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8.550547 - MOZART: String Quartets, K. 499, 'Hoffmeister' and K. 590, 'Prussian No. 3'
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
String Quartets Vol. 8
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 eider 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. By early 1779 he was again in Salzburg, now as court organist. 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.
The Quartet in D major, K. 499, was completed in Vienna on 19th August 1786, the year of the opera The Marriage of Figaro, commissioned in Vienna and one year after the publication of the set of six quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn. It was published by Mozart's friend Franz Anton Hoffmeister, a prolific composer himself. The first movement, in the customary tripartite classical sonata-form, opens with a principal theme that uses a descending figure based on the triad. The A major second subject makes intricate use of thematic and rhythmic motifs, developed in the central section. The Minuet frames a D minor Trio with triplet figuration. The fo1lowing G major Adagio opens with the violins in close partnership, before the first violin diverges into more elaborate rhythmic and melodic patterns in a movement in which the material is developed and the upper register of the first violin explored. The quartet ends with an Allegro that starts in triplet rhythm, the opening figure raised in pitch after false starts that are contrary to expectation. The first theme is contrasted in rhythm with subsidiary thematic material.
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 the Prussian 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, 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, Michael Puchberg, 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 his death.
The third of the Prussian Quartets, in F major, completed in June 1790, opens in octaves with thematic material derived from the ascending notes of the triad and descending semiquaver scale, beautifully developed at the heart of the movement. There is immediate melodic prominence for the cello in the continuation of the first subject and in the statement of the second. In the C major Andante cello, viola and second violin also share in turn in rapid figuration in a movement dominated by the opening rhythmic figuration. In the Minuet the prominence of the first violin is followed by a shift of melodic interest to second violin and viola, with first violin and cello later paired in the second part of the Trio. The material of the final Allegro, its opening figure announced by the first violin and echoed by the viola, is developed contrapuntally throughout the movement, the attention paid to the cello allowing additional melodic interest also to the inner parts.
Mozart's Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546, was possibly intended for string orchestra. His index of his own compositions lists the work as completed in this form on 26th June 1788. The newly composed introduction leads to an arrangement of a fugue for two keyboard instruments with an autograph dating of 29th December 1783, a time when his interest in fugue had been aroused by Baron van Swieten and encouraged by his wife Constanze, who expressed a particular liking for her husband's masterly attempts at what seemed at the time an essentially Baroque form. The Adagio is deeply expressive, while the Fugue provides a brilliant exhibition of contrapuntal technique.
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