Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (arr. Jean Françaix): Nonet for Winds and Strings, K. 452

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chamber Music Series. Not to be reprinted without permission.

A little more than 200 years after Mozart wrote his Quintet for Winds and Piano, K. 452, Jean Françaix arranged the piece as a Nonet for Winds and Strings. He left the wind parts the same (oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon) while replacing Mozart’s piano part with a string quintet (two violins, viola, cello, and bass)—almost as if it had been a sketch for such in the first place. So this is a piece by Mozart, but certainly one filled with qualities Françaix favored in his own works too: prominent wind writing and a surface-level decorativeness that belies a deeply-felt inner world.

Mozart wrote his quintet in 1784 for a concert series he was giving at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The scoring reflected a growing interest at the time in chamber wind ensembles, a genre sometimes called Harmoniemusik. Following its March 30 premiere that year, Mozart wrote to his father, “[it] called forth the very greatest applause: I myself consider it to be the best work I have ever composed.… And how beautifully it was performed!” Today it would be an underdog for any top-10 list of Mozart works (there are so many to choose from), but it’s beautiful and unusual enough to be a believable onetime favorite.

Françaix clearly loved the piece, and thought it could bear some added heft with strings. When he made the arrangement in 1995, the 83-year-old composer was one of the last living people with a direct connection to the great 20th-century French tradition—a follower of Maurice Ravel and Les Six (especially Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud). When Françaix was a child, Ravel recognized his talent and told his father: “Among the child’s gifts I observe above all the most fruitful an artist can possess, that of curiosity.” He went on to study with the famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Both Ravel and Boulanger had a neoclassical bent and a deep appreciation for older music—values echoed in this arrangement.

The piece is set in three movements, structurally resembling a concerto more than a piece of chamber music. Especially with strings replacing piano, the ensemble takes on the character of a miniature orchestra. The first movement begins with a Largo introduction, restrained and economical in its expression, but yearning to expand outward. It moves ahead, bridging into a whimsical Allegro moderato. The development section shifts slightly with an exchange of rising and falling ideas, and the winds briefly fragment from each other into solo voices, before everything coalesces again.

The slow movement, Larghetto, is like a little opera scene—the kind where a number of characters sing their woes, separately and then together. There’s a bit of orchestral framing, and a lurching falling sequence tugs it back to a resolution.

The finale is a rondo, where the opening theme returns between varied episodes. The main theme is first repeated between the winds and strings, and then digresses into a frivolous elaboration. The next departure darkens into the minor key, picking up a walking bass line. A written-out cadenza overlays all the instruments before the final return of the theme, and then an almost Rossini-style crescendo coda.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.