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    A desperate Mozart, an unreliable king, and a lasting musical legacy

    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Library of Congress
    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

    “History frequently presents us with long chasms,” wrote French diplomat Louis Philippe, comte de Ségur, “in which the destinies of a people have been committed to weak Princes, whose mind, destitute of character, has not inspired the imagination of any painter.”

    Musicians, though, courted Frederick Wilhelm II, King of Prussia (1744-97), the very prince Ségur disdained (“enslaved by superstition, enervated by pleasures”). Ham-fisted in statecraft, Frederick preferred culture: His artistic patronage was lavish and discriminating. This weekend, on Jan. 6 and 8, the Boston Artists Ensemble, performing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s String Quartet in F (K. 590), revisits that composer’s application for Frederick’s valuable if unreliable favor.

    In 1789, Mozart, in desperate financial straits, embarked on a 14-month tour of European cities, hunting commissions and sponsors. Mozart heard from a colleague in Prague that Frederick Wilhelm II was eager to meet him. Either his friend was misinformed or Frederick became distracted: Arriving in Berlin in April 1790, Mozart was palmed off on Frederick’s chamber music director. A second visit, a month later, finally yielded a royal audience, 100 gold pieces (about $7,000 in today’s money), and two requests: six string quartets (for the king, himself an unusually skilled cellist) and six piano sonatas (for his daughter).


    But Mozart only finished one sonata, and only three quartets (K. 590 being the last), which, when finally, posthumously published, bore no royal dedication; either additional expected payments from Berlin never materialized, or Mozart, in his final year, turned to more immediately remunerative projects. Perhaps in flattery to his musically accomplished customer, Mozart packed his final quartet with invention. Odd phrase lengths (three-bar turns at the outset, seven- and five-bar sentences in the minuet and trio) ginger up the flow with casual fluency. A a bit of chromatic grit in the opening movement — a recurrent C-sharp — seeds harmonic pearls. The slow movement refuses to decide between variation and sonata form, instead ingeniously encompassing both. The finale unleashes a thriller’s worth of switchbacks and surprises.

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    “Fate,” Ségur wryly noted, “produced, from [Frederick’s] weakness, a result that ought only to have been the fruit of the most consummate ability.” He was referring to Prussia’s unlikely (and, as it turned out, short-lived) political well-being at the time of Frederick’s death; he could just as well have been describing K. 590. Frederick’s commission, ultimately, went unfulfilled, but Mozart abandoned it with flair.

    The Boston Artists Ensemble performs music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Bartók, Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. at Hamilton Hall in Salem, and Jan. 8 at 3 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline. Tickets $30 ($5 students). 617-964-6553,

    Matthew Guerrieri

    Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at