The history of Mozart’s string quartets K. 575, K. 589, and K. 590 is shrouded in mystery. There are unverified reports that in May of 1789 the composer was in Berlin, where according to several accounts he attended a performance of his Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) and of a concert by his pupil Hummel. He did write to his wife, Constanze, that he would be accomplishing his “aim” in going to Berlin, where he had been summoned by the Queen and been commissioned by the musically-accomplished – especially on the cello – King Friedrich Wilhelm II to write six string quartets and a set of “easy” keyboard sonatas for one of the princesses. However, as Maynard Solomon notes in his superb 1995 biography of the composer, “there are no court records, letters, memoirs, newspaper accounts, or documents of any kind to confirm Mozart’s appearance at the court [or] the commissioning of the two sets of works...” Yet, “an entry in Mozart’s thematic catalog next to the listing of... K. 575 reads, ‘for his Majesty the King of Prussia’.”
There has been well-informed speculation that while Mozart may have gone to Berlin to seek commissions, he never got them, nor did he even meet King Wilhelm. A puzzlement, which Solomon examines in considerable detail and which makes for fascinating reading, especially for the insights it gives into the relationship between Wolfgang and Constanze, to whom he was unwilling to admit that he was no longer anyone’s fair-haired composer and that financial prospects were grim.
As noted, Mozart wrote three of the “commissioned” quartets and then abandoned the project, and he never began writing the sonatas for the princess. “I have now been forced to give away my quartets... for a mere song.” This is probably a reference to the publisher Artaria, who published the three quartets shortly after Mozart’s death and without dedication.
They are Mozart’s last three quartets, and each is – not surprisingly – a masterpiece. The presence of the King of Prussia, for whom history has assigned the name of these works as the “Prussian Quartets,” is a major player, so to speak, in the quartets by their highlighting of his instrument, the cello, ever more cleverly as the three works run their course(s) and never to the detriment of the four-part nature of the now-established string quartet format.
The first movement of K. 589 begins with the theme announced by the violins and viola, with the cello as humble bass, but the cello soon assumes grandeur, only an octave from the violins to make its royal presence is felt. The Larghetto second movement belongs to the soaring cello, especially its forceful, singing upper register. The cello withdraws somewhat in the subsequent scherzo-like Minuet. Writing of the finale, Daniel Avshalomov, violist of the American String Quartet, observes: “It is conscious and light-hearted respect which draws the younger man to paraphrase a theme from the Haydn opus from which he learned the most. The finale of Haydn’s Op. 33, No. 2 is a joke [for its finale’s jarring silences and whispered ending] – that of K. 589 a gentle observation on the nature of that joke, for Mozart did not compete where he could not win...”