Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Flute Quartet No. 1 in D major, K. 295

Program notes written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

In 1772 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was named Konzertmeister to the Salzburg Court, a title he had held in an honorary capacity since 1769, when he was just 13 years old. But in 1777 he grew dissatisfied with the post and asked permission to leave. The archbishop reacted badly, unceremoniously firing both Wolfgang and his father, Leopold, who also worked as a court musician. Fortunately the situation was soon smoothed over: Leopold was reappointed, and Wolfgang was granted leave to seek employment elsewhere.

Acting on Leopold’s instructions, Mozart and his mother, Maria Anna, left Salzburg to search for a new position. After a stop in Munich, they traveled on to Mannheim, where Mozart aspired to a job at its “famous court, whose rays like those of the sun illuminate the whole of Germany,” as Leopold floridly described it. In Mannheim, Mozart set to work writing two piano sonatas, a set of violin sonatas, and several woodwind works for the exceptionally skilled members of the court orchestra. Among these musicians was the virtuoso flutist Johann Baptist Wendling, who provided Mozart with a place to stay, a piano, and a recommendation to the elector. He also connected Mozart with a bundle of commissions for flute quartets and concertos—with the catch that the soloist and commissioner would not be him, but rather a wealthy amateur named Ferdinand Dejean, a surgeon of the Dutch East-India Company. Mozart was not especially motivated by these terms, writing three quartets and two concertos before ending up in a dispute over the number of pieces and commission fee. He irritably wrote to his father:

Herr [Dejean] … paid me only 96 gulden since I don’t have more than two concertos and three quartets ready for him … The fact that I could not finish the assignment can easily be explained. I never have a quiet hour around here. I can’t compose, except at night; which means I also can’t get up early in the morning. And then, one isn’t always in the mood to write. Of course, I could scribble all day, and scribble as fast as I can, but such a thing goes out into the world, so I want to make sure I won’t have to feel ashamed, especially when my name appears on the page. Besides, my mind gets easily dulled, as you know, when I’m supposed to write a lot for an instrument I can’t stand.

This all sounds rather unappreciative considering the support the two flutists had given Mozart, and his distaste for the instrument was only temporary, seeing as he would later write an opera called The Magic Flute.

The Flute Quartet No. 1 shows no evidence of Mozart’s discontent. It’s a bright work with an Allegro that opens with a famous melody. The Adagio finds the flute singing a dusky song over pizzicato strings. The Rondo follows immediately after a measure of pause: a lively finale with playful exchanges between flute and violin.

Still without a job offer, Mozart left Mannheim in March 1778 and continued on to Paris with his mother. The trip, however, took a tragic turn as Maria Anna grew suddenly ill and died on July 3, far from home in the French capital. Mozart left Paris alone and once again without a job, and returned to Salzburg where he resumed working for the court he had hoped to leave.

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.