The MET Orchestra
The New York Collegium
Other Venues
Mozart: Divertimento, K. 563
Guides to Music
Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now
Record Craze


Divertimento (String Trio) in E-Flat,

K. 563

I. Allegro

II. Adagio 

III. Menuetto: Allegro; Trio

IV. Andante

V. Menuetto: Allegretto; Trio I; Trio II

VI. Allegro 


Bärenreiter TP 319: Trios für Streicher/Trios for Strings, Edited by Dietrich Berke (Kassel: 1975, 2001)


Gidon Kremer, violin; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Yo-Yo Ma, cello (Sony MK 39561)

Arthur Grumiaux, violin; Georges Janzer, viola; Eva Czako, cello (Philips 416 485-2)

Vera Beths, violin; Jürgen Kussmaul, viola; Anner Bylsma, cello (Sony SK 46497)

This is my desert island piece. It doesn't have everything, but it has more of everything than anything else I know, and I'm still, after well over thirty years, hearing new things. It is neither a true divertimento (entertainment music tout court) nor a doughty piece of chamber music, although the demands that it places upon instrumentalists means that it is not often performed. As a hybrid, its nearest relation is Eine kleine Nachtmusik, which is a Serenade by nomenclature and a string quintet by structure (although unlike Mozart's six so-called quintets, which call for two violins, two violas, and cello, EkN doubles the cello with a double-bass). There are not many string trios in the literature, but this work would be in a class by itself even if trios were thick on the ground. The key to the piece seems fairly obvious: Mozart was fond of the viola, liked to play it at musical gatherings, and, by no means a modest performer, he was not about to write himself a dull part. (That he played the violin equally well only underscores this point.) The weight of interest is spread fairly evenly among the three instruments, which also puts this work in a class by itself, certainly distinguishing it from Mozart's quartets (and everyone else's), by concentrating the music usually divided between the second violin and the viola on the viola alone, and from Mozart's quintets, which oppose tag teams of first and second violins and first and second violas. Here we have the just the three voices of classical polyphony: violin on top, viola in the middle, and cello at the bottom.

K. 563 also recommends itself to the shipwrecked music lover by being long. It's Mozart's longest work for chamber forces, and among his longest for any configuration excluding voice. Played with all its repeats, it goes on for nearly an hour. Like Bach's suites, its gravity is front-loaded: the first two movements take up almost half of the performing time. After these more serious movements, we're treated to four very charming ones. Two are minuets, one is in the theme-and-variation form, and the finale, while in sonata form, is no more insistent than the minuets.

The opening Allegro's first subject is nothing if not elemental: the tonic triad, first down, then up, followed by lots of scales.

(Ex 1)

The second subject completely captures my idea of Mozart-in-Vienna. It is carefree in a manner peculiar to the Austrian capital, particularly in its flirtation with vulgarity.

(Ex 2)

The exposition takes up four pages, or 73 bars. It's at bar 44 that my impression of a coda begins; from here to the end the music shifts simply back and forth between the tonic and the dominant, and gives each instrument a chance to show off in the sequence of flourish-y phrases:

(Ex 3) (Ex 4)  (Ex5)

With the violin closing off to a see-saw accompaniment.

(Ex 6)

The development is dominated by the figure in Example 3. It appears first, in undotted form, beneath the opening theme, which Mozart stretches this way and that in the minor before giving the original version of Example 3 a strenuous workout. The insistent fugato is quite out of keeping with the typical divertimento mood, but it lasts only long enough to remind us that Mozart's earlier foray with the string trio was a set of six Adagios and Fugues, dating from the beginning of the composer's years in Vienna, that affixed to transcriptions of fugues by Johann Sebastian and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach slow introductions written in what was taken by musical cognoscenti in 1780 to be the Bach style. There is little of such archaism in the Divertimento, but the work's lean ensemble and patina of polyphonic cogency point throughout to the wellsprings of counterpoint that would inspire Beethoven's mightiest constructions, long before the general public knew anything about Bach.

The recapitulation - which ends with a repeat to the beginning of the development; in a full performance, the exposition is played twice, and then the development and recapitulation are played twice - is not a straight repetition of the exposition. The second subject, as is customary, reappears in the tonic, but when it does, Mozart swaps the viola and cello parts. This sort of minor detail, which abounds in Mozart, tends not to be noticed by listeners, who carry away the very mistaken impression that Mozart is easy to play. (One of the chief difficulties, indeed, in performing Mozart is attending to very numerous slight alterations.) Mozart lets out the material a bit, too, so that a figure that lasts for four bars in the exposition of the first subject persists for two further, and darker bars in the recapitulation. The movement ends with the deceptive simplicity of Example 6.

