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Learn about the piece:

Horn Concerto No. 2 in E-flat Major, K. 417

Composed by

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

1756-1791

Orchestration

2 oboes, 2 horns, strings


I. Allegro maestoso
II. Andante
III. Rondo: Più allegro

Composed 1783.

notes by Katherine Baber

Mozart's four horn concerti take a more heroic stance, though they are not without humor. They were, after all, written for his close friend Joseph Leutgeb, whom Mozart seems to have delighted in teasing. The dedication for the second concerto reads “Mozart took pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and fool in Vienna on 27 May 1783.” And if this were not torment enough, the manuscript for the fourth concerto was written in multicolored ink, which many assume was an attempt to upset Leutgeb's reading. However, it has also been suggested that the colors constitute a code to show the performer where important ideas and styles appear. Whether Mozart was helping, joking, or both, the concerti are certainly crafted to let the horn player show off their skills.

The Concerto No. 2 and Concerto No. 4 also sound particularly grand, since they are the two that feature ripieno horns in the orchestra in addition to the soloist. In the eighteenth century, the instrument was still mostly associated with ceremonial occasions and hunting — both provinces of the nobility and aristocracy. The musical gestures that fill these concerti allude to the horn's function within that rarefied world. For instance, the Allegro maestoso of the Concerto No. 2 opens with a dignified descending figure that, when combined with brilliant runs that follow, creates a majestic aura. On the other hand, the two interior movements are an intimate retreat in which Mozart adapts the triadic motives typical of a horn call, slowing them down and filling them in to form lyric lines. Both slow movements are essentially a brief aria for the horn, whom we might imagine as a romantic tenor lead. Indeed, the second movement of the Concerto No. 4 is actually labeled a “romance.” Both concerti also have rondo finales that conjure the nobility at leisure in various ways, whether in the jaunty 6/8 gallop of the orchestra or the simple triads and repeated notes from the soloist that imitate the functional horn calls of the hunt.

On the whole, the concerti are even more impressive when one remembers that Leutgeb and other musicians of the late eighteenth century performed on horns without valves, using only the lips and their hand in the bell to reach all the necessary notes. Knowing this, we might hear the up-tempo movements in both concerti as less of a gift from Mozart to his friend and more of a dare.

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