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PROGRAM NOTES: Mozart’s Enchantment

Program Notes by Eric Bromberger

Flute Quartet in C Major, K.285b
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 13 minutes

During his visit to Mannheim between October 1777 and March 1778, Mozart wrote two flute quartets for the Dutch surgeon and flutist Ferdinand DeJean: the Quartet in D Major, K.285 and the Quartet in A Major, K.298. For years it was believed that these were Mozart’s only works in this form, but it turns out that his writing for flute quartet may have been richer than previously thought. Two additional quartets have been discovered, though their authenticity is open to question.

The Flute Quartet in C Major, K.285b, which consists of an opening fast movement and a concluding theme-and-variation movement, is one of these. But dating this music– and confirming its authenticity–have proven difficult. The variation movement is an arrangement for flute and strings of the sixth movement of Mozart’s Serenade in B-flat Major for Thirteen Winds, K.361, which he did not compose until 1783 or 1784, after he had moved to Vienna. It is possible that someone other than Mozart made the transcription of the serenade movement in Vienna, but a fragment of the first movement has been found in Mozart’s own hand, so the authenticity of at least some of this music is probable. We are left with a flute quartet that may well be by Mozart, but a measure of mystery still surrounds this music.

The opening Allegro is a graceful sonata-form movement in which the melodic line flows smoothly between flute and strings, though the flute introduces both principal ideas. Listeners who know the Serenade, K.361 will of course recognize the theme-and-variation movement as an old friend. This theme is in two eight-bar phrases, both repeated before the six variations begin. The arrangement for flute and strings preserves much of the idiomatic writing for winds of the original, and the quartet is rounded off with an Allegretto final variation that functions as a coda.

Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Winds, K.452
Approximate Duration: 25 minutes

No one knows why Mozart wrote so superbly for winds. He was a virtuoso pianist and violinist, but so far as can be known he did not play a wind instrument. Yet–with the notable exception of the flute–he had a special fondness for the sound of winds and wrote an enormous amount for them. Perhaps there is no understanding why some composers who are virtuoso performers on one instrument can write so instinctively for instruments they do not play, as–for example–Bartók did for strings. It just happens.

Mozart completed the Quintet for Piano and Winds in Vienna on March 30, 1784. These were the first years after his move from Salzburg, and in a letter to his father back in Salzburg Mozart described the Quintet as “the best work I have composed.” Though the young composer was perpetually anxious to reassure his worried father that he was not wasting his life in Vienna, there is every reason to believe Mozart sincere in this estimation. One of the most impressive things about the Quintetis that, having chosen so unusual a combination of instruments, Mozart writes so directly to the character of each. He gives the winds music exactly suited to their strengths and limits: phrases tend to be short, and there are rapid exchanges between the winds, often in music highly elaborated by turns and other decorations. The piano, by contrast, supplies the fluid long lines the wind instruments cannot. One of the true glories of the Quintet–and it is easy to overlook this–is the writing for piano: it ripples and flows gracefully throughout, complementing the winds beautifully. Another source of the Quintet’s appeal is that this music is totally without flash or glitter–Mozart consciously avoids showing off virtuoso skills. Here the instruments are at the service of the music, rather than the reverse–this music glows rather than blazes.

The form of this music is classical simplicity itself: a slow introduction leads to a sonata-form opening movement, the slow movement is in ternary form, and the final movement is the expected rondo. In the first movement, Mozart often sets the piano and winds in opposition, with the winds playing as a group. In the poised Larghetto, however, he gives them a chance to shine individually. The finale is surprisingly measured–it never rushes, and Mozart’s marking at the very beginning is the key: dolce. At the start of the coda comes an unusual touch: Mozart writes out what he calls in the score “Cadenza in tempo”–the four winds make quietly terraced entrances above piano chords. It is a kind of final review for each of them before the rush to the close, which is as classic and restrained as everything else in this most graceful score.

Divertimento in E-Flat Major, K.563
Approximate Duration: 44 minutes

This extraordinary music comes from one of the most difficult periods of Mozart’s life, the summer of 1788. That June, beset by financial troubles, the Mozart family moved to less expensive lodgings in the suburbs of Vienna, only to suffer real calamity, the death of their infant daughter Theresia; Mozart’s pathetic letters begging for money from his friend and fellow mason Michael Puchberg suggest the extremity of his state. But external troubles did not mean creative drought: working at white heat through the summer months, Mozart wrote the great final trilogy of symphonies and then completed the Divertimento in E-flat Major in September. He dedicated this last work to Puchberg, who had helped the composer with loans.

The title “divertimento” is misleading. The title page actually reads String Trio in E-Flat Major, with Mozart’s further description Divertimento in Six Pieces. The music is in standard sonata-allegro form with two additional movements: a set of variations and an extra minuet. As its title suggests, a divertimento was conceived as diversion music, light in character and perhaps intended for outdoor performance. In that sense, this music is hardly a divertimento. Instead, it is true chamber music–intimate, expressive, and dependent on the full interplay of voices central to chamber music. Listeners should be warned: masquerading under the innocent title “divertimento” lies one of Mozart’s greatest chamber works.

Some of this music’s nobility comes from its generous proportions: when all repeats are taken, the first two movements stretch out to nearly a quarter-hour each. Beyond this, the mood is at times quite serious. It is dangerous to look for autobiographical significance in music, particularly from so difficult a time in a composer’s life, but many have noted the serious and somber character of this work and an almost bittersweet quality that colors its most expressive moments. The Allegro opens gravely and quietly (Mozart marks the beginning sotto voce), and this long movement unfolds gracefully. The extended development is full of harmonic tension, with chromatic lines moving quietly beneath the polished surface. The Adagio partakes of the same mood, though a florid violin part soaring above the other two voices brings some relief; Mozart sometimes thickens the texture by doublestopping both violin and viola.

By contrast, the first minuet is vigorous and extroverted, and Mozart follows this with the first “extra” movement, a set of variations. Critics invariably call the theme here “folklike,” and its slightly-square four-bar phrases do seem to suggest a popular origin. But Mozart’s treatment of this simple tune is very sophisticated, and the next-to-last variation–in the unusual key of B-flat minor–is stunning. The energetic second minuet features not one but two trio sections, both of them jaunty; an equally jaunty coda rounds off the movement. Mozart brings the divertimento to a close with a rondo based on a rocking main theme in 6/8 meter. There are vigorous episodes along the way, but the lyric mood of the main theme dominates this movement.