Horn Concerto No. 3 in Eb Major K. 447

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            During his relatively brief life Mozart composed at an amazing rate, and so today we are blessed with a multiplicity of his works in almost all musical genres.  His operas, of course, are his most important contributions, but they are followed close in significance by his concertos.   Collectively, they defined the form and set the mark for all composers who followed.  Mozart wrote over twenty concertos for piano, about a dozen for various stringed instruments, and roughly the same number for wind soloists.   The latter include such important works as the bassoon concerto and the clarinet concerto, but certainly none more esteemed and cherished than the four horn concertos.  They are the cornerstones of solo horn literature.

            They were composed for Joseph Leutgeb, a friend of Mozart’s since childhood and a virtuoso of the highest order.  Leutgeb circulated in the most august circles of Viennese musical society; Joseph Haydn, his brother Michael Haydn, and Wolfgang’s father, Leopold Mozart, were among his close acquaintances—Joseph Haydn also having written a horn concerto for him.  Leutgeb traveled widely in the European capital cities, such was the demand for his formidable talents.  And so close was his relationship with Mozart that he, Wolfgang, and Leopold Mozart toured Italy together in 1773—about a decade or so before Mozart wrote the four concertos for him.  The easy casualness of their friendship is famously known for Mozart’s mocking notation about him in the manuscript of the first and second horn concertos.   They border on the obscene (not unusual in Mozart’s writings) and include such comments as:  “you awful swine!,”   “Oh, pain in the *****.”  and “. . . Mozart takes pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and simpleton . . . .”  They must have had a close relationship.

            To fully appreciate the concertos—and anything written for the horn in those times—we must remember that eighteenth-century horns were natural horns, rather like a bugle. That is, they had no valves to facilitate the production of all of the notes of the chromatic scale.  So, much use was made of the technique of “hand stopping”—eliciting many of the necessary pitches by dexterous shaping of the right hand in the bell of the instrument. It’s fiendishly difficult.   And as any hornist will quickly tell you, the addition of valves to the modern horn doesn’t make this beast that much more tractable.  Finally, in his works for horn, Mozart didn’t make things any easier by requiring frequent “lip trills” and challenging tonguing.

            Concerto No. 3 was composed about 1787, and is cast in the usual concerto format of two relatively fast movements with a slow one in the middle.  In all three movements one will hear the delightful results of Mozart’s creativity in wresting seemingly effortless melodies out of an instrument severely restricted in possible note choices, and Leutgeb’s virtuosity that made it all feasible.  The first movement is in typical concerto form:  an opening passage for the orchestra setting forth the main and second themes, followed by the horn taking the same.  A short development section follows—usually exploring contrasting keys.  In this situation, the horn, not able to modulate to those keys, often plays a minor rôle.  But here, Mozart shows his ingenuity, and composes a development that affords the horn opportunities to participate. The recapitulation, a cadenza for the soloist, and a short coda caps it off.

            Mozart captioned the slow movement a “Romance,” and it is perfectly suited to Leutgeb’s vaunted talent for lyrical playing.  In form it’s a rondo, but a slow one—a rondo in that a main thematic section alternates with three short contrasting ones.  The last movement is the more familiar kind of rondo, a galloping, rollicking affair that clearly stems from the horn’s ancestry as the musical instrument of the hunt.  In the short contrasting sections most especially will you hear horn calls that vividly evoke the signals of say, fox hunting.

            This concerto, like its other three brethren, is charming evidence, not only of an engaging and delightful eighteenth-century genre, but also of the consummate skill of both Leutgeb and Mozart—unlikely, but dedicated friends.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2020 William E. Runyan