Andantino from Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra in C Major, K. 299/297c

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            There is some evidence that Mozart really didn’t care that much for the sound of the flute as a soloist, although he wrote beautifully and convincingly for it in ensemble.  And, although a prolific composer, he only wrote one piece that included the harp—the present one.  But, it doesn’t matter, Mozart being Mozart, the result is masterful, elegant, and more than pleasing. 

            The young Mozart spent much of his time traveling, and April 1778 found the twenty-two year old in an extended stay in Paris, visiting at the home of the Duc de Guînes, an amateur flautist.  This time was probably a low point in the composer’s life.  Paris was expensive, Mozart hated French music, and in July his beloved mother died.

            The duke’s daughter was studying composition with Mozart—evidently not too successfully.  But, in a letter home he praised both the father’s ability on the flute and the daughter’s skill as a harpist.  The Duke commissioned the double concerto from Mozart, and it is assumed that they performed it. Without the fee, it is doubtful that Mozart would have thought of writing such a work, for it was an unusual combination of instruments.  As it turned out, the duke stiffed him, and he was never paid for the composition. The harp, especially, was not a common instrument in ensembles as it is today, but rather an elegant instrument for solos in magnificent homes. Also, keep in mind that the lush, colorful, and varied sound resources that make the instrument almost requisite in imaginative orchestra scoring today, were to be explored only in the future.   Thus, the part for the harp in Mozart’s “concerto” is rather straightforward—it could reasonably be played easily on the piano.

            While he called the work a concerto, it could also logically be considered a little symphony for chamber orchestra with important parts for the flute and the harp.  The genre, sinfonia concertante, was rather common at the time, and was an outgrowth of the earlier Baroque concerto grosso.  So, in both, soloists were woven in and out of important ensemble sections, without the dominant rôle for the former that we have come to expect from concertos of the Romantic era and later.  In the Andantino, after the presentation of the main theme by the orchestra, the flute and harp alternate with solo sections, with and without each other, in an evolving series of variations.  Mozart had to write out the cadenza for the two amateurs, but it has not survived, so various performers have left ones to choose from.

            Notwithstanding the amateur status of the duke and little duchess, Mozart’s dim view of the solo instruments, and the relatively accessible nature of the key and technical demands, the composer threw himself into the work, and produced what the great Mozart scholar, Alfred Einstein, called “an example of the finest French salon music.”  He compared the Andantino to a painting by Boucher:  “decorative and sensual but not lacking in deeper emotions.”  And so it is.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan