Serenade: the 1996 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival CD The Music
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Flute Quartet in D Major, K.285 (1777)
Mozart completed the last of a set of six string quartets (the one in d, K.173) in 1773 and was not to write another for 10 years. The decade, though, wasn't exactly wasted: The developing genius produced operas, liturgical works, symphonies, and the bulk of his piano-violin repertory. He also tried his hand at variants of the string quartet form---the oboe quartet, for example, and the four works in which a flute supplants the first violin.
The three works comprising K.285---the quartets in D, G, and C---were all composed at Mannheim in December 1777, in partial fulfillment of a commission arranged by flutist Johann Baptist Wendling, to be financed by a wealthy Dutch amateur, De Jean (or Dechamps), one of Mozart's pupils in thoroughbass. An additional work in A, K.298, was penned in June of the following year---a sort of afterthought to the series. (French musicologist Georges de Saint-Foix conjectured in 1939 that the work in A was composed nearly a decade later than had been assumed. Though this can be disregarded as arrant nonsense, here is not the place to dispute his astonishing "evidence"!)
While it cannot be denied that the four flute quartets are essentially graceful pièces d'occasion (has any finer "light" music ever come to fruition?), each offers a unique insight into Mozart's evolving style---a sort of transitional link between his juvenile efforts, which (like the early Haydn quartets) are essentially solo efforts accompanied by the three lower instruments, and the mature masterpieces, in which all the protagonists converse as equals. This stylistic trait is hardly a surprising discovery: Indeed, in matters quite apart from music, at the time of composition Mozart was undergoing emotional and financial upheaval on all fronts.
The 21-year-old composer had until then lived under the protective aegis of the Salzburg Archbishop Colleredo, from all reports a pretty nasty fellow, and one whose musically reactionary outlook obviously spelled future trouble and no great financial rewards. Wolfgang and his father, Leopold, humbly petitioned for leaves of absence so that each could cast about for a better (or at least more lucrative) position elsewhere. Colleredo initially replied in the negative, but when the request was incessantly repeated he shrewdly dismissed the son from his employ with a curt "Permission to seek his fortune elsewhere," meanwhile retaining the father as quasi-hostage.
An unhappy postscript is that the expedition proved unfruitful; Mozart's mother died suddenly in Paris; he was spurned in love by the beautiful but frivolous singer Aloysia Weber; and eventually he had to come crawling back to the Archbishop---which must have pleased the "protector" immensely. Their relationship became increasingly strained, and ended with sudden and dramatic finality a few years later.
Two points are worth clearing up vis-à-vis the flute quartets. Posterity has dealt harshly with De Jean/Dechamps, since he allegedly paid Mozart only 96 gulden instead of the promised 200. Leopold Mozart's letter to his son of February 23, 1778, ought to offer partial explanation: "And so I was right again---And you received only 96 instead of 200 gulden?---Why?---Because you supplied him with only 2 concertos and only 3 quartets!---How MANY, then, were you supposed to write for him, since he refused to pay you more than half the sum?---Why did you tell me a lie, that you were only expected to make him three small easy little concertos and a couple of quartets?---Why did you not heed me when I explicitly wrote you must first of all, and as soon as possible, serve that gentleman. Why? So that you could be sure of getting those 200 gulden, for I know human nature better than you do." And, indeed, there is evidence that Mozart did procrastinate in writing these pieces, and that De Jean/Dechamps was annoyed.
All of which brings me to the second point: Rather too much fuss has been made over Mozart's alleged dislike of the flute as a musical instrument. The source for that allegation may be traced, coincidentally, to the very letter that precipitated the fatherly scolding quoted above. On February 14, 1778, Mozart had written to his father the following defensive outpouring: "Mr. De Jean, who leaves tomorrow for Paris, paid me only 96 gulden (an error of 44 gulden, or it would have made just half the promised amount), for I only completed two concertos and three quartets. But he'll have to pay me in full, because I've arranged it with Wendling that I shall have the rest sent after him. It is only natural that I couldn't get it done. I don't have a moment's quiet here. I can only write at night, and so I can't get up early, too. And, besides, one is not always inclined to work. Of course, I could scribble away all day long, but these things do get out into the world and I don't wish to have my name appearing on them. Furthermore, as you know, I soon grow weary of having to write for the same instrument (one I can't abide, at that)." My guess is that Mozart (who had been nagged by his father to finish the job and now had to acknowledge that his parent had been right---never easy for any child) made the flute a convenient scapegoat.
The D-major Quartet, unlike its two Koechel-mates, is in three rather than two movements. The opening Allegro is a sparkling affair in typical sonata format. The flute is fairly important there, but it is truly spotlit in the central Adagio---a long-breathed aria accompanied by plucked string. The analogy with Gluck's celebrated "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Act II of Orfeo ed Euridice is almost too obvious for words. This movement leads to a half-scampering, half-galloping Rondeau. The heavy conclusion provides all four players with a chance for brilliant display. Particularly noteworthy is the humorous dialog between flute and viola in the movement's "C" section---the two reversing their respective roles in the second half of that episode.
Footnote 2: Eric Bromberger received his Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA and has taught at Bates College and San Diego State University. Since 1983 he has been program annotator for the La Jolla Chamber Music Society. A violinist in the La Jolla Symphony, he writes for a number of musical organizations and performing groups and has written liner notes for the Koch International, Harmonia Mundi, and Teldec record labels.