The Mozart Flute Concertos in G and D are arguably the most important works in the flute repertoire. They’re played regularly at high school music contests, college recitals and concert halls. Yet many historians claim that Mozart disliked the flute. In a letter to his father Mozart referred to the flute as “an instrument which I cannot bear.” Of the 600 plus works attributed to Mozart, only 14 feature the solo flute.
Is history making too much of Mozart’s comments? Perhaps, but consider the flute of 1777. Most court musicians played a wooden flute with one key operated by the fourth finger of the right hand. Playing accidentals required half holing (partially covering a hole to alter the pitch) or forked fingerings (covering one or more holes below the highest open hole to lower the pitch). Fingerings varied from flute to flute and from octave to octave, tone quality varied by register and intonation must have been extremely difficult. The Mozart flute concertos are challenging by modern standards. It’s hard to imagine attempting them on a period instrument.
Ironically, Mozart may have never benefitted from these “unbearable” works. He had been commissioned by a wealthy amateur flutist, Ferdinand De Jean to write three concertos and a set of flute quartets (flute, violin, viola and cello). The result was the original Concerto in G K. 313, the Concerto in D K. 314 and the four quartets K. 285, K. 285a, K. 285b and K. 298. He never managed the third concerto, and the Concerto in D is actually a transposition of the Oboe Concerto composed earlier that year. Angered, De Jean refused to pay Mozart for the commission.
The Concerto for Flute and Harp was commissioned the next year by amateur flutist the Count of Guines to be played by himself and his harpist daughter.
Mozart was a piano and violin virtuoso so it’s not surprising that the great majority of his solo works are for these instruments. When compared to the rest of the orchestra, Mozart did well by the flute. Would he be astonished to know that his flute concertos remain popular in the twenty first century? I don’t know, but I hope he would be pleased to hear them played on a modern flute.
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