Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791
String Quartet in B-flat major, K. 589, “Prussian” No. 2, 1790
Mozart’s final string quartets comprise a set of three collectively known as the “Prussian” or the “Berlin” quartets. In 1789, friend and student Prince Karl Lichnowsky took Mozart to Berlin to meet Frederick William II, King of Prussia (the second son of Frederick the Great). Frederick was a skillful cellist, and a generous patron of the arts. The meeting proved fruitful for Mozart resulting in a commission for six string quartets as well as some piano sonatas for Frederick’s daughter. But these final years were difficult times for Mozart. His letters paint of picture of illness, his wife’s difficult fifth pregnancy, debt and urgent pleas for yet more loans from overly taxed friends. Mozart completed the first quartet straight away, spent nearly a year working on Così fan tutte, then managed to complete two more quartets in May and June of 1790. Financial desperation ultimately forced Mozart to monetize his latest work as swiftly as possible: he sold the three quartets to the Viennese publisher Artaria who released them in print shortly after Mozart’s death in 1791 without any dedication to the Prussian patron.
While art often reflects the context of the artist, great art frequently prevails on its own terms on another plane of existence. Despite such dire real life circumstances, Mozart produced three quite special string quartets particularly known for their graceful beauty, delicate textures and fresh sonorities, a refinement of the genre with a lyrical, concertante style especially featuring the cello after the king.
The second Prussian quartet in B-flat, K. 589 opens with an elegant, compact sonata form that starts with a gently falling lyrical figure. The motion increases with a persistent triplet figuration as the cello emerges in dialog and then as soloist for the second theme. The exposition fully ripens with an explosion of rich textures and vibrant momentum and the movement is propelled by the juxtaposition of serenity and exuberance. The climax occurs at the height of the development where both themes combine: the first falling figure electrified with surging triplets from the second. The shorter, “developed” motives of Mozart’s previous quartets here give way to longer melodic lines, both in the foreground and the “background.” The textures are more sparse and airy with plumes and tendrils of musical phrases forming decorative duets. With the cello playing in its higher registers, sometimes above the viola, the composite ensemble literally hovers on a new sonic plane. These features achieve a new kind of sonority that vividly characterizes all three Prussian quartets, especially the first two.
The second movement Larghetto is a tender aria placing the cello front and center until joined by the violin, a loving companion responding in duet. Elongated musical lines, soloistic tendencies and spare, atmospheric accompaniments give this music a special intimacy and vulnerability. Artaria initially published these Prussian quartets as “concertante quartets” calling attention to these special qualities.
Commentators have often pointed to the third movement Minuet and Trio as the most exciting and innovative portion of this quartet. The Menuetto is unusually marked “moderato” indicating a slower, more deliberate pace than the traditional “allegretto” and the heavy downbeats contribute to suggest an almost stylistically poised minuet in the original French style. This is precisely a foil for the trio, the middle “interlude” of this ternary form where Mozart presents his longest and perhaps most complicated example of the form. The second portion of the trio uses a new chromatic motive, silence, and bold harmonic modulations to create a kind of trio-within-the-trio, an arresting rupture. This adventurousness is made all the more vivid by the return of the now almost mockingly staged minuet.
The quartet concludes with driving, dramatic rondo that recalls Mozart’s more familiar quartet style, full, robust and balanced across the ensemble of four players. The shortest and most energetic movement in the quartet, it is hardly rote: it is brimming with counterpoint, dialog and constant variation transcending the stock schematic of rondo form with all the dynamism of a living organism.
© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Collage: images of Schenker
Collage: images of Schenker
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