Inside the Music | Dissonance | Classical Era | Classical

Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet takes its title from the 22-bar adagio introduction to the first movement. It begins with softly repeated quavers on the cello. The note is C, the tonic, which is only to be expected. But expectation is soon confounded: the violin enters on A flat, followed by the second violin on E flat. The viola moves down to G, but if we are expecting a chord of C minor, we are in for a shock, because the first violin enters on a high A natural, almost clashing with the A flat before it follows the viola down to G.

With the completion of the first violin’s rising phrase after another harmonic near-miss, the process is repeated a tone lower. The throbbing cello quavers continue in a slow diatonic descent from A flat to E flat as the viola embarks on a rising chromatic phrase. This is heard three more times, on the first violin, cello, and viola again, and once upside-down on the second violin. The dissonance caused by these phrases rising and falling continues to tease the ear. By the sixteenth bar the part-writing is less sinuous and the music seems to be approaching a cadence in C minor. In bar 21, however, the goal is clearly C major, despite unsettling chromaticisms involving C sharp and A sharp; and C major is confirmed at last with the arrival of the allegro.

There are chromatic inflections in the third and fourth movements. These also produce dissonances, such as the chain of seventh chords towards the end of the exposition of the finale, though none are as stark as those in the introduction to the first movement.

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