Impudent Prophetic Plagiarism – 1

I once heard a lecture by the late great critic Charles Rosen on two strands of Romanticism: a classicizing one (exemplified by Mendelssohn and Brahms) and an “advanced” one (exemplified by Schumann and Chopin–and later, of course, Wagner).  In the Q & A period, someone who looked suspiciously like me asked Rosen where Schubert fit into this scheme.  His answer was that Schubert was a special case: off to his own, magical side of this dichotomy, though descending in an essential way from Mozart.  (I’d say Schubert’s early symphonies indicate consumption of a healthy dose of Haydn–but then who wasn’t hugely influenced by Haydn?)

Rosen was surely onto something when he said Mozart strongly influenced Schubert, but there’s at least one case in which the influence seems to run the other way. I’m thinking of a passage in the slow movement of the Mozart’s G Minor String Quintet.

At the risk of telling you what you probably already know (I certainly hope you do), the last three of Mozart’s four string quintets are among his greatest works.  So the slow movement of the G Minor (it begins at 16:23 in this clip) never had much chance of being anything less than a wonder from first note to last. But at 18:49 in the clip, in comes a theme whose “oom-chuck” accompaniment and surpassing lyricism make it sound like an emissary from another world.  The world in question is the future: in particular the province of the future where Schubert lived. It’s as though Mozart saw what music would be forty years on, and demonstrated that he could not only envision it but could beat it at its own early Romantic game. (Not Schubert or anyone else could have conceived the impossibly beautiful echo with which Mozart dance-partners his theme at 19:03.) Having brought off this bit of time-travel, Mozart returns the movement to the 1780’s as though nothing remarkable had happened. (He may have visited the future,  but apparently saw no reason to stay there.)

The late great critic Donald Tovey once accused Haydn, in an immortal phrase, of “impudent prophetic plagiarism” (the pilfered bit being a spot in Brahms).  As Mozart’s Schubertian theme shows, Haydn wasn’t the only genius who was capable of such a crime. (Another example next week.)

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