The Adagio that follows is the emotional core of the work. The first thing to say about it is that while Mozart works hard, as I say, to distribute the musical interest equally among the three players in the other five minutes, here he lets the violin shine. The mood of the piece is similar to a number of Mozart's slow movement that are characterized by frequent complete stops; despite its many singing phrases, this music is not songlike, but ruminative. Once again, Mozart begins with a simple triad. 

(Ex 7)

After a few fits and starts with the figure in Example 8, the violin takes up the flourish of Example 9

(Ex 8)                 (Ex 9)

which it rephrases three times before winding up on a chromatic scale in triplets. It then returns to the opening theme, but this time with elaboration:

(Ex 10)

The surprise that the music takes in bar 30, like the development of the opening Allegro, is entirely uncharacteristic of music intended as background for social events, and hammers home the fact that this work is a divertimento for connoisseurs. The six great leaps, down and up (and up), are another of Mozart's fingerprints. He seems always to have delighted in juxtaposing the sounds of a given instrument's extreme registers; when he pulled the same stunt in the arias for Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, he gave rise to the canard that it was dislike of his soprano that inspired the difficult writing. Increasing the intensity here, Mozart double-stops the viola part, a technique for padding the sound that on the whole he avoids. Here it is very much in keeping with the overall opera seria mood. Presently the exposition closes sweetly.

The development is a brief but ardent passage of broken triads over an ostinato bass, and it ends with the movement's signature full stop. The exposition picks up the elaboration of the opening that appears above, in Example 10, at bar 26, only now the figure is given to the cello. There follows a much-expanded reworking of the figure in Example 8. The leaping phrase, repeated over smaller intervals, leads toward the exposition's quiet close, but continues into a coda built out of the elaborate rising figure at bar 28 (Example 10); the viola plays it first, then the cello plays it, and finally the violin plays it twice. The closing phrase is so final that to follow the score and repeat (as in the Allegro) the development and the recapitulation might, glorious as the music is, prove tiresome. As it is, the movement runs about thirteen minutes, very much on the long side for Mozart.

I should like to consider the Divertimento's two Minuets together, in order to highlight their differences. The first Minuet, which has one trio, begins with more broken triads, set over a propulsive double beat.

  (Ex 11)

In almost every bar of this fluid but monochromatic piece at least one instrument plays a legato stream of six eighth-notes; in the Trio, which is so similar to the principal section of the Minuet that it might best be thought of as a third stanza, scales of staccato eighth-notes provide a subtle contrast. The dance seems to end almost immediately. The second Minuet, although it is a much grander affair than the first, with its two Trios and formal Coda, strikes a rustic note strongly reminiscent of Haydn. The the violin and viola begin the first stanza as a duo, harmonizing in stark-sounding, faux-primitive open fifths and sixths, and the second stanza swings between what might be called gypsy 'blue' notes. In the second stanza of the first Trio, the violin and the viola repeat the open fifth, this time as a broken interval with a distinct 'hee-haw' feel, while in the second stanza of the second Trio the violin seems to get stuck on a four-note hurdy-gurdy phrase before swooping down an unexpected sixth. As is often the case in Mozart's later Minuets, both Trios provide a sharp contrast to the one-step-at-a-time rhythm of the minuet, and anticipate the perpetual motion of the waltz.

The Air with Variations, marked Andante, standing between the Minuets, displays an interesting amplification. Imagine that you're singing 'Row, row, row your boat.' But instead of following this opening line with 'Merrily, merrily, merrily...,' you sing the first line over again, to music that's somewhat more elaborate. Then you proceed to 'Merrily,' and follow that with a similar elaboration. Clumsy as the example is, it's the easiest way I can think of to convey the structure of Mozart's double variations: each variation is doubled, not by simple repetition, but by a subtler variation. Consider the Air, itself. The music begins with Example 12. The theme comes to a natural close at Bar 8. Example 13 shows what happens at Bar 9. 

