When we think of Beethoven’s music, we often consider how he spins a single idea over the course of several movements. For instance, Beethoven’s 7th symphony is obsessed with the drone of the note E. It appears in every one of the four movements. The introduction of the first movement ends with an extended and playful dialogue on the note E between the strings and the winds. The famous tune of the second movement sits on E to the point of creating a monotone melody. Some critics implied that Beethoven was incapable of writing a proper melody, not understanding that this ‘tune’ is actually the accompaniment for the melody that occurs later. The E becomes a hurdy-gurdy drone in the fast folk dance of the finale.
Mozart is far more subtle than Beethoven, but in his string quintet in G minor, there too is a single idea drawn out over the multi-movement structure. Here that idea is a quick ascent followed by a steadily descending scale, almost like a slow wail. The opening of the first movement presents the archetype. An arpeggio quicklyrises an octave in one measure, and then a long chromatic scalar descent back down the octave follows for 3 measures.
The transition features a new tune, but it has the same shape. A leap upward of a 6th is followed by a longer tail descent of a 6th that eventually becomes a full octave. The second theme is a bit of a mirror on this process. It begins with a descending arpeggio followed by a tail that rises in an ascending scale. The down-up, up-down rollercoaster effect accumulates in the closing section, both with arpeggios and scale passagework.
Descending scales in 3rds open the development section. They seamlessly dissolve into the earlier transition theme that is passed between the instruments in harmonic sequence. Over a dominant pedal point, the descending scale figure repeats, each time a step lower, extending this descent now over 7 measures and elegantly dissolving into the original theme and the recapitulation of the movement. The chromaticism intensifies in the coda, particularly in the final measures where the first violin slithers down and up the minor scale.
The second movement minuet continues the descending slide process, now using it as the head of the theme instead of the tail. The slow adagio movement is a precursor of the glorious slow movements in Beethoven’s quartets. Here again, Mozart uses both rapid and drawn out scalar descents to achieve great expression. We can’t help but connect them with the same idea we’ve been hearing in the first and second movements. It comes as no surprise that both the slow introduction and the finale that follow again capitalize on these scalar descents. But of course, there is much music that occurs between and around all of these descending scales. And that is what distinguishes Mozart from Beethoven. Beethoven would just be hammering those scales down our ears. Mozart uses them as seasonings, always present and adding flavor, but not always in the foreground of our attention. Instead, they serve as variations to an ever changing musical fabric.