Today’s so called ‘Prussian Quartets’ are K575 in D major (no. 21), K 589 in B flat major (no. 22) and K590 in F major (no. 23). Mozart was intending to dedicate these to his patron the King of Prussia an enthusiastic amateur cellist, in the hope of generous payment.
The ‘Prussian Quartets’ were completed between 1789 and 1790 along with many other works including the Clarinet Quintet and Cosi fan Tutte. Clearly overworked, Mozart was in very poor health and desperate for money. Lacking the payment from the King, he was forced to sell the three Quartets to a publisher in 1790 ‘for a mockery of a fee’. They were published a few weeks after Mozart’s death in 1791, with the dedication to the King!
Despite the chaos in Mozart’s life at the time, the apparently effortless skill that he honed in a few years resulted in the ‘Prussian Quartets’. They are exuberant, inventive and polished, have prominent cello parts, all four instruments contributing strongly, with exquisite and graceful melodies and the familiar magic of Mozart’s harmonic invention.
Each quartet has four similarly arranged movements: First movement – fairly fast, Second – slowish, Third – minuet and trio with conventional repeats and Fourth – a fastish, bright finale. I particularly want to draw your attention to 5 DO NOT MISS movements. The first movements of K575 and K590 both start with a simple ‘do mi so’ phrase, but his inventiveness turns them into clearly different first movements. The exciting minuet and trio of K589 is one of his most original. Please keep your hat on for the roller coaster of the thrilling final movement of K590, his last string quartet.
I have long wondered (it seems others have too) why they are not played as frequently as Mozart’s famous six ‘Haydn Quartets’. There is a clue in the dedication that Mozart sent to Haydn, dated 1 Sept 1785. I summarise the main point including some of the Mozart’s text in italics. ‘To my dear friend Haydn’, I know that you are the inventor of the modern string quartet, but just take a look at how innovative are the six quartets that I have dedicated to you. ‘They are . . . the fruit of long and arduous labour.’ In a famous letter to Mozart’s father, Haydn strongly approved of the young Mozart’s achievement – they were first played by Mozart, Haydn and friends. The reason seems clear to me – the ‘Prussian Quartets’ are like a perfect jewel made with hope of payment from a pleased Patron. In contrast the Mozart’s ‘Haydn Quartets’ were a challenge to the master. Evidently no effort was too much for the task of impressing his friend Haydn—and it shows. Just compare them with Haydn’s 35th quartet (Op. 42) published around the time that Haydn received the quartets from Mozart. But Haydn lived 18 years after the death of Mozart, having completed a total of 67 quartets—most of the ones written after 1795 are acknowledged masterpieces.