MOZART – Quartets for flute, violin, viola and cello.

For a composer who claimed he was unable to abide by the flute, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) bequeathed to musicians a repertoire of works for that instruments that could not be more appealing, including the four quartets for flute, violin, viola and cello, all of which differ surprisingly in character.

The first two quartets (K. 285 and 285a) date from Mozart’s visit to Mannheim, where he stayed from November of 1777 until March of 1778. After numerous tours as a child prodigy, and three educational trips to Italy, Mozart’s father Leopold felt it was time that the young Wolfgang found a position worthy of his talent. Leopold organized a new tour, but with the intention of conquering Paris, the cultural mecca of Europe at the time. While the elder Mozart would have preferred to accompany the younger, their mutual patron, the Archbishop of Salzburg judged the now twenty year old Wolfgang fit to travel on his own, and ordered Leopold to remain at court to fulfill his duties. Nonetheless, Leopold consigned the care of his son to his wife, Anna Maria, for he had little trust in his son aside from his musical talent.

In the course of their journey to Paris, Mozart and his mother stopped in Mannheim, a dukedom where the elector Karl Theodore–a perfect example of an enlightened despot, a cultivated aristocrat fed by the spirit of the enlightenment–had chosen to live. As a result, Mannheim boasted one of, if not the best orchestra in Europe, one which eventually found itself at the heart of the tremendous aesthetic transformation that marked the transition from the Baroque to the Classic periods (e.g., sonata form, symphony, dynamic nuances such as the crescendo, etc.).

The Mannheim orchestra had become so well known at this point, that it attracted persons from a wide variety of places, who journeyed there to hear it. It is as a result of this phenomenon that shortly after his arrival, Mozart came into contact with Willem van Britten Dejong, a Dutch frigate merchant who had made his fortune in India, and more importantly, an amateur flautist predisposed to commissioning works for his instrument of choice from composers he admired, so that he could air them personally, in his own salon.

Upon his arrival in Mannheim, Mozart also cultivated ties of friendship with members of the orchestra, who immediately recognized him as an uncommon talent. And, as he relates in a letter to his father (December 10th, 1777), it was through the enterprise of Wendling, a flautist with the orchestra since 1750, that he first met Dejong (who the musicians referred to as “The Indian,” amongst themselves). He writes, “The other day I went to lunch at Wendling’s as usual. Our Indian, he said, meaning a Dutchman, a gentleman of means and a lovers of all the sciences, who is a great friend and an admirer of mine, our indian is really a first-rate fellow. He is willing to give 200 gulden if you will compose for him three short, simple concertos and a couple of quartets for the flute.”

In a letter from the following week (December 18th), Mozart tells his father that he will, “soon complete a quartet for the Indian Dutchman,” which in fact occurred in short order, the autograph for the D major quartet (k. 285) bearing a date from the following week, Christmas eve. This quartet in three movements (fast-slow-fast), manifests the enthusiasm that accompanied Mozart’s arrival in the city. Composed in the style galant, it might almost be considered a chamber concerto in which the flautist takes on the role of soloist, while the three string instruments simulate an accompanying orchestra. The slow middle movement in the key of B minor, rare in Mozart’s works, deploys in a series of beautiful arabesques a nostalgic, operatic cantilena over a delicate, pizzicato accompaniment.

In spite of this initial enthusiasm, by February Mozart had yet to complete the commission, a delay he attempts to justify to his father, “It is not surprising that I have not been able to finish them, for I never have a single quiet hour here. I can only compose at night, so that I can’t get up early as well ; besides, one is not always in the mood for working. I could, to be sure, scribble off things for the whole day long, but a composition of this kind goes out into the world, and naturally I do not want to have cause to be ashamed of my name on the title page. Moreover you know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument which I cannot bear. Hence, as a diversion I compose something else. . . .” (February 14th, 1778)

Two days later, Dejong left Mannheim for Paris. Knowing that Mozart also planned to present himself in Paris shortly, he paid him half of the promised commission, promising to deliver the sum remaining upon receipt of the entire commission. Did this ever come to pass? This is something we cannot be certain about. Nonetheless, at least two concertos (k. 314 and 315) as well as another quartet (k. 285a) appear to stem from this commission. Consisting of only two movements, the G major quartet (k. 285a) survives only as a copy in another hand dating from 1792, in which the two movements are juxtaposed to the first of the preceding quartet. These movements are clearly less inspired: both are written in the same key, have identical triple metres, with little variation in tempo or rhythmic values. Careful listening, however, reveals subtle contrasts of instrumentation and harmonic colour within this diptych.

Because it is made up of only two movements, scholars for a long time believed that the C major quartet (k. 285c) was also part of the Dejong commission. But the only source for this work is an edition that appears to have been published at Mozart’s initiative in 1788. Furthermore, some materials from the first movement have concordances in the sketches for The Abduction from the Seraglio dating from 1781 and the second movement is likely an arrangement of the theme and variations from a serenade for thirteen wind instruments (k. 360/370a) from the same period. These reasons have resulted in a general agreement within the scholarly community, placing the work at the beginning of Mozart’s Viennese period.

A work of pure musical buffoonery, the A major quartet (k. 278) is one of Mozart’s works in which he caricatures the undertakings of some of his colleagues. The opening Andantino incorporates the theme of an art song by F.A. Hoffmeister, “An die Natur.” The menuet which follows it is inspired by an old French folk song, bearing the farcical title, “There are boots, are boots Bastienne.” Here Mozart mocks the lack of harmonic imagination of some of his contemporaries by making only very timid attempts at modulation in the trio sections. In the rondo finale, in which Mozart amused himself by spelling “Rondieauoux” and overloading with contradictory stylistic indications (Allegretto grazioso, ma non troppo presto, pero non troppo adagio; cosi–cosi–con molto garbo ed espressione), the composer borrows a melody from an opera by Paisiello entitled, Le Gare Generose. Since the opera was not performed in Vienna prior to 1786, this quartet could not have been written prior to this date, and there are compelling reasons to believe that it was written for the Jacquins, Mozart’s best friends from this period, informed music lovers sure to be quite pleased if Mozart chose to enliven one of their musical soirées with this particular type of musical pleasantry.

Translated by Catrina Flint de Médicis © 2001 for Traçantes, Research, Text-Writing and Translation Service of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique.