The Kennedy Center

Horn Quintet

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Mozart completed this delightful work on the last day of 1782 for the horn player Ignaz Joseph Leutgeb, an old friend of the Mozart family from Salzburg, where he was a colleague of Wolfgang and father Leopold in the orchestra of Archbishop Colloredo. Leutgeb played well enough to tour successfully through Germany, France and Italy performing his own Horn Concerto. In 1777, he settled in Vienna but, finding it impossible to make a living as a musician, purchased a cheesemonger's shop from his wife's family with the help of a loan from Leopold Mozart. (When Leopold saw Leutgeb's tiny establishment, he quipped that it was "the size of a snail shell.") Wolfgang moved to Vienna in 1781, and he and Leutgeb again fell into the easy friendship of their Salzburg days. It was for this pal that he wrote the Concert Rondo (K. 371), the Quintet for Horn and Strings (K. 407) and the four Horn Concertos (K. 412, 417, 447 and 495). The nature of the relationship between the two musicians may be surmised from the mock dedication Mozart inscribed on the manuscript of the Third Horn Concerto: "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has taken pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox and simpleton, Vienna, May 27, 1783." In the K. 495 Concerto, he used four colors of ink in the solo part to confuse Leutgeb; K. 412 was peppered with such good-natured insults as "Take courage," "You ass" and "Thank heavens, that's enough." They must have had a merry time together, but there was also a deep, mutual concern. When the horn player-cheese maker fell behind in his loan payments, Wolfgang defended his friend to his straightlaced father. Mozart knew well from experience the problems of the debtor. Things apparently went well for Leutgeb in later years, however, and he died in prosperity in 1811.

It is not known why Mozart composed the Horn Quintet, nor why he stocked the string quartet with two violas rather than the usual two violins. Violas may have been chosen because they better complement the sonorous middle register of the horn than do violins, and also allow the lone violin to stand apart more easily from the ensemble. It is the horn, however, that is the featured instrument in this Quintet; indeed, the piece is virtually a miniature concerto. The horn is called upon throughout to match the agility and range of the string instruments, so much so that Alfred Einstein was able to describe the Andante as "a little love duet between horn and violin." The fast outer movements are touched by some of the same humor that characterized the relationship between Mozart and Leutgeb. The opening sonata-form Allegro is marked by the beautifully calculated balances/contrasts that abound in Mozart's music: loud/soft, horn/strings, chords/scales, martial/lyrical. The dulcet second movement, though more Rococo than Romantic in expression, is sweet and touching. The finale is a bubbling rondo whose imposing technical demands are excellent testimony to the talent of Leutgeb as well as to the capabilities of the natural horn of the 18th century, when it was valveless and the player had to produce every note by manipulation of lip and hand alone, without any sort of mechanical aid.