  (Ex 12)            (Ex 13)

On the page, the difference between these passages seems almost insignificant, but the stroke marking in the second bar of the viola and cello lines in Example 13 that would be Bar 10 of the Andante) make the alteration plain to the ear, and throughout this subvariation the viola plays tellingly against the violin. The first 'Merrily' portion, so to speak, begins at Bar 17 (observe the multiples of eight), and the second at Bar 32. The First Variation begins - guess! - at Bar 49. The differences are so striking that it is only the persistence of the underlying rhythm that maintains the variation's unity.

(Ex 14)            (Ex 15)

The original Air, repeated in the viola part in Example 14, does not even appear in the subvariation. Example 15 isn't so much a variation on the theme as a flourish, and the same distinction arises in the Second Variation:

(Ex 16)  (Ex 17)

This time, even the underlying rhythm changes, as the triplets are squeezed back to their sixteenth-note value. The material associated with Example 17, moreover, is characterized by the same great leaps that stab three times through the Adagio's thoughtful fabric.

The Third Variation is in the minor. Rattling around my head is a factoid asserting that Mozart was the first to introduce a variation in the minor mode into a set of variations otherwise in the major - 'Ah, vous dirai-je Maman,' the 'Twinkle twinkle' variations, K. 265. Be that as it may, the word 'Minore' is inscribed at the beginning of this variation, an almost motionless adagio. The Fourth and final Variation, exploding with brio, presents each instrument with music in a different species of counterpoint: the viola plays a cantus firmus reduction of the Air; the cello adorns this with four notes for every one of the viola's, and the violin skims across the top with two notes for every one of the cello's. Although the violist doesn't appear to have to work very hard, it is rare for a viola's contribution to be so exposed. Six bars from the end, Mozart slips the genie back into the bottle and stoppers it with a sinuous revision of the Air. This is his idea of High Fun. 

The sunny Allegro that concludes the Divertimento opens with a theme recalls two somewhat later works, the finale of the last Piano Concerto, No. 27 in B-Flat, K. 595, and the song entitled 'Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge,' K. 596. As in those pieces, and as almost everywhere else in the Divertimento save perhaps the Andante, this theme is built on a broken triad - although here it is filled in somewhat with an extra note.

I (Ex 18)

In another parallel, the second subject recalls the same high-spirited brio of the first movement's.

(Ex 19)

The structure of the movement is a relaxed sonata form; there are no repeats, and the second subject makes its reappearance in the tonic prior to, instead of after, the recapitulation of the main theme. The development, which works on both the opening tune (here given to the viola) and the fanfare-like motif that wraps it up, is also somewhat longer than the Adagio's, and much more extensive than the first movement's.

(Ex 20)

The bridge passage that in both repetitions leads up to the second subject (the second time closing the development) consists of a series of showy violin runs that puts paid to the notion, should it have lasted this long, that the viola and cello parts share the violin's brilliance.

 (Ex 21)

Conventional in the way that the Clarinet Concerto is conventional, openly charming and virtuosic by turns, the finale seems designed to end the work (at least) in true divertimento style.

Of the three recordings, the first, headed by Gidon Kremer, is the only one to take repeats in the first two movements. Given the excellence of all three performances, this expansiveness gives a considerable edge to the older Sony recording. The other two fill out the disc with Adagios and Fugues from the set that I've mentioned (Grumiaux: K. 404a Nos. 1, 2, and 3; Beths: Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 6). 

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press

Write to me   

A visitor writes (April 2005):

I share your fondness for K.563, to the extent that I've made an effort to hear all recorded performances since Heifetz et al. broke the ice with RCA 78's. I've been most comfortable with the Trio a Cordes Francais (a Nonesuch LP), with close second place going to a trio from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (Ani Kafavian, Paul Neubauer, and Fred Sherry (an Arabesque CD). For one reason or another, the others have, for me, either a fault with tempo---usually in the initial Allegro, or in the Andante with variations, dropping the tempo of the Minore section, presumably to stress the drama of the minor-key; my score shows no ritardando at that point.

Possibly the worst recorded offender was a group called "The Kehr Trio". the violist's instrument possibly had been fashioned of titanium and a bow equipped with stainless steel teeth.

In any case, like you, I find miracles of invention in this masterpiece; prime among my favorites are the too's, fro's, and gives and takes of the voice leading in the first movement, and in the first and subsequent variations in Movement IV. On occasion, I've been well and truly slack-jawed with these moments. And then there's that bristling final Allegro!

In any case, I thank you for your thorough dissection of K.563 which I'm sure will continue to lead others to look into this superb creation.

Permalink  Portico

Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press

Write to me