String Quartet No.22

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

String Quartet No.22 in Bb major

K589 • “Prussian Quartet No.2”

About this work

Mozart's greatest contribution to the string quartet repertoire dates from 1782 and 1785, the period during which he composed the six quartets dedicated to his friend Joseph Haydn. Only four quartets follow them, the lone K. 499 in D major, composed in 1786 and known as the "Hoffmeister" quartet, and the three quartets known as the "Prussian" quartets. They owe their name and genesis to what has generally assumed to have been a commission for six quartets from King Frederick William II of Prussia. The king, a keen amateur cellist, had received Mozart at Potsdam during the visit of the latter in the spring of 1789. After Mozart returned to Vienna he quickly completed the first of the quartets, K. 575 in D, but thereafter made no further attempt to add to Frederick William's quartets for another year. Mozart's dilatory attitude to proceeding with the set may be in part accounted for by the commission he and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte received for Così fan tutte, which probably arrived late in the summer of 1789. However, it also casts doubts on the so-called "commission" from the Prussian king, particularly since he referred in a letter to "dedicating" the quartets to the king, a very different matter to a commission, for which he would have received an agreed sum. There is in fact no evidence that Frederick William ever set eyes on the three quartets which were completed, and they were eventually published posthumously by Artaria in January 1792, just weeks after the composer's death.

The B flat Quartet, the second to be completed, was entered in Mozart's own thematic catalog in May 1790. Mozart had obviously returned to the quartets after the first performances of Così in January 1790, since the third, K. 590 in B flat followed a month later. With the notable exception of the great String Quintet in D, K. 593, the two quartets represent the only major works composed by Mozart during the whole of 1790, a year in which increasing financial worries resulted in the bleakest compositional year of his adult life. In the three completed quartets, Mozart concentrated on giving the cello-playing king a dominant role, often pushing the second violin and viola into the background to enable the cello to present thematic material or engage in dialogue with the first violin. The second quartet is in the customary four movements, an opening Allegro, followed by a relatively brief Larghetto, a Minuet of almost symphonic proportions and a finale marked Allegro assai. While the quartet (like its companions) fails to attain the elevated status of the six "Haydn" quartets, it is nevertheless a work of enigmatic beauty typical of Mozart's late works.

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