Much has been made of Mozart’s relationship with minor keys, particularly G minor. Strange as it may sound, there’s even a Wikipedia page devoted entirely to “Mozart and G minor.” It’s the key of Symphonies 25 and 40, a number of prominent chamber works, and a particularly emotional aria in The Magic Flute. In the preface to the Bärenreiter edition of another work in the key – the First Piano Quartet – Hellmut Federhofer writes that, “Throughout Mozart’s life G minor was the key of fate, appearing to him most suitable for expressing suffering and sadness.”
Melvin Berger clearly agreed. Just look at some of the words he used to describe the G minor String Quintet: “sorrowful,” “dark,” “palpably despondent,” “oppressive,” “ungainly,” “dirge,” “lament.” For the Mozart in Berger’s imagination, G minor must also have a key of suffering and sadness, or as he put it, one that “[projected] poignancy and yearning.” But then you’re left with that pesky question: what do you make of the ending?
People love to look for patterns, to seek meaning wherever they can find it. But when we start to take these patterns for granted, to use them not just to search for meaning but to assume a specific meaning in advance, then perhaps we’ve begun to lose the point. Automatically assuming a work by Mozart in the key of G minor must deal with fate or suffering leaves you with the thorny issue of how to handle the moments that don’t seem, well, sad. All too often, the issue is “handled” by dismissing that which doesn’t fit the expected narrative, which is precisely how you end up with a situation where a critic might ask if an out-of-character finale could be considered “trivial.”
The issue of Mozart and G minor, then, can start to seem a bit like the proverbial question of the blue curtains in literary criticism: are the curtains blue because the author is trying to convey sadness? Or are the curtains just…blue? While it may certainly be true that G minor was a key of “suffering and sadness” for Mozart, one reality of creating art is that it very rarely fits neatly into precisely labeled boxes. Sometimes the curtains really are just blue, and maybe – on occasion – G minor was for Mozart just a key.
– Henry Michaels
Project Resonance Blog editor, Director of Audience Experience & Engagement, Music Academy of the West