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Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn and Orchestra K 297b

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Giancarlo Guerrero, Conducting Mar. 6 - 8, 2003
© Richard Freed
Untitled Document

Mozart apparently composed a concertante work for four wind instruments and orchestra, but not these same four instruments, in Paris in the early summer of 1778; he never heard it performed, in any form. The work as it has been known and performed in the last hundred years or so, however, did not surface until 1886, and it has been somewhat controversial since its first publication. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed it, in the version heard again in the present concerts, on April 11, 1956, under Howard Mitchell, with Ernest Harrison (oboe), Harold Wright (clarinet), Abe Kniaz (horn) and Kenneth Pasmanick (bassoon); in the NSO's most recent performances of the work, on October 26, 27 and 28, 1995, Sir Neville Marriner conducted, and his soloists were Rudolph Vrbsky (oboe), Loren Kitt (clarinet), Edwin Thayer (horn), and again Mr. Pasmanick.

In addition to the four wind soloists, the score calls for an orchestra of two oboes, two horns and strings. Approximate duration, 31 minutes.

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As already noted, Mozart completed only two large-scale concert works during his disastrous sojourn in Paris in 1778: the symphony that opens the present concerts was actually performed (as was his ballet Les petits riens), but the Concerto in C major for Flute, Harp and Orchestra was not, and Mozart did not receive his fee for it. The case of the present work is far more complicated, and we may never know for certain whether Mozart actually composed it--or, if it he did, just how much of it he composed.

Before Mozart and his mother arrived in Paris they visited several German cities in which he sought a new position. He had asked his employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg, for release from his commitment in his hometown. The Archbishop responded by releasing both Wolfgang and his father; the latter, who had made no such request, was quickly reinstated, and the son would be eventually, but first he made the rounds, leaving Salzburg on September 23, 1777. After 17 days in Munich, where he was turned down by the Elector of Bavaria, he and his mother pushed on to Augsburg, Hohenaltheim, and finally Mannheim, where they arrived at the end of October and remained until the following March. There Mozart fell in love with Aloysia Weber, whose sister he would eventually marry; he met the composers Cannabich and Holzbauer, and he received and executed a few commissions. Of greatest interest there, though, was the famous Mannheim Orchestra, the finest in Europe at the time. He especially admired its three woodwind principals--the flutist Johann Baptist Wendling, the oboist Friedrich Ramm, and the bassoonist Georg Wenzel Ritter. It turned out that all three of them were heading for Paris that March, to link up for performances with the famous horn player Johann Wenzel Stich, who, under his Italianized pseudonym Giovanni Punto, had become the most admired master of his instrument in all Europe. They urged Mozart to meet them in the French capital, where they might benefit one another professionally as well as deepen their new friendship.

On April 5, less than two weeks after his arrival in Paris, Mozart wrote to his father that he was composing a concertante for his three friends from Mannheim and Punto, who, he noted, “bläst magnifique.” The work was commissioned by Joseph Legros, the director of the Concert spirituel, who subsequently introduced the Symphony No. 31, and Mozart's understanding was that it would be performed on Sunday, April 12. He sent off the solo parts to Legros at the same time he wrote to his father, expecting the orchestral parts to be copied in time for the concert--but it never happened. Mozart suspected, with good reason, in intrigue pulled off by Giuseppe Cambini, who had become especially successful as the composer of symphonies concertantes for various instruments at the height of that genre's popularity, which indeed was sustained largely by the works he himself composed by an oft-repeated formula. In any event, Mozart's work for four wind soloists was neither heard nor heard of: as it was mysteriously “not available,” a hastily written concertante by Cambini for the same quartet of soloists (his only one for these instruments, among more than 80 such works) was performed on April 12 and repeated a week later, on Easter Sunday.

That is only the beginning of the mystery that has surrounded the present work for so long. Did Mozart ever get his solo parts back from Legros's copyist? Did he remember what he had written, and revise the solo flute and oboe parts for oboe and clarinet? Did he ever actually write out the orchestral material? And, most basically, is any part of the work we hear in the present concerts at all related to what Mozart composed in Paris? Before he left Paris, on September 23, he wrote to his father that he had sold the Sinfonia concertante to Legros, together with some other works, but added, “I still have them fresh in my head, and as soon as I get home I shall write them down again.” But his journey home was long and indirect. He first visited Mannheim again; by then the Elector who had maintained the orchestra there had been named Elector of Bavaria and moved to Munich, which was Mozart's next stop before finally reaching Salzburg in mid-January 1789.

Whether he did actually write down the Sinfonia concertante once he reached home, no one knows, but it appears doubtful. In any event, nothing was heard of the work until about 1870, when Mozart's biographer Otto Jahn (to whom Köchel dedicated his famous catalogue of Mozart's works) acquired a copy of the score in its present form, with thoroughly idiomatic writing for all the solo instruments, but with oboe and clarinet, respectively, replacing the flute and oboe of the supposed original version. The copy Jahn obtained was not authenticated, but following its publication in 1886 most of the recognized Mozart scholars accepted it as genuine; by the 1960s, however, the attitude toward the work's authenticity had changed markedly, and it was downgraded to an “attributed work.” In the meantime, the flutist Joseph Bopp had made a “restoration” in which he simply revised the oboe and clarinet parts “back to” the flute and oboe, and more recently the fortepianist and Mozart scholar Robert Levin undertook a more scholarly restoration, based on his conclusion that the solo parts are genuine Mozart “and that someone else later transcribed them for the new instrumentation, supplying the missing orchestral accompaniment.” Mr. Levin, in fact, after bringing out his edition of the flute-oboe-horn-bassoon version a little more than 20 years ago, wrote a 500-page book on the still uncertain background of this work: Who Wrote the Mozart Four-Wind Concertante? (Pendragon Press, 1988).

What is universally agreed is that the Sinfonia concertante exhibits many characteristics of Mozart's Paris style, and that neither its content nor its construction would discredit him. It is even conceivable that he might have revised the make-up of the solo quartet to include the clarinet if he had left the revision till after he had settled in Vienna and come under the spell of the brilliant clarinetist Anton Stadler, for whom he wrote several of his late masterworks. His Quintet in E-flat for piano and winds, K. 452, specifies the same wind quartet as the “revised” version of the Sinfonia concertante. This version has been the “standard” one since 1886 as is the one performed in the present concerts; listeners familiar with it would surely miss the particular character the clarinet brings to it.

The music is straightforward, direct, and melodious from first bar to last, and a splendidly effective showcase for the four soloists. The first movement, following a somewhat portentous opening, is alive with fine tunes, one of which is bound to remind American listeners of the Marines' Hymn (which, however, is based on a later work written in Paris, a duet in Offenbach's Geneviève de Brabant). The second movement is a romantically expansive Adagio, and the finale is a remarkably ingratiating set of virtuoso variations on the bouncy theme that leads off without introduction.