Skip to page content

Of the composers who have emerged as twins in the public's mind and only conveniently in history's galaxy (most notably Bach and Handel, Bruckner and Mahler), the pairing of Haydn and Mozart has some legitimacy, for their reciprocal artistic nourishment can be readily documented. From Haydn, Mozart learned the value of motivic development and in general of a strengthened architectural plan. As he became influenced by his generation-younger colleague, Haydn paid more attention to long-phrased melody and to thematic contrast. In the field of the string quartet, however, the influence traveled a one-way street that went directly from Haydn to Mozart.

The benefit to Mozart of the example set by Haydn's string quartets was inestimable. With a set of his own quartets published in 1785, Mozart won unstinting praise from the older master. Thus it was no surprise when in 1789 Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, an accomplished cellist and patron of music, commissioned six string quartets from Mozart after the composer played for the monarch in Berlin. Back in Vienna, ill and in desperate financial straits (as usual), Mozart soon began work on a quartet for the King; he finished it in a month, then completed two more. But, depressed about his deplorable situation and unable (unwilling?) to fulfill the commission for the six ordered works, Mozart sold the three quartets to a publisher. "I have now been forced to give away my quartets (that exhausting labor) for a mere song," he complained to a friend, "simply in order to have cash in hand merely to meet my present difficulties."

There has been some gossipy musicological speculation that there wasn't really a commission for quartets from the king, that Mozart used that as a ruse to explain to his long-suffering wife his trip to Berlin which, 'tis suggested, was for a liaison with an attractive soprano. If true, the wily Wolfgang carried the deception off cleverly by writing generous parts for the cello, the king's instrument.

At any rate, his poor health and his poor financial straits were very real. Setting depression aside as he had so often done and was to do until the end of his days, Mozart operated on the happiest, most lighthearted of levels when writing the "Prussian" Quartets. Dispensing ebullient, graceful music with amazing ease and masterly craftsmanship, he contributed fine examples to the genre without breaking any new ground. The final movement of the K. 575 Quartet is not exactly innovative, but it is a bit more complex than the first three movements. Even so, the music still says Mozart the consummate charmer at work here.

-- Orrin Howard annotated programs for the Los Angeles Philharmonic during his more than 20 years as Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.