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Quartet in B flat K.589 ‘Prussian’

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)

Composer
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)
Composition Year
1790
Work Movements
1. Allegro
2. Larghetto
3. Menuetto - Moderato - Trio
4. Allegro assai
Artists
Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington, Jonathan Stone [violins] Hélène Clément [viola] John Myerscough [cello])

Programme Note Writer:
© Francis Humphrys

In May 1789 Mozart arrived in Berlin in order to perform before the cello-playing King of Prussia. Musicians knew of the King's generosity to Boccherini, who, although living in Spain, received a pension from the King in exchange for new compositions. So naturally Mozart was hoping for similar munificence, and he performed several times for the King, who was sufficiently impressed to offer Mozart a post, the exact details of which have been the subject of much fruitless speculation. Some think that Mozart was offered a post along with a commission for a set of quartets with a year to consider the proposal. Mozart left Berlin with a fat purse of eight hundred gulden and hurriedly purchased some music paper on the way home.


Research into different types of paper, rather like advances in dendrochronology, has made it a lot easier to date the composition of works when the original manuscript is still extant. This paper story tells us that Mozart composed the first of the so-called Prussian quartets and the first movement and a half of the B flat on the journey home. But after that progress was, with good reason, slow - Constanze was seriously and expensively ill with yet another pregnancy, necessitating more loans and time-consuming trips to the spa at Baden. A new production of Figaro was imminent with new prima donnas, each demanding extra arias. And in August he began on Così fan tutte for a production the following January. And in between, Anton Stadler pestered him for a new work for a Christmas concert – nothing less than the miraculous Clarinet Quintet.


Mozart returned to the quartets in May 1790, when he completed the last two movements of both the B flat and F major quartets, and even began a further quartet in E minor. We can speculate that Mozart was trying hard to meet the King's deadline, but quickly realised this was no longer possible. This is also borne out by the finales of both works, which pay far less special attention to the King's instrument, which had been such a feature of the D major Quartet and the early movements of the B flat.


Curiously these late quartets of Mozart are simpler and clearer than the six famous ones dedicated to Haydn. The rich chromatic harmony of those masterworks has given way to a transparent simplicity. With all the other pressing commitments he faced it was natural that he took the less demanding route of simpler harmonies and less dense counterpoint. The B flat Quartet begins with a tranquil theme in the first violin, but this is soon given to the cello. The second subject is announced by the cello before being picked up by the first violin and a third idea is given to the solo cello, only then moving up to the first violin.


The Larghetto opens with a lovely cantilena for the King’s instrument, which is given extraordinary prominence throughout the movement even being placed at a much higher register than the accompanying violin. The movement is in binary form, ABAB coda, uncomplicated except for the prominent cello, and very beautiful. The Minuet begins as a stately dance that soon transforms into something much more lively with brilliant passages from the first violin and jovial comments from the lower strings. The Trio is substantially longer than the main section and contains the most elaborate music in the whole quartet. The Finale is a light-hearted doffing of the hat to Haydn’s joke final movements, almost entirely monothematic, idiosyncratic changes of time, sudden pauses, a downbeat ending and high spirits throughout.

Francis Humphrys

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Quartet in B flat K.589 ‘Prussian’

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)
Performance date: Monday 3rd July 2017
Venue: St. Brendan's Church, Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland

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Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)
Work Title Quartet in B flat K.589 ‘Prussian’
Composition Year 1790
Work Movements 1. Allegro
2. Larghetto
3. Menuetto - Moderato - Trio
4. Allegro assai
Artist(s) Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington, Jonathan Stone [violins] Hélène Clément [viola] John Myerscough [cello])
Performance Date Monday 3rd July 2017
Performance Venue St. Brendan's Church, Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland
Event Coffee Concert
Duration 00:28:48
Recording Engineer Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm
Instrumentation Category String Quartet
Programme Note Writer © Francis Humphrys

In May 1789 Mozart arrived in Berlin in order to perform before the cello-playing King of Prussia. Musicians knew of the King's generosity to Boccherini, who, although living in Spain, received a pension from the King in exchange for new compositions. So naturally Mozart was hoping for similar munificence, and he performed several times for the King, who was sufficiently impressed to offer Mozart a post, the exact details of which have been the subject of much fruitless speculation. Some think that Mozart was offered a post along with a commission for a set of quartets with a year to consider the proposal. Mozart left Berlin with a fat purse of eight hundred gulden and hurriedly purchased some music paper on the way home.


Research into different types of paper, rather like advances in dendrochronology, has made it a lot easier to date the composition of works when the original manuscript is still extant. This paper story tells us that Mozart composed the first of the so-called Prussian quartets and the first movement and a half of the B flat on the journey home. But after that progress was, with good reason, slow - Constanze was seriously and expensively ill with yet another pregnancy, necessitating more loans and time-consuming trips to the spa at Baden. A new production of Figaro was imminent with new prima donnas, each demanding extra arias. And in August he began on Così fan tutte for a production the following January. And in between, Anton Stadler pestered him for a new work for a Christmas concert – nothing less than the miraculous Clarinet Quintet.


Mozart returned to the quartets in May 1790, when he completed the last two movements of both the B flat and F major quartets, and even began a further quartet in E minor. We can speculate that Mozart was trying hard to meet the King's deadline, but quickly realised this was no longer possible. This is also borne out by the finales of both works, which pay far less special attention to the King's instrument, which had been such a feature of the D major Quartet and the early movements of the B flat.


Curiously these late quartets of Mozart are simpler and clearer than the six famous ones dedicated to Haydn. The rich chromatic harmony of those masterworks has given way to a transparent simplicity. With all the other pressing commitments he faced it was natural that he took the less demanding route of simpler harmonies and less dense counterpoint. The B flat Quartet begins with a tranquil theme in the first violin, but this is soon given to the cello. The second subject is announced by the cello before being picked up by the first violin and a third idea is given to the solo cello, only then moving up to the first violin.


The Larghetto opens with a lovely cantilena for the King’s instrument, which is given extraordinary prominence throughout the movement even being placed at a much higher register than the accompanying violin. The movement is in binary form, ABAB coda, uncomplicated except for the prominent cello, and very beautiful. The Minuet begins as a stately dance that soon transforms into something much more lively with brilliant passages from the first violin and jovial comments from the lower strings. The Trio is substantially longer than the main section and contains the most elaborate music in the whole quartet. The Finale is a light-hearted doffing of the hat to Haydn’s joke final movements, almost entirely monothematic, idiosyncratic changes of time, sudden pauses, a downbeat ending and high spirits throughout.

Francis Humphrys