I. Exposition (0:04 to 1:41, repeated at 1:42 to 3:19)
The first theme appears right at the beginning of the piece (in the recording at minute 0:04 or measure 1), and it lasts until minute 0:20 (or including measure 12).
The transitional material is plaid from 0:20 until 1:05, and features some interesting sub-themes, transitions and cadences.
The one example I would like to single out are three “staircase transitions”, played by the first violin. It gives us the imagination of running several flights of stairs up or down, as if we are searching for something, and what we find at each place is a harbinger of the second theme, its upbeat motif, its bridge, In midst all the transitional material we have heard since we have left the first theme, it sticks out with its melodic, stable character and shows some melodic connection with the second theme: it appears like a prelude to it. I call it therefore the harbinger or the upbeat motif of the second theme.
At 0:39, the first violin takes us down a some flights of stairs, and we find the cello announcing the second theme in a modified form over two bars. At 0:45, the violin takes us up again the staircase, and the cello gives the same upbeat motif of the second theme as harbinger. At 0:50, the converse direction is repeated, until at 0.55, the first violin takes up that upbeat motif and continues it – and here the shift to the dominant key F major takes place.
Finally, at 1:04 (measure 45) the second theme is fully introduced by the cello until 1:16 (measure 53). Right after that, the first violin repeats the second theme slightly modified, until 1:26 (measure 60).
This section feels like the second theme, because it is the first singable melody in the dominant key F, and it also gives a striking contrast in instrumentation: it is played by the cello alone, only slightly accompanied by the viola. Hence, the texture is very thin compared to the first theme, in which all four instruments are involved, except for the first five measures, in which only the violins and the viola provide the music; only later, the cello chimes in. Nevertheless, the first theme is predominantly introduced by the first violin, the other instruments are mere accompaniment, while the second theme has the texture of a solo. Furthermore, whereas the first theme shows a refined and timid character, being played in piano, the second theme is articulated with more volume, even though not in any forte dynamic: it is neither timid nor assertive, thereby affirming its independent, self-reliant nature: neither does it have to be restraint nor assert itself.
One aspect of contrast to the first theme stems from a different tonality: the second theme is played in the dominant key F major, creating an emotional pull towards the first theme, which is plaid in the home key, the tonic key B flat major.
Concerning its character, the second theme is less melodic and less beautiful than the first theme. Even though you feel that it tries to follow suit the first motif in its melodic character, due to its sole, almost isolated existence and its more sentimental rather than beautiful countenance, it seems like the little sibling of the first theme. It stands lonely outside of the concert hall, at the window, trying to imitate his big brother playing inside with all the other instruments. You recognize some relationship, but you still feel the contrast.
The second theme appears to be slower, but also more continuous, more fluent than the first theme. This continuity is nicely counter-painted by some pauses, with gives the theme a hopping, punctuated element: it adds a feeling or progression to the theme. The first theme lacks these moments of instability and progression.
Even when the first theme is repeated by the first violin at 1:14 (measure 53), those differences makes for a striking contrast to the first theme.
A worth-mentioning aspect of this piece is that Mozart uses so much wonderful and resourceful material in the transition from the first to the second theme. This part is – in my view – actually the richest portion of the first movement.
II. Development (3:20 to 4:39, retransition at 4:29)
At 3:20 (measure 72), the development starts strikingly. It repeats in forte the last five measures of the closing theme from the exposition, but without giving a feeling of strict closure: the final chord at 3:25 (measure 76) is a weaker chord, especially because for both violins it is not a chord anymore at all, but only a single note. That is why is does not feel as the end of a section, rather as a dramatic upbeat for a new section.
It might be argued that this section still belongs to the exposition and constitutes its final closing theme. But I disagree with this view on the grounds that the first rendition of the exposition does not include this section, and that the closing chord of this section has not a strict closing character. Hence, this section appears to me as an upbeat for the development.
The very first bar of the first theme appears very soon, subtle but frequently: lowered quite a bit at 3:46 (measures 89/90/91), three times and descending by the viola, slightly higher then the original at 3:47 (measures 90/91) by the fist violin, and very subtle by the cello at measures 3:52 and 3:54 (measures 93/95).
The pure development section is rather short. It only lasts until the retransition begins at 4:29 (measure 108), which broaches the first theme by playing its again the very first bar of the first theme. Starting with the second violin, both violins take turns playing the first theme’s beginning. The second violin does it a few notches lower than the first violin. The violins pass each other the first bar of theme one, until the first violin abandons the play and provides several modulations, during the break of which the second violin and the viola keep repeating the first bar of theme one.
These snippets of the first theme have a thicker texture than in the original first theme: they are always embedded in a dense accompaniment, either by the viola or by the cello. Most of time, it is different in pitch, that is, slightly higher or lower than the original.
At 7:27 (measure 123), the violin ushers in the final return to the first theme by means of a staircase-like downward sequence. It leads us up again the stairs, changing to the dominant F along the way, and drops us there with a two-bar cadence at 7:35 (measure 128-130). This cadence let us fall gently like a swinging leaf, until the the first theme catches us. Those short, preceding snippets of the first theme have subconsciously prepared us for being caught by theme one; they have been a part of a shrewd retransition.
III. Recapitulation (7:38 to 9:28)
As mentioned before, at 7:27 (measure 123), the retransition begins and leads us to the recapitulation. The recapitulation starts at 7:38 (measure 131) with a repetition of the first theme, only with some differences: here the first theme appears less carefully and less timidly. It is self-confident right away: the second violin is game right from the beginning, whereas in the original first theme, the first violin solely introduces the theme, feeling its way forward, until the second violin chimes in thematically at measure two. In short, the first theme starts with a thicker texture here.
In terms of articulation, the first theme here appears with slightly more volume. Concerning other features, like rhythm and tempo, both appearances of the first theme seem widely identical.
The little brother, the second theme, makes its first appearance in the recap at 8:47 (measure 179) until 8:59 (measure 187), but different in instrumentation. It is played by the first violin (instead of the cello), immediately repeated at 8:59 (measure 187) until 9:10 (measure 195) by the viola (instead of the first violin). The importance of the second theme seems to be reversed compared to the exposition, but obviously deliberately: it lends their appearances some symmetry (cello – violin – violin – viola), but it still makes for a contrast. In terms of texture (in both cases it is essentially a solo), in terms of articulation (both are neither piano nor forte) as well as in rhythm, the second theme appears identical both in the recapitulation and in the exposition.
In terms of texture (in both cases it is essentially a solo), in terms of articulation (both are neither piano nor forte) as well as in rhythm, the second theme appears widely identical both in the recapitulation and in the exposition.
The main differences are with respect to instrumentation as well as tonality: apart from being played by a different instrument in the recapitulation, it is played in the home key, the tonic B-flat major instead of the dominant F in the exposition.
Worth mentioning is how the quest on the staircase appears in the recapitulation with a nice contrast. This time, it is the cello which drives us through the stairwell, and the violin offers a place to rest by delivering the upbeat motif of the second theme.
IMSLP, String Quartet No.22 in B-flat major, K.589, Full Score: