Wednesday, 31 January 2024

CHF 50 | 30.-

W.A. Mozart
Quatuor pour flûte et cordes n° 3 en do majeur K. Anh 171/285b

L. van Beethoven
Sérénade en ré majeur op. 25

W.A. Mozart
Quatuor pour flûte et cordes n° 1 en ré majeur K. 285

Under the patronage of

Concert presentation

Mozart: Flute Quartet no.3 in C major K. Anh. 171/285b
Beethoven: Serenade in D major op.25
Mozart: Flute Quartet no.1 in D major K285

The history of music is crisscrossed with legends and apocryphal quotations. Mozart’s supposed dislike for the flute oscillates between these two poles. A number of writers have attributed this phrase to him, though any source seems to have vanished without trace: ‘There is nothing more fake than a flute – except a pair of flutes!’ And indeed, in a letter to his father dated 14 February 1778, Wolfgang indeed wrote ‘Whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument I cannot abide [the flute], I feel utterly at a loss.’ Beyond the words, it is worth considering their context, however: at this point, Wolfgang had just left the service of the cruel Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg. Up to his neck in debt, he was searching in vain for a new position. His passion for the singer Aloysia Weber aroused the ire of his father. And – although he was unaware of it at this stage – his beloved mother died of a sudden fever in Paris, on 8 July 1778. As he travelled across Europe, Mozart had no choice but to accept all the commissions he received, including one from the rich Dutch merchant Willem de Jong (or Ferdinand De Jean) who asked him to write some pieces ‘neither too long, nor too difficult’, for his favourite instrument. It was at this point that matters started to get serious: for one thing, the first concerto he delivered was judged too challenging by his amateur sponsor, who made ‘a right pig’s ear of it’, in the view of the composer. For another thing – if not as a result – De Jean proceeded to halve the fees he had committed to disburse. It seems that Mozart may have taken out his frustration on hs not-so-beloved instrument…

What is more, Mozart and his perfect pitch were probably right to claim that flutes sounded (a little) out of tune… in the 18th century. For a long period of time they were carved from pieces of wood whose tonality could not be entirely precise, especially if the note was held for a long time, and it was only in the 19th century that the flute’s pipes acquired a metal frame, thanks to the system of keys invented by Theobald Böhm, still in use today. As for the famous flautists of the day, they tended to be soloists in their respective orchestras – which made their task an onerous one. In Mozart’s symphonies, in this case, the same musicians would perform the scores of the oboes and flutes from one movement to the next. The oboist Bernard Meylan described the issue as follows: ‘It was no easy task to switch from the oboe to the flute and vice versa: players’ lips were strained, and they became short of breath, particularly if the first movement was a long one for the oboe – in short, accuracy became a real problem. This was very probably one of the reasons that caused Mozart to declare that flutes played out of tune.’

One final point on Mozart and the flute – one of the rare instruments he was barely proficient in. As Jacques Lacan stated, the truth is always ‘half-said’. In other words: it is possibly to contradict oneself unwittingly. For once we get past any over-hasty judgements, the works speak for themselves: in this light, it seems unthinkable that the man behind The Magic Flute, the sublime quartets for flute and strings, or the no less sublime Flute and Harp Concerto could have hated the flute. As we listen to the works he dedicated to the instrument, which are some of the most graceful in the instrument’s repertoire, how could we not fall under the spell of this body of work so typical of the Mozartian idiom, with its blend of agility, profundity and sheer mastery, where, seemingly, all the expressive possibilities of the instrument’s techniques are sounded out? Given all this, why does the cliché ‘Mozart didn’t like the flute’ still persist? The flautist and conductor Philippe Bernold perhaps offers the solution to this enigma, by simply adjusting the focus slightly: the aforementioned controversy over the flute says less about the man than it does about the era that followed him. For, Bernold says, ‘it was not so much Mozart but the 19th century that, perhaps finding a touch of the ancien régime about the flute, tended to overlook it in favour of the violin, the piano, the horn and the clarinet. Unlike preceding eras, the Romantic period found very little to express through the flute, save in the theatre for ethereal, pristine visions, or for disembodied mad scenes.’

As for Beethoven, his problem was not so much the flute, as Mozart. We may not be able to attest with certainty to the meeting between the two artists when Beethoven was sixteen years old, following which Mozart is said to have remarked ‘One day, he will give the world something to talk about!’ but there is no doubt that the creator of Le nozze di Figaro was the musician the author of Für Elise admired the most. His father had done all he could to ensure he could emulate his great predecessor: having discovered his son’s innate talent, his precocious sense for marketing had resolved him to transform the young Beethoven into a second Mozart, in the hope that he, too, would make a tour of the courts of Europe. This never came to pass, despite the young Ludwig’s evident gifts. In this sense, the ‘true Beethoven’ would not emerge until the composer’s deafness began to set in, around 1802, when this dramatic turn of events began to silence the tutelary, yet overpowering voices of Haydn, Mozart and above all of his father. It was then that Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, was composed, ushering in a new period of Romanticism. But this evening, we find ourselves in 1797, six years after the death of the man of whom Beethoven was supposed to be the reincarnation. This Serenade owes a great deal to Mozart, with its conscious tribute to the galant style, and its continuation of the tradition of opening and closing with a fast movement. Even so, this music offers us a hint, to astute ears, of what was to come – when Beethoven became the Beethoven we know: the consummate master.

Same day