Mozart's Flute Quartets
Mozart wrote four of these works, and I’m listening to an iconic quartet-the Emerson-playing with Carol Wincenc, a flautist I’ve known of but never listened to before.
On first glance at the track listing, these do seem to be mini-quartets. Either two or three movements long, and glancing at the score, I don’t even see an obvious Sonata form movement, but several that are marked minuets, themes and variations, or rondos. Glancing through the score, these seem a little like mini-concertos, in that the flute has the primary melody most of the time, often with the violin doubling a third below, and the viola and cello providing chordal and rhythmic accompaniment. Not that this will be mundane: I’m anticipating Mozart’s great melodic abilities on full display here.
I’m digging in to the last of the 4 quartets, in A major, K 298 by following along with the score as I listen. I was surprised that I found the instrumental mix not very pleasing at first. Somehow the flute didn’t seem to sing out. But as I listened through the first movement, I grew more accustomed to it. This movement is a set of variations: the flute has the melody in the theme and first variation, then the melodic variation role works its way down the string instruments. I really liked the instrumental mix during the viola and cello variations. I actually liked the flute better in an accompanying role, where neither high treble instrument had a primary melodic role!
In the minuet movement, it’s such a joy to listen to the accompanying instruments, especially when all three strings take this role in the trio. Pulsating repeated chords can be so musical! And they play such a crucial role, not just as background sound but as integral shape and body to the sound world in which the melody can truly shine. This is akin to the left hand for the Mozart pianist!
The finale, a rondo, is true Mozart. The first two movements are very simple, straightforward, perhaps stereotypical classical era music. But the finale is chamber music. The texture varies, the instruments interact with each other. It’s a typical rondo form but Mozart is a little more inventive harmonically than he’s been in previous movements. When each instrument was truly an independent part of the whole ensemble, I really bought into the genre.
Upon reading up about these works a little more, I see that Mozart was quite a young man when he wrote these works-21, though of course he had written significant works at the time-and likely that he had written these for an amateur flautist, and in fact it seems these works were written mostly as busy work. Of course chamber music during his lifetime was never meant to be a grand concert work that a famous composer put his best work into. Perhaps it’s best to consider these flute quartets testing grounds for the great works he would produce throughout his lifetime. Still, the great performances I’ve listened to show that they are well worth their while, enjoyable to listen to once in a while, and surely very rewarding to play with dedicated chamber partners.
As I understand, the Flute Quartet in D, K 285, is the most famous of the set, and listening casually to it, you can tell why. The adagio movement is exquisite. Such a long, beautiful flute melody accompanied by pizzicato. This movement is a must-listen.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act