MOZART: String Quartets, K. 168-169 and K. 589, 'Prussian No. 2'
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
Quartet in B Flat Major, K. 589
Quartet in E Flat Major, K. 160 (159a)
Quartet in A Major, K. 169
Quartet in F Major, K. 168
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756, the son of a court musician who, in the year of his youngest child's birth, published an influential book on violin-playing. Leopold Mozart rose to occupy the position of Vice-Kapellmeister to the Archbishop of Salzburg, but sacrificed his own creative career to that of his son, in whom he detected early signs of precocious genius. With the indulgence of his patron, he was able to undertake extended concert tours of Europe in which his son and his elder daughter Nannerl were able to astonish audiences. The boy played both the keyboard and the violin and could improvise and soon write down his own compositions.
Childhood that had brought Mozart signal success was followed by a less satisfactory period of adolescence largely in Salzburg, under the patronage of a new and less sympathetic Archbishop. Like his father, Mozart found opportunities far too limited at home, while chances of travel were now restricted. In 1777, when leave of absence was not granted, he gave up employment in Salzburg to seek a future elsewhere, but neither Mannheim nor Paris, both musical centres of some importance, had anything for him. His Mannheim connections, however, brought a commission for an opera in Munich in 1781, and after its successful staging he was summoned by his patron to Vienna. There Mozart's dissatisfaction with his position resulted in a quarrel with the Archbishop and dismissal from his service.
The last ten years of Mozart's life were spent in Vienna in precarious independence of both patron and immediate paternal advice, a situation aggravated by an imprudent marriage. Initial success in the opera-house and as a performer was followed, as the decade went on, by increasing financial difficulties. By the time of his death in December 1791, however, his fortunes seemed about to change for the better, with the success of the German opera The Magic Flute, and the possibility of increased patronage.
The string quartet developed as a form in the second half of the eighteenth century, coming to assume the greatest importance for composers. Stendhal's account of the matter, in his Lettres sur J. Haydn, is well known. He recalls the description given by a woman of intelligence who found the quartet similar to the conversation of four friends, the first violin, a middle-aged man and a good speaker, leading the discourse, supported by his friend, the second violin, who would seek to allow the first to shine, the viola would be a knowledgeable man of sound opinions, occasionally adding his own laconic but truthful comments, while the cello was a woman who had nothing very important to say, and yet always sought to take part in the conversation, adding an element of gracefulness and sometimes allowing the others time to draw breath. It is true that with the later quartets of Haydn and those of Mozart in which he rivalled the example of the older man, there is an equilibrium between the four instruments, each with its essential contribution to a form that epitomizes the music of the period, a microcosm into which the essence of music is subsumed.
In April 1789 Mozart was invited to accompany Prince Karl Lichnowsky on a journey to Berlin, which they reached in the middle of May, after visiting Dresden and Leipzig. The expenses of the journey outweighed any financial advantages, although Mozart was received at court and spent some time at Potsdam. The musical result of the expedition may be seen in a piano sonata, one of a projected group of six, for Princess Friederike, the eldest daughter of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, and three of a projected set of six string quartets for the King, himself a cellist. Mozart set to work on the quartets and the sonata after his return to Vienna, which he reached on 4th June, the month in which he completed the first of the three Prussian Quartets, K. 575. The second and third were written in May and June respectively, the following summer. The whole period was one of financial anxiety for Mozart, who was obliged to borrow money from a fellow mason to meet his living expenses. The quartets themselves failed to bring him the reward for which he had hoped and were sold to the publisher Artaria for what the composer described despairingly as Spottgeld, a mere song, to be issued at the end of 1791, after the composer's death.
The Quartet in B flat major, K. 589, like its companions, gives some importance to the cello, an instrument that takes a more prominent part in the conversation than that envisaged by Stendhal's interlocutor. It is this instrument that proposes the principal theme of the slow movement, then taken up by the first violin. The Minuet and Trio are followed by a final movement which allows the cello at least an equal share of attention.
In the autumn of 1772 Mozart travelled with his father to Milan, where an opera had been commissioned for the opening of the carnival season. The work in question, Lucio Silla, was successful enough, in spite of the rivalries of the leading singers. During the period spent in Italy Mozart wrote six string quartets, the last of the set, K. 160 in E flat major, completed at home in Salzburg early in 1773. The quartet, following the Italian style, is in three movements, the first of which starts with a descending melody proposed by the first violin, the rôle of which better accords with Stendhal. The slow movement opens with harmonic ambiguity, before settling into the key of A flat major with a theme to which second violin and viola add a syncopated accompaniment. The quartet ends with a final Presto of conspicuous clarity of texture.
Leopold Mozart had hoped that his son would be offered a position at the court of the governor of Milan, the Archduke Ferdinand, son of the Empress, but in this he was disappointed. The next opportunity to seek advancement came in the summer. During the absence from Salzburg of the Archbishop, father and son travelled to Vienna, where they remained from mid-July until late September, and here Mozart wrote a further set of six string quartets, works that were in the four movement form familiar to the Viennese. Like the set of six that immediately preceded them, these quartets are in a related sequence of keys and were written in August, while he and his father continued to hope for some positive sign of court patronage.
The second quartet of the new series, K. 169, in A major, opens with a movement in tripartite classical form, its central development section introduced by a new figure and leading to a minor key version of the main theme. The inner parts provide a triplet chordal accompaniment to the principal theme of the D major slow movement, leading to later unexpected modulations. The second violin enters in imitation of the first in the Minuet, which frames an E major Trio, and the final Rondo has a principal theme introduced by a series of descending octaves.
The Quartet in F major, K. 168, is the first of the set. The opening theme is followed by an imitated triadic figure, later used to open the central development. The movement is succeeded by an F minor Andante in which the instruments are muted, entering at first in contrapuntal imitation one of the other. There is a similar element of contrapuntal imitation between the instruments in the second part of the B flat major Trio, framed by a cheerful Minuet. The final Allegro is in fugal