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Concerto in C major for Flute and Harp

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

By 1777 Mozart had resigned his position with the Archbishop of Salzburg, and set out with his mother to seek his fortune elsewhere in Europe. Whilst in Mannheim, he was commissioned to write two concertos and some quartets for flute. This was the first time that Mozart had composed for the flute, and it would seem that he was not particularly enamoured of the instrument. Nonetheless, the two concertos he produced were characteristically rich in melody and had a great clarity of form and texture.

In 1778, Mozart and his mother arrived in Paris, where he had been so well received as a child prodigy. Now, as an adult, it was to prove more difficult for him to find work. He was forced to teach composition and take whatever commissions came his way. One of his students was the daughter of an amateur flautist, the Duc de Guines who commissioned Mozart to write concertos for flute and for harp, for himself and his daughter to play. Mozart professed a similar dislike for the harp, as he generally despised all French musical taste, which he felt both instruments epitomised. However, he was enthusiastic about the performing abilities of both patron and daughter, writing to his father that “the Duc de Guines plays the flute extremely well, and his daughter plays the harp magnificently. She has a great deal of talent and even genius.” He duly delivered a concerto for the two instruments together, which proved to be a winning combination, as the flute and the harp were perennial favourites of the French, both supremely sensual in sound, pure-toned and penetrating - the harp being considered as the nearest one could get to a “plucked flute”. Mozart’s concerto was an absolute charmer and it even prompted the musicologist Alfred Einstein to dub it “an example of the finest French salon music”. Mozart set his Concerto in the most congenial of harp keys, C major, and crammed it full of immensely attractive melodies shared by both soloists. The only regret that he could possibly have had about composing this perennial favourite was that he was never paid for it!

It must be remembered that the Concerto in C major for flute and harp was composed for the home rather than the concert stage. It remains a unique piece of music, as there are no duo concertos for this combination by composers who made their careers writing principally for virtuosos of the concert stage. In its modest orchestration, it was well-suited for the salon.

The concerto is in three movements. Unusually, all three contain cadenzas. Sadly, the original cadenzas that Mozart wrote were apparently lost before he had even quit Paris.

I. Allegro

This is a sunny and relatively straightforward movement, meant to immediately please. It is written in conventional sonata form and, for the most part, avoids counterpoint or too wide a range of emotional expression, as is characteristic of Mozart’s later concertos. The orchestra begins by introducing the two themes, which are then taken up by the two solo instruments in unison. The movement as a whole is most charming in its dialogue between the flute and the harp, and overflows with lyricism.

II. Andantino

This movement is accompanied by the strings alone, with the violas divided into two sections, to add richness. The subject’s phrases become extended, promoting variations which alternate light and dark, but well-balanced, aspects. The solo instruments bloom in the light of this wealth of orchestral accompaniment, ending the movement with a flourish in the coda that follows the cadenza.

III. Rondo – Allegro

This is a lively movement and, somewhat unusually, demands the greatest concentration. It contains a wonderful parade of attractive tunes. Not only does Mozart employ some novel horn-writing, but its lavishness of melody prompted the Viennese composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf to remark, “I have never yet met a composer who had such an amazing wealth of ideas: I could almost wish he were not so lavish in using them. He leaves his hearer out of breath; for hardly has he grasped one beautiful thought when one of greater fascination dispels the first, and this goes on throughout.”

Programme notes for BHSO performance, Nov 2006
Written by Lynn Varley

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