Mozart’s ‘Prussian’ Quartets

Posted on January 19th, 2010 by

Musicians and Patronage

 Mozart’s ‘Prussian’ Quartets

Mozart’s last three string quartets are the direct result of the problematic relationship between musicians and patrons at the end of the 18th century. An advertisement placed in the Wiener Zeitung as late as 1798 illustrates the regard in which musicians were held:

 Musical valet-de-chambre wanted.  A musician is wanted, who plays the piano well and can sing too, and is able to give lessons in both. This musician must also perform the duties of a valet-de-chambre. Whoever decides to accept the post is to ask in the first floor of the small Colloredo house No 982 in the Weihburggasse.

 This has ever been the quandary of the performing artist. However much their skills might give them access to the upper echelons of society, they are constantly reminded that theirs is a dispensable luxury, an ephemeral commodity that can and has been ditched at the first hint of belt-tightening. Musicians, like all performers are powerfully aware of the price of failure; the flop house, the street, the pauper’s grave. 

 Mozart’s last three quartets were the only works in this genre which he composed ‘to order’, as it were, to satisfy a royal commission. Keen to avoid the obligations of patronage, every since his ignominious departure from the service of Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg on the 8th June 1781, when he was booted down the front steps of the Archbishop’s palace by Oberkuechenmeister Graf von Arco.

 To this end, he composed the three quartets with the specific interests of the Prussian king in mind. It has often been observed that Wilhelm Friedrich was a keen amateur cellist, and the problems which Mozart had with composing these works have often been attributed to his apparently fitting the pieces to the monarch’s vanity as a cellist. In June 1790, he described the composition of these works as ‘this laborious work’.[i]  This ‘labour’ was no doubt exaggerated by the fact that his wife, Constanze, worn out by near-constant pregnancy, had fallen worryingly ill. The resulting style of these works resulted in them in being described as concertante quartets. The Wiener Zeitung announced their publication on 28th December 1791.

             From Artaria Comp., art dealers in the Kohlmarkt are to be had: Three entirely new concertante quartets for two violins, viola and violoncello by Hr. Kapellmeister Mozart Op 18. These quartets are one of the estimable works of the composer Mozart, who was torn untimely from this world; they flowed from the pen of this so great musical genius not long before his death, and they display all that musical interest in respect of Art, Beauty, and Taste, which must awaken pleasure and admiration not only in the amateur but the true connoisseur also.

 The Wiener Zeitung had, unwittingly or not, put its finger on this issue. The technical and musical demands of the part writing in these quartets, across all the works, and not only the first violin part, was far beyond the abilities of amateurs, ennobled or not. Perhaps Mozart was flattering the Prussian king through more subtle means, giving his brilliant court musicians a show piece.

             On the 8th April 1789, Mozart, accompanied by Prince Karl Lichnowsky, later Beethoven’s patron,  who had arranged the trip, left Vienna for Berlin. The Prince, was, like Mozart a member of Mozart’s Masonic lodge in Vienna, Zur wahren Eintracht .Two days later, he wrote his wife from Prague that the oboist Ramm, had arrived from Berlin and:

             “…said that the King had frequently and importunately asked whether I would be coming for sure; as I still had not arrived, he was concerned that I was not coming….judging from this, things will not go so badly for me [there]…”


            The King’s director of chamber music was the greatest cellist of the age, Jean Pierre Duport (1741-1818), whose brother Jean-Louis was also present at the Berlin court.  1784 Jean-Louis Duport had came to  prominence in Paris, , at a private concert in Queen Marie-Antoinette’s quarters, taking apparently spontaneous advantage of a no-show by her musician de chambre Viotti.Jean-Louis Duport enjoyed his greatest acclaim in Paris from 1812, until the deposition of his employer, Marie Antoinette’s niece, Napoleon’s Empress Marie Louise. Previous to this time,  Duport had been in the service of the exiled King of Spain, Charles IV, in Marseilles, along with the violinist Alexandre Boucher.  The Empress’s suite of musicians also included the guitar virtuoso, Lauro Giuliani and the composer, Bonifacio Asioli, one of whose symphonies was heard at the Philharmonic Society, London in on the 2nd Mary 1814, just prior to her deposition.

 Mozart presented himself at Potsdam on the 26th April 1789. A court document from that day reads:        

            A certain Mozart ( who at his ingress declared himself to be a Capellmeister from Vienna) reports that he was brought hither  in the company of Prince Lichnowsky, that he desired to lay his talents before Your Sovereign Majesty’s feet and awaited the command whether he may hope that Your Sovereign Majest wil receive him.

