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Analysis of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Minuetto for String Quintet in D Major

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 0

A Study in Classical Music

Quintet Written for Two Violins, Two Violas, and One Cello

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756 – 1791), Minuetto for String Quintet in D Major was written in Vienna around 1790. This minuetto has a significantly different sound and feel in contrast to minuets such as Mozart's Minuet No.6 for Piano in D Major. Mozart's Minuetto for String Quintet in D Major has an upbeat mood that's played lightly, brightly, and gracefully. Also, this minuetto is a shift from the standard four-bar phrasing of minuets of the Classical Era and presents a string arrangement that seem to imitate a vocal performance.[1]

As a quintet, this piece by Mozart is written for two violins, two violas, and one cello. The structure is traditional in that it consists of a minuet, then a trio, and then another minuet. This minuetto begins with a minuet made up of two repeating parts followed by a trio that also repeats; then concludes with a different single part minuet that also repeats itself. Instrumentally, Mozart uses the first violin and the cello as the primary voices of this piece. When the cello is not answering the first violin, then the second violin is proving that response to the first violin. His minuetto seems to have two primary voices, the first violin and the cello, with three supporting voices, the second violin and both viola parts. It reminds me of an opera with the lead soprano and tenor (or baritone) voices supported by a soprano and two alto voices.

There are 99 full measures of music including that it begins on a quarter-note that's not part of the first full measure; then the minuetto ends at the 99th measure consisting of only two beats. This does not take into account the repeating of the first eight measures and the continuation of the first minuet from the eighth measure beat three, through measure 47 beat two. In measures 34 through 47, 72 through 74, and 97 through 99, we see and hear all five instruments playing together as if a mass of voices are singing in a unified message. The first viola is usually providing harmony for the first violin. The second viola seems to be used to provide more body or volume to select segments of this piece. Only in measures 13 through 17 and in measure 66 does the second viola have somewhat of an independent message. The trio also repeats at measure 47 through the third beat measure 61 beat two. The second minuet repeats measures 61 beat three through measure 99 beat two.

The written structure is not so traditional because the musical phrases begin a single beat before a full measure, such as is shown at the beginning of this piece; also, traditional for the minuetto, is the use of four-bar phrasing. The first minuet appears and sounds like it uses eight-bar phrasing. The trio is definitely four-bar phrasing along with the final minuet. The final minuet links these phrases at its conclusion in a fashion that sounds as if a single long phrase.

The melody lines are largely working with ascending and descending scales. The first minuet is a constant playing with descending scales as a melody. The descending scales are four and five note links tied together in such a fashion to form stepping stones moving the listener downward with the instrument. The trio and the second minuet are primarily ascending scales made up of single and double steps sometimes making as much as a two octave jump within four beats. The first minuet constantly pulls the listener downward while the trio and the second minuet constantly pull the listener upward. The trio is played with the first violin playing ascending scaled notes that pull the listener up with the instrument and answered back with a short calm melody from the second violin. In the background of the second violin's response, you hear the violas and cello supporting with even calmer voices.

The second minuet starts with the cello taking the lead voice, yet the scaled song is the same as in the trio. The first violin retakes the lead voice in measure 70 and 71 until measures 72 and 73, where we hear the remaining strings play a melody line until the 74th measure, when they all merge their voices in harmony. The first violin returns as the lead voice at measure 75. In measures 89 through 95, a marriage of five different voices, of different melodies, is played almost as if each were trying to say something in response to the other. In measure 96, the cello plays an ascending scale and joined in measures 98 and 99 by the voices of the remaining strings, as if in a unified voice, in harmony, but not of the same words (notes).

The trio and second minuet consist of four-bar phrasing. The trio appears as four-bar phrasing at first, but measures 60 and 61 don't fit the phrasing, except to lead back into the trio and the start of the second minuet. Mozart makes an interesting use of a "canon" during measures 70 through 73, starting with the first violin, followed by the second violin, then both violas, and finally the cello. This almost gives the feeling of trying to make time run faster for a few moments just prior to slowing the music down again. The second minuet also appears to be four-bar phrasing, but appears to change to eight-bar phrasing in measures 83 through 99. "The emphasis on the four-bar phrase and the development of these phrases was the small idea that helped forge the drama of Classical style (Harris, 59)."[2] As you listen to this Mozart quintet, the phrasing is in eight-bar segments. This counts as eight measures when you include the partial measure he starts with preceding the musical message. Mozart appears to be trying to tie each eight-bar phrase together by using a single beat from the preceding measure as the link.

Based on what we know of the traditional minuet of the "Classical" genre it seems that in this minuetto Mozart is playing with timing, four-bar phrasing, musical scales, and the imitation of voices by string instruments. Mozart plays with the phrasing and the rhythm of this piece in such a way that at times you feel as if the clock stops momentarily and is then accelerated later. Mozart gives the feeling of momentarily suspending time by having the first note of a descending four note scale played and held for a full quarter beat, only to be followed by that same note, and then followed with three sixteenth notes. He uses this to set the listener up to feel the suspense and break in time during measures fifteen through eighteen beat one, only to play descending scales in four note parts, always taking four steps forward and three steps back resulting in a scale that draws time out.

Best of Mozart

Mozart has taken a very traditional format and created a beautiful piece of music that is not so traditional. He takes these five string instruments and establishes clearly different roles for each; yet, they are dependent upon each other for completeness. Each instrument's part is written as if you could replace the strings with voices in a short opera scene where five characters are presenting a vocal piece to the audience. Each part is clear and identifiable. Each harmony portion is full and rich. Robert Harris has stated that, "Mozart's string quartets were considered by many as the greatest ever written, but Mozart out did his achievement in the quartet genre with his shining quintets (Harris, 262)."[2] This piece represents the flexibility of the minuetto and the phrasing used during this period. Mozart was known for expanding the standard methods of his genre to show how much more was possible. I believe this use of what can be called vocal-imitation, accomplishes his expansion of the traditional four-bar phrasing of the standard minuet.

Final Word

Minuetto for String Quintet in D Major is an example of Mozart's ability to manipulate musical timing and string instruments to create a musical experience beyond that of a simple listening experience; for in this work, string instruments become human voices. This is not a powerful, emotional piece. It appears somewhat simple in scheme, and yet it creates the idea and impression of voices singing to each other and not just with each other.

Rate This Article Cory Stophlet 2014-08-04 5.0 0 5


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  1. Lewis Eugene Rowell Thinking about Music. Amhurst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1983.
  2. Robert Harris What to Listen for in Mozart. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

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