimento contains two allegros as well as the two minuets, creating a more relaxed and digressive sense of musical space than the composer’s more recent quartets or symphonies do. If listeners did not like one minuet, another would be along in a minute. But the minuet was also the one great dance form that was thriving within the high vistas of the classical symphony, so its deployments here help turn the piece into a bridge between the broad musical past and the insistent present.
During 1788 he was often busy writing the society dance music exacted by his court appointment; maybe the mixture of duress with relief involved in this elevation prodded him towards this piece that is somehow simultaneously reductionist and expansive. Writing all this dance music was in some ways an artistic move backwards, but there was also much to energize Mozart’s liberal, progressive sides in the seasonal balls in which many strands of Viennese society were meant to weave together. The sides of him that just loved fun and spectacle were involved too; the opulent Redoutensaal was the setting for balls during each carnival season, and it must have been exhilarating to see his music streaming through so many moving, finely encased bodies. The task and its pleasures loomed as autumn began and the winter’s balls approached, while he was working on the divertimento’s mixtures of charmed curiosity and steely incision. At the same time the piece casts its cool mind back through the forcefully sociable wind serenades from earlier in the decade and through his ambitious and sometimes outright experimental divertimentos and society music from the later 1770s in Salzburg, all the way to the maelstrom of occasional and social genres and categories that had crowded the musical world during the century’s middle decades. Serenades, nocturnes, and divertimentos had poured through that world often indiscriminately, but had fertilized the soil for the classical symphony in the process. In this divertimento Mozart returns to that profusion from the other side of the stylistic advances that had emerged from it. The dance music that he wrote now thronged with fairly short pieces of no great structural ingenuity, but bursting with fulsome orchestration or rich rhythms. It is probably no coincidence that the divertimento is the opposite; a pared-down delicacy here extends and complicates itself. Eighteenth-century culture finds itself unhoused, and so seeks a new and expansive knowledge of itself. It is as if a mask was removed to reveal another mask beneath, one that is more starkly elegant. In this work masking has no end; it can seem to show its own true face though.
No other string trio of similar stature was composed until Schoenberg’s massive, acerbic piece about a century and a half later, itself a thrillingly strange meditation on historical loss and personal vulnerability. In the divertimento elegance comes not from refusing complex experience but from inviting and subsuming it. No one with no love for them could pass through as many salons and parties as Mozart had, but no one could develop such a feel for them without having often enough been sick at the thought of the next one. Whatever raw ambivalence he must often have felt towards success and its hinterland turns here into refinement, as artistic seriousness and social levity remake each other, and dance. The divertimento still resounds with the swish of fine dresses and the gleam of bodies dancing beneath gilt ceilings, and the flutter of cards being shuffled. But the piece has a gambler’s lucidity about its world, and a gambler’s ruefulness about how far such lucidity gets anyone. Nothing is more ambivalent than watching the roulette wheel as it flies; a gambler’s winnings come laced with fear and contempt, while losses savour of near misses and the awful likelihood that hope will soon return. In both music and gambling, the eighteenth century told the truth about itself in the form of yet more distraction.
Mozart’s divertimento ends with an allegro movement whose spirit of wiry melodic release speaks of a certain relief at having moved over such highly contoured ground and emerged. Are liberalism and democracy and republicanism gambles too? No society can sanely seek their realization without a large tolerance for uncertainty of outcome. A society throws itself into gambling when it no longer finds its own values and bases compelling. In the decades following Mozart’s death, the greatest music extended itself to extremes of subjectivity, inwardness, and willfulness in its attempts to balance itself against a world addicted to crises. But the E flat divertimento advocates coolness, refinement, tolerance, curiosity, a certain almost violently winnowed tenderness, and a lightness full of trenchancy. Perhaps Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades is the work that makes the ecstasies of music and of gambling interpret each other most openly and acutely. Composed more or less exactly a century later, it focuses all the rampancy of nineteenth-century opera on the tale of a man obsessed with a particular trick for winning at cards, a man for whom gambling reveals the full horror of its version of pleasure and desire. At its heart are dazzling and trenchant passages of pastiche Mozart.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 21, “Gamblers: Divertimento for string trio in E flat,” found in Patrick Mackie’s Mozart in Motion, available June 6 from FSG.