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Concerto for Flute & Harp, K. 299

Composed by

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

1756-1791

Orchestration

solo flute, solo harp, 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings


notes by Chris Myers

I. Allegro
II. Andantino
III. Rondeau: Allegro

Composed April 1778.

By the time Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 25, he had been on the road nearly continually for 19 years. His father, Leopold, took a great deal of interest in the education and careers of his two children, and, acting as their agent and manager, booked them in performances across Europe. Between 1763 and 1773 alone, in an era when travel involved difficulties unimaginable to our modern imaginations, Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl performed in more than 40 cities ranging from Vienna to London and Amsterdam to Naples.

These earlier tours were undertaken primarily for educational and performance purposes, but when the 21-year-old left his home in Salzburg in September 1777, his goal was to find permanent employment in one of Europe’s major cities. To that end, he arrived in Paris in the spring of 1778 and began taking on students and working to obtain a lucrative musical post in the city, composing on commission to help pay his bills. In April, he wrote the Concerto for Flute and Harp.

Mozart had been giving composition lessons to Marie-Louise-Philippine Bonnières, youngest daughter of the Duke of Guînes. The duke, whom Mozart found to be an excellent flutist, commissioned Mozart to compose a concerto he could perform with his daughter, a harpist. The duke never paid for the piece and may never have performed it, but the result was a charming and joyous work for what was, at the time, an unusual instrumental combination.

Difficult as it may be to imagine, the harp was not yet considered an orchestral instrument. Though popular in amateur settings, the instrument had a number of technical limitations that kept it from establishing a foothold in the concert hall (the modern concert harp as we know it wasn’t even invented until 1810). Mozart seems to have decided to approach the instrument as a kind of plucked piano. Not only does the concerto lack the glissandi and broadly dramatic arpeggios we think of as so typically “harpish” today, but those listeners familiar with Mozart’s piano works will recognize many of the gestures typical of his keyboard writing in the harp part. Though he left few clues as to his feelings about the experience, it is perhaps telling that he never used the instrument in another piece—an unusual omission for an eager adopter of new technology and an early champion of instruments such as the clarinet and the glass harmonica.

If Mozart was ambivalent to the harp, his feelings for the flute were only marginally warmer. After composing a few chamber and solo pieces (including this one) in 1778, the composer never again returned to the flute as a solo instrument. However, the duke had recently imported one of the new six-keyed wooden flutes from London. These were a vast improvement over the four-keyed instruments that were then standard in Paris, and Mozart seems to have taken advantage of the improvements in intonation and dynamic range afforded by this new instrument.

Throughout the course of the work, Mozart deftly handles the technical limitations presented him by an instrumental combination for which he had never written. He manages throughout to balance the quiet solo instruments against the orchestral forces without drawing attention to the fact that he is doing so.

Though written for a novel combination of instruments, the concerto’s composition is typical of Mozart’s other concerti from this period. The three-movement piece opens with a joyful Allegro in C major. Structured in standard sonata form, the piece begins by introducing the two principal musical themes which are developed throughout the course of the movement.

The second movement features a much lighter texture. In contrast to the first movement, in which the solo instruments banter with the orchestra in a playful dialogue, the flute and harp have almost exclusive right to the melody here, trading it elegantly back and forth between themselves, accompanied only by the strings.

After a brief pause, the orchestra retakes center stage as it launches into the joyful strains of the rondo finale. The harp and flute lead us through some of Mozart’s most charming melodic writing before one final cadenza. The orchestra then rejoins them in a final energetic restatement of the rondo’s opening theme, bringing the work to an exuberant conclusion.

If Mozart composed any cadenzas for the concerto, no record of them has survived. Composers ranging from John Thomas to André Previn have written cadenzas for the piece over the years. Carl Reinecke’s are the most frequently-performed, but tonight’s performance features cadenzas by the great Nina Rota—best-known as the composer of music for the “Godfather” series, Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet”, and most of Federico Fellini’s films.

Copyright © 2013 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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