 A note scrawled in the margin of this document reads: “Directeur du Port”, indicating that that the King had instructed that Mozart was to contact Duport, Three days later, Mozart produced a set of piano varations 9 Variations in D major , on  a theme from Duport’s Cello Sonata Op. 4 no. 6 . These were published in Vienna in August 1791. It was standard practice of traveling virtuosi , to inveigle themselves into the good graces of court by writing sets of variations, and particularly by writing variations on music by the courts musicians. This was charmingly parodied in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus , where Mozart is depicted improvising variations on a (spurious) march that the Kapellmeister  Salieri has written to charm the emperor.

We know nothing of the  meeting between Mozart and Duport, but presumably, the variations and his presentation at court had the desired effect. One month later, on the 26th May, Mozart appeared at court for the first time. He had wasted the intervening month-going to Leipzig, where he played on Bach’s organ at the Thomaskirche, and played two  concerti at the Gewandhaus.

            Little is known of Mozart’s performance at Sans Souci. Three days earlier, his ten-year old pupil, Hummel performed in capital. However, as a direct result of the concert, he was given permission to dedicate a set of quartets (which would normally have been six works) to the King. He was also invited to dedicate a set of ‘easy’ piano sonatinas to the King’s daughter. Upon the delivery of the first of these, the D majorm, he received 100 Friedrichsd’or in a gold snuff box. By the time two more of the set were completed, and the resulting three quartets, today known as ‘Prussian’ were published, events had intervened, and the king’s attention had shifted away from financing quartets by distant composers. Mozart never received the commission that had apparently been promised, contributing to the financial problems in the two years leading up to his death.

            The first two of the quartets were given a private performance at Mozart’s lodgings in Vienna on the 22nd May 1790.  The Present at this concert was the mason Johann Michael Puchberg and his wife. Puchberg was responsible for attempting to defray Mozart’s financial problems, and lent him nearly 1500 florins between 1787 and the composer’s death. On the 13th July 1789, he had written Puchberg, asking for 500 Gulden; he endeavoured to preserve a breezy tone, and was clearly intending to write the full set of six quartets for the King.  

             “…I am meanwhile composing….six quartets for the King, all of which Kozeluch is going to engrave at my expense. All the same the…dedication will bring me in something.”


            A few weeks after the May 22nd private performance, Mozart wrote Michael Puchberg:

             “Now I am forced to give away my quartets…for a ridiculous sum of money.”

             He sold the quartets to Artaria, not Kozeluch, as had been previously intended.  Clearly he was hoping to extract more money from his friend. There is dispute as to whether this ‘pittance’, Spottgeld, in German, was paid by Artaria, or by noble amateur buying short term performance exclusivity, as was normal in Vienna at this time. The amateur  von Swieten habitually negotiated these kind of agreements, and later caused Beethoven considerable irritation by reneging on his agreement and allowing a publisher to prepare parts from a manuscript set lent to him under just such a deal.

            Indeed in December 1791, the month in which Mozart died, the publishers Artaria announced the publication of the three completed quartets. The advertisement in the Wiener Zeitung noted that:

             Care has therefore been taken as to their outward appearance, and the edition of this masterpiece has been prepared and printed in a clear, clear and correct type on fine and good paper.

 There was no mention of the original dedication. However, Mozart’s own entry in his Verzeichniss, his private ‘thematic catalogue’ noted that that the first of the group, the K. 575, was:

 A quartet for 2 violins, viola, and cello, for his Majesty the King of Prussia.

             This was practically the only documentary survival of the original commission that had inspired the composition of these quartets.

             In the opinion of Haydn, Mozart’s achievement in his quartets was such that:

             “If Mozart had written nothing but his violin quartets and the Requiem, they alone would have been sufficient to make him immortal.”

             The six quartets that Mozart had dedicated to Haydn in 1785 were his supreme homage to the style of writing which the elder composer had perfected. His last three quartets smashed his model. I am sure that Haydn of all composers, would have smiled at this achievement.


Sources: Mozart-Briefe IV,  Letter-Mozart to Constanze: Prague April 1789, Myles Birket Foster-The History of the Philharmonic Society of London 1813-1912,  Otto Eric Deutsch-Mozart, a Documentary Biography, Letter-Mozart to Haydn September 1785, Robbins Landon-Mozart’s Last year