Mozart’s Prussian Quartets: An All-Encompassing Guide to the Composition of the Quartets and the Cello’s Influence in Their Structure


Mozart’s final three string quartets, known as the Prussian quartets nos. 21-23, K. 575, 589, and 590 written in 1789-1790 have often been assumed to have been written for and dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, who was an amateur cellist. These quartets differ from Mozart’s six earlier Haydn quartets, due to the greater prominence given to the cello. The Prussian quartets are known for the unique balance between each voice in the quartet, and the cello’s cantabile and virtuosic writing. Due to the restructuring of voicing, roles in the quartet are switched, turning the quartet upside down in a way. The string quartet genre is still in its early youth and therefore is still in a formative period. However, there is already a solidifying mold of what is expected. The expectation of a typical conversation in a quartet, where the first violin is the star of the show, the cello providing a bass line, and the violin II and viola as the middle voices, is challenged greatly in Mozart’s Prussian quartets. The evolution of the cello in chamber music, and even the idea of viewing each voice more equally, would perhaps not be as developed as today if Mozart had not written these quartets. This research argues how the heightened musical demands given to the cello in Mozart’s string quartet nos. 21-23, affects the musical conversation and challenges the previously developed quartet structure. An analysis of the form, tonality, phrasing, pairings of instruments, melody and harmony, character, and sound provide an in depth look into how the musical conversation is affected by the cello’s writing. Aspects of watermarks and paper types are used to discuss compositional details surrounding the quartets. A historical study of the composition of the works provides insight into the heightened demands given to the cello. This argument is crucial in attempting to understand the evolution and development of the string quartet in the importance of each instrument voice, that an instrument recognized often as a basso continuo from the beginning of its origins, could in fact be the solo voice and leading the melodies of the string quartet.



Mozart, Prussian, Cello, Quartet