String Quartet in F K. 590 'Prussian' : Work information

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Levon Chilingirian (Violin), Mark Butler (Violin), Csaba Erdelyi (Viola), Philip de Groote (Cello), Chilingirian Quartet

This work

Work name
String Quartet in F K. 590 'Prussian'
Work number
K. 590
1790-01-01 02:00:00

This recording

Simon Lawman
Bob Auger
Recording date

Track listing

  • Allegro moderato 8:46 min
  • Andante 8:21 min
  • Menuetto: Allegretto 4:04 min
  • Allegro 6:53 min


In March 1789 Mozart's desperate financial situation encouraged him to accept an offer from Prince Karl Lichnowsky to travel to Berlin and be introduced to Frederick William II, King of Prussia. Following the audience, Mozart began work on six quartets for the King, though it's not known if they were commissioned or whether the composer hoped to gain some recompense after they were completed.

In the event, only three were written before Mozart's premature death in 1791 and, when published, they bore no dedication to the King. The set of three are nevertheless known as the Prussian Quartets.

Frederick William was a keen cellist and pupil of Carlo Graziani and J. P. Duport. All the Prussian Quartets therefore include substantial parts for the cello player, though this is by far the more prominent in the first, K575, and tails off dramatically in the last, K590. We also know that the task of composing these three quartets was 'troublesome' for Mozart; perhaps he found the task too impersonal or maybe other more lucrative projects intervened.

K590 was written last along with K. 589 after a period of working on Cosi fan Tutte. Nevertheless, the dominance of the cello continues for the first movement at least, a refined Allegro moderato. The cello is, however, restored to a more conventional role for the last two movements of the quartet, perhaps suggeting the entire project had now been abandoned in Mozart's mind.

Following an Andante variation movement on a simple rhythmic pattern and a quirky minuet, comes the finest and weightiest movement, a perpetuum mobile Allegro in which all four voices are given equal prominence. The bold harmonic scheme throws up plenty of surprises, particularly after uneasy silences, and it remains a fitting monument to Mozart's considerable achievements in the Quartet genre.

The Composers

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are generally held to mark the peak of Viennese Classicism. As a composer who excelled in every genre, he can be rightly regarded as one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music.

Born on 27 January 1756 in Salzburg, Austria, Wolfgang received his musical education from his father, Leopold and quickly showed aptitude, playing his sister's piano pieces at the age of four and composing from the age of five. Leopold, fully aware of the remarkable talents of Wolfgang and his sister, Nannerl, took the family around Europe, showcasing his children before Kings and Queens.

Having toured as a child prodigy for ten years and come into contact with all manner of musical styles and practices, including a meeting with J C Bach in London, Mozart began his adult musical career in Salzburg in 1773 in the employ of the Archbishop.

Although the greater part of his job was to compose church music, the young Mozart quickly became the chief composer of instrumental and vocal music in Salzburg and gradually became more dissatisfied with his position. Matters came to a head in 1781 when Mozart realised he could make a living as a freelance musician in Vienna. By the end of 1781, having obtained a release from his employment, he was established as the greatest keyboard player in the Austrian capital.

Mozart's finest works date from the ten years he spent in Vienna, the last years of his tragically short life. His reputation as a composer was immediately established with the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and shortly after he married Constanze Weber. Their marriage appears to have a happy one, though both were financially naive.

The busiest years were between 1784 and 1788, in a period of financial security. Mozart gave numerous subscription concerts, for which he composed a dozen excellent piano concerti, in addition to private concerts for the local nobility. In 1784 Mozart also became a freemason at a lodge in Vienna and often composed music for meetings, most notably the Mauerische Trauermusik.

Opera, however, was still Mozart's priority and he scored great successes in Vienna and Prague with Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. These were followed in the final two years of his life by three more operatic masterpieces: Così fan Tutte, La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte.

After the death of Leopold in May 1787 and a temporary lull in creative activity, Mozart began to give fewer concerts. His finances suffered as a result and from mid-1788 he was often in debt, forced to rely on loans from friends. However, the Mozarts never had to do without servants or any other luxuries of their class.

Mozart's work was still attracting international interest and was widely published. He was working on a Requiem commission when he died on 5 December 1791 from rheumatic inflammatory fever, but there is no evidence that this was in any way a burden on him as is sometimes suggested. Nor is there any evidence that he was poisoned, by Salieri or anybody else. He was buried in a common grave, as was the usual custom at the time, on a calm, mild day (not the snowy, stormy day of legend).

Mozart's reputation continued to spread after his death with Breitkopf & Härtel releasing a 'collected edition' of Mozart's works as early as 1798. In 1862, Köchel released his thematic catalogue of Mozart's works (works in Mozart's catalogue are thus prefixed by the letter K) prompting Breitkopf to publish a 'complete edition' between 1877 and 1883. His popularity has, if anything, grown to new heights in recent times with the majority of his works occupying prominent places in the repertory.

Related Composers: Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, J C Bach