Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp K. 299

Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto is a charming piece that exhibits many of his strengths as composer. Like most concertos of the period, it consists of three movements: Allegro, Andantino, and Rondo. Each movement is approximately eight to ten minutes long, depending on the tempo chosen by the performers. The work is a double concerto written for two solo instruments, flute and harp, accompanied by a small orchestra. In general the concerto shares many stylistic features with Mozart’s other works, especially his two Flute Concerti. The outer movements are playful and jovial while the second movement is more lyrical and flowing. He also places emphasis on the tonic and dominant of the key, an important practice at this point in music history.

I personally enjoy this piece. All three movements exhibit different characteristics while maintaining a beautiful singing quality throughout. The piece begins with a torrent of sheer classical brilliance. When the flute and harp enter the orchestra backs away to let their delicacy shine through. The second movement is a display of rich melodic material. While maintaining the beauty of the piece, Mozart allows this movement to drive. The final movement returns the listener to the exuberance of the first movement, and even beyond. The flute and harp have sounds that intertwine to provide a unique chamber ensemble within the concerto, a welcome contrast to music pairing flute with pianoforte or harpsichord. This concerto contains the essential elements of composition during its era, while also highlighting a unique branch of Mozart’s work.

Mozart’s views on the flute, as an instrument, are fiercely debated. Based on the contents of a letter written to his father (while working on an earlier commission), many say that Mozart did not care for the flute. In the letter he tells his father, “…you know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument that I can not bear (Morgan).” The controversy is whether he actually meant what he was saying or was just making an excuse for not finishing the commission his father had written him an angry letter about (Morgan). Some say that Mozart’s dislike for the instrument could have stemmed from the poor quality of instruments being built and the lack of musicianship on the part of flutists, many of which were amateurs (Bowers). The flute of Mozart’s time was very different from the flute of today. Instruments used in the classical era had extensive intonation problems and a limited range of expressive qualities. Mozart composed his Flute and Harp Concerto for the wooden 6-keyed flute, a recent improvement upon the 4-keyed flute (Solum). The man who commissioned this work in 1778, Duc de Guines, had recently brought back one of these instruments from London, as they were not being produced in Paris at the time (Solum). Duc de Guines was a wealthy amateur flutist with a daughter who played harp and studied composition with Mozart. According to a letter Mozart wrote to his father, he thought highly of them both as musicians (Bowers). Although Mozart may not have been fond of writing for the flute, (as he mainly wrote for it on commission) he seems to have had more favorable conditions for this concerto than his other flute works. This perhaps accounts for the particularly joyous quality of the piece.

Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp remains outside the Canon of Western Music for several reasons. Most obviously, this concerto is not a masterwork. Major operas and symphonies, written for important people and grand events are more likely to find their way into history books. This concerto was written on the side to make extra money (Feury and Martens). Also, the flute and harp are not historically considered to be influential solo instruments, such as the piano and the violin. At the time they was merely seen as orchestral instruments and popular hobbies for wealthy amateurs. Finally, there is the matter of Mozart’s views on the flute. Whether he truly disliked the instrument or not, the comment he included in the letter to his father does create a prejudice, leading some to believe that he put less effort into this Concerto and his other works for flute.

In addition to being outside the canon, this piece also rests outside the core of the flute repertoire. This is puzzling because many of Mozart’s other works for flute are frequently played: his G Major and D Major Flute Concertos being especially popular. In fact, most flutists spend a lifetime studying Mozart’s two Flute Concerti, which are both regularly seen on orchestral audition list. Somewhere along the line the Flute and Harp Concerto has been overlooked, primarily because of its instrumentation. Unfortunately in the “Concert Series” setup of today, concertos with two soloists are not particularly convenient. Coordinating for two musicians to fly in and perform together can be difficult. Orchestras often have only minimal time to rehearse with guest artists, which complicates the matter further. The concerto’s dual instrumentation also prevents it from being used in competitions and auditions intended for a single soloist. Many pieces gain popularity because of their accessibility to students for such events. It’s important to note that the Flute and Harp Concerto is not the only double concerto to be swept under the rug. The Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello has also gotten lost in western music. Even though it contains many of the same desirable attributes as the famed Brahms Violin Concerto, the double concerto receives considerably less attention. A concerto with only one soloist is simply more practical.

Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp is a beautiful piece despite the technicalities that surround it. Although lovely, this piece is lacking when compared to Mozart’s most important works, and thus has been left out of the canon, a decision I uphold. There is simply nothing monumental about it; the concerto is a typical example of Mozart’s commission work for amateurs. However, it definitely deserves a better place in the flute repertoire. Flutists have a sparse selection of concertos from this era, so there is no reason to avoid this one. This concerto may not be a masterwork but it is well composed and pleasing to the ear.

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