Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791
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. Among other traits, as a showcase for the cello, the music is often scored for a higher register with the lowest voice raised up into the ideal “singing” range of the cello creating a particularly ethereal character throughout the three quartets.
The String Quartet in D Major, K. 575 is the first of the Prussian quartets. It follows the standard four-movement design although it is shorter than Mozart’s previous quartets. The first movement clearly follows a sonata form with its usual tension, wit and occasionally muscular drive, but, as with all three of the Prussian quartets, the sound is refined, even precious, with a certain Rococo delicacy. This subtle elegance is especially characteristic of the second movement, a moderately paced slow movement with Mozart’s sublime lyricism spun out in transparent and occasionally spare textures. This quintessentially “classical music” strikes some as conservative, others as highly refined, carefully distilled.
The Menuetto third movement with its strong triple meter accents and bold unisons displaces the prevailing aerated soufflé textures with a bit of sturm und drang. The contrasting trio, true it is name, reduces the textures for an extremely delicate effect like a little music box or the rich, creamy center of dark chocolate. The cello enjoys the starring role. By contrast, again, the finale is a spirited rondo, dashing with extraordinary drive, dazzling counterpoint, captivating dissonances and yet more of the winning lyricism that is especially characteristic of Mozart’s three Prussian quartets. A simple, almost “stock” theme propels this accessible, “easy” music along its surface profile, but the constant variety of inextricably intertwined figuration and accompaniment offers rich complexity operating on a “deeper” level recalling Mozart’s famous remark regarding some of his piano concertos that “lie somewhere between too easy and too difficult; they are brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural without being shallow. There are passages here and there that only a connoisseur can truly appreciate, but that a layperson also can enjoy without even knowing why.”