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The horn as it existed in the 18th century was a limited instrument. Until reliable valves were invented in 1814, brass instruments could only play the notes a player could produce with their lips, which meant that certain gestures that were elementary on other instruments — a scale, for instance — were nearly impossible.

Because of the way in which the horn is held, players are able to bend the pitch to some extent using their hand in the bell, though. Intonation is extremely difficult using this technique, but an exceptionally skilled player can use it to “fill in the blanks” in that otherwise impossible scale.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a big fan of innovation and loved writing for skilled musicians. So we can view it as a mark of Mozart’s respect that he composed four concertos for Joseph Leutgeb — more than for any other instrument except the violin and piano. And he left two more unfinished when he died!

Leutgeb was already an established musician by the time he met Mozart. In fact, when he first met Mozart, the composer was seven; Leutgeb was a young friend of Mozart’s father. Leutgeb was also friends with Haydn, who composed his Concerto in D for him.

Of the four concertos Mozart wrote for Leutgeb, the Second and Fourth Concertos are particularly notable. They’re more virtuosic than the others, with more high notes. They’re also the only two to feature ripieno horns (horns in the orchestra) in addition to the soloist. Leutgeb was known for being particularly skilled at bending the pitch with his hand, and these concertos take full advantage of this ability.

A statue of Mozart with Vienna in the background
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a big fan of innovation and loved writing for skilled musicians.

While many of the people for whom Mozart wrote music were merely professional acquaintances, Leutgeb and Mozart were lifelong friends. The playful nature of their relationship is hinted at in the dedication for Concerto No. 2, which reads, “W. A. Mozart took pity on Leutgeb: ass, ox, and fool.” At the beginning of the same concerto, he intentionally marked the soloist’s park with different tempo markings than the orchestra, possibly to prank Leutgeb in rehearsal.

(Fun fact: Mozart wrote the score for Concerto No. 4 in color, using red, green, blue, and black ink. We still don’t know why he did this or what it means! Some people think it was a kind of joke to make it more difficult for Leutgeb to read the score. Others think the colors indicate some kind of code, highlighting certain elements of the music.)

One of the greatest horn players of our time, Martin Owen, will be performing these two concertos on March 26, when Redlands Symphony presents Mozart, the Essence of Music.

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