String Quartet No.21

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

String Quartet No.21 in D major

K575 • “Prussian Quartet No.1”

About this work

In the spring of 1789, Mozart, in financial straits and desperately in need of new work, set off on a journey to Germany. After visiting Dresden and Leipzig, he arrived in Potsdam on April 25. The city was at the time the virtual capital of Prussia and the residence of the cello-playing King Frederick William II. The following day a memorandum requesting that "one Motzart" had requested an audience with the king to "lay before him" his talents was presented to Frederick William, who referred the request to his director of chamber music, Jean Pierre Duport. What resulted is unfortunately not recorded at the time, but according to later reports supplied by Mozart's widow Constanze the king offered Mozart a post worth 3,000 thaler a year. The composer is said to have expressed concerns about leaving his "good Emperor" (Joseph II) in Vienna. Whatever the truth of the story, Mozart returned to Vienna with some kind of a commission from Frederick William to compose six new string quartets.

By June the present D major Quartet had already been completed, but of the remaining quartets only two were composed, and then only after the lapse of a year. Various reasons have been advanced as an explanation as to why Mozart was so slow in producing the "Prussian" quartets, but one is that the composer had received money "upfront" from the Prussian king; in a money-begging letter to Puchberg he mentions having the quartets engraved at his own expense. The three "Prussian" quartets which were completed are notable for the prominence of their cello parts, obviously intended to please the cello-playing king. In the opening Allegretto of K. 575, for instance, it is the cello that is given the task of presenting the second theme, and all three quartets contain many passages in which the cello emerges either as soloist or in dialogue with one of the other instruments. The K. 575 quartet as a whole is notable for its understated, almost secretive mood. The Andante is a deceptively simple movement that showcases the cello as an agent independent of the other instruments, and the Menuetto (Allegretto) is distinguished by a brief eruption of passion at the start of its second half. The concluding Allegretto opens with a theme given to the cello high in its register before proceeding to run a more disturbed course than is apparent in the remainder of the work. As in other works from the last years of Mozart's life, there is a delightful incorporation of counterpoint into a texture of Classical ease, here in the form of an ornate canon. Scholars have also found fragments of an alternate finale in which Mozart seemed to indulge his puckish side.

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