Oboe Concerto in C major, K. 314 (271k)

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            After his incomparable operas, Mozart’s twenty-seven piano concertos must take pride of place in posterity’s estimation.  In addition to those masterpieces, which he largely composed for his own use, he also wrote concertos for other instruments.  The latter group consists of five violin concertos, four for horn, two for flute, and one each for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon.  And while the works in that group of concertos generally do not possess the gravitas of the works for piano, they are, of course, fine works by the master, nevertheless.

            Even though all of these concertos have long been established as part of the standard repertoire of those instruments, that for the oboe stands apart.  Mozart mentioned the work several times in his letters, but the work was believed lost, and thus, unknown, until its “discovery” in the twentieth century.  It quickly became one of the most important concertos for that instrument.   Not that the music itself was totally unknown, for it had long existed in the form of a concerto for flute (transposed up a step).

            By the information gleaned from Mozart’s letters of 1777, we know that he had written an oboe concerto that year for the oboist, Giuseppe Ferlendis.  Mozart’s employer in Salzburg, Archbishop Hieronymous Colloredo, had recently hired the virtuoso for the Salzburg Hofkappelle orchestra, and it is a safe presumption that Mozart wrote the oboe concerto for him sometime before the young composer left in September of that year on his well-known journey to Mannheim and Paris.  Apparently, the next year, while still on the journey, and quite busy, in order to conveniently satisfy a commission for a flute concerto, Mozart decided to make life easy by taking the oboe concerto, transposing it from the “oboe key” of C major to the traditional flute key of D major, altering several passages along the way to accommodate the instrument, and voilà!—mission accomplished without much effort.

            It was in that state that the work was known and performed on flute for the next century and a half.  In the meantime, the oboe concerto version dropped from view.  It must be said that, based upon various evidence, music scholars had long suspected that the “oboe concerto” and the “flute concerto” were related compositions—but the manuscript proof was just not there.  Finally, by the middle of the twentieth century, archival evidence sustained the first publication of the original oboe concerto. Although, there remained some musicological tussling over differences between the flute and oboe versions, by today, there is largely a consensus on the accuracy of the version that most oboists now perform.  They, and the musical world, are now happy to have the original work for oboe.

            Composed when Mozart was twenty-one, it is a delightful, untroubled, and relatively straightforward composition, cast in the usual three movements.  The opening movement, as is common in these things, begins with the orchestra laying out the main ideas before the entrance of the soloist.  An ingratiating series of lighthearted, cheerful motives leads to the oboe’s entrance, but, the witty composer withholds the main theme from the soloist, and gives it to the orchestra, while the soloist enters with a rapid ascending scale ending on a long-held high C (four bars worth).  This little trick is borrowed from opera, and is a common vocal ploy designed to impress.  The solo oboe throughout the movement entertains with a delightful variety of virtuosic figurations, and after a brief, almost perfunctory, middle  “developmental” section, regales us with a cadenza.  After which the movement quickly moves through familiar themes to the end.

            The second movement is an earnest, expressive aria for oboe—in the best vocal Italian style that German composers had long cultivated in instrumental works—not the least of which was J. S. Bach.  By the time of the oboe concerto, the young Mozart had already written almost a dozen operas, and his mastery of the style is evident here, and familiar to all who love his works for the dramatic stage.  The composer’s penchant for chromaticism to engender a serioso tone is on full display throughout.

            As one may expect, the last movement is a charming romp of a rondo.  The bubbling little main theme must have pleased the composer, for it shows up five years later as an aria in the composer’s lighthearted opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  In this final movement there are several short, contrasting diversions in various keys, but it's always easy to spot the return of the chief idea.  Flautists may have enjoyed claim to this delightful little concerto for well over a century, but it is a pleasure to hear in its original guise—borne in the voice of the effervescent, wry oboe.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan