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Quartet for Flute, Violin, Viola, and Cello in D major, K. 285

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Fortas Chamber Music Concert: The Nash Ensemble of London Tue., Apr. 1, 2014, 7:30 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

During his stay in Mannheim at the end of 1777, Mozart met "a gentleman of means and a lover of all the sciences," one Willem Britten de Jong (which came out as DeJean in Mozart's letters) who numbered among his accomplishments a certain ability on the flute. De Jong had heard of the 21-year-old musician's extraordinary talent for composition from a mutual friend, Johann Baptist Wendling, the flutist with the Mannheim orchestra, and he commissioned Mozart to write three concertos and at least three quartets with strings for his instrument. Since he was, as always, short of money, Mozart accepted the proposal to help finance the swing he was then making through Germany and France in search of a permanent position. The next leg of the journey was to lead from Mannheim to Paris, and these flute pieces would help to pay the bills.

Mozart could not generate much enthusiasm for the project. Already the trip was six months long, and he had not had so much as a hint of a firm job offer. He was flustered over a love affair recently hatched with a local singer, Aloysia Weber (whose sister he eventually married when this first choice became unavailable), and letters from his father in Salzburg persistently badgered him about his lack of a dependable income. Most of all, however, these flute works took time that he wanted to spend composing opera, the most alluring avenue to success for an 18th-century musician. He vented his frustration on the closest target-the flute-and vowed how he disliked it, and what a drudgery it was to have to write for an instrument for which he cared so little, and how he longed to get on with something more important. Still, Mozart was too full of pride and good taste to make hack work of these pieces, and he wrote to Papa Leopold, "Of course, I could merely scratch away at it all day long: but such a thing as this goes out into the world, so it is my wish that I need not be ashamed that it carries my name." He managed to finish three of the quartets (K. 285, 285a, and 285b) but completed only two of the concertos (the second one is actually just a transposition of the Oboe Concerto from the preceding year) by the time he left Mannheim. He settled with De Jong for just less than half of the original fee, and let it go at that. Despite his disparagement of the instrument, Mozart's compositions for flute occupy one of the most delightful niches of his incomparable musical legacy-Rudolf Gerber characterized them as combining "the perfect image of the spirit and feeling of the rococo age with German sentiment."

The D major Quartet (K. 285) opens with a crystalline sonata-form movement that the flute initiates with the presentation of the dashing principal melody. By the time the music has arrived at the second theme, a rising scalar configuration in triplet rhythms, it is clear that Mozart has endowed the flute with concerto-like prominence in this movement-only in the central development section does it relinquish its leadership in favor of some more democratic motivic discussion with its companions. The Adagio, in the expressive key of B minor, is a nocturnal cantilena for the flute couched upon a delicate cushion of plucked string sonorities. In his biography of the composer, Alfred Einstein wrote that this movement, suffused with "the sweetest melancholy, [is] perhaps the most beautiful accompanied flute solo that has even been written." This irresistible Quartet closes with a buoyant rondo enlivened by frequent dialogues of the flute and the first violin.