Flute, Harp, and Drones: New Mixtures of Old Sounds

On November 1, NOVA presented a series of works by composers treading new paths during the early stages of their careers. On November 29, NOVA will present two works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that point to his own efforts to blaze new trails, as well as three works by Nico Muhly, a young composer with a distinctive and passionate musical voice all his own. 

The years immediately before and after 1780 mark a slow but decisive turning point in the life and career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Little Wolfgang was born in Salzburg, a provincial town on the far Western edge of Austria, to the court and cathedral composer Leopold Mozart and his wife Anna Maria. The child’s prodigious talent was already apparent by the time he turned three, and Mozart’s early years were spent touring Europe. Under the managerial gaze of Leopold, Wolfgang and his sister, Anna Maria (“Nannerl”) were displayed and feted in dozens of cities, at all of the most important courts of the day. Part “gift of God,” part circus attraction, the little boy was asked to sight-read, improvise, and play at the keyboard with his hands covered by a cloth; in return for his efforts, he and his family were showered with money, clothes, and bejeweled snuffboxes. Indeed, the anecdotes from this period are as remarkable as any of Mozart’s childhood compositions: at seven, it is said, he proposed marriage to the future Marie Antoinette, whom he met at Empress Maria Theresa’s court in Vienna. At eight, he chatted with and kissed the hand of Marie, queen consort of Louis XV, at Versailles. In London, King George III hired a doctor to examine and study the now nine-year-old prodigy and prepare a report on the boy’s genius. And at fourteen, during his 1770 visit to Rome, Wolfgang was invited to the Sistine Chapel to hear Gregorio Allegri’s Misere, a choral piece composed in 1638 and, for almost a cenruty and a half, performed exclusively in the Sistine Chapel itself; written copies of the work were strictly forbidden. Upon leaving the chapel, Wolfgang promptly transcribed the entire twelve-minute work from memory. (The Pope forgave the transgression.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, aged 7, wearing livery presented to him by
Empress Maria Theresa

In 1773, the Mozarts’ final tour of Italy came to an end, and Wolfgang, now seventeen, returned to Salzburg, where he would spend most of the 1770s in the employ of Prince-Archbishop Hieronymous von Colloredo. The work was decent, but Wolfgang had experienced the great cultural centers of Europe and was chafing at the bit, and the financial remuneration was nothing compared to the gifts he had received during his days as a traveling prodigy. In 1777, Leopold sent Wolfgang on a tour of Mannheim and Paris, evidently to find new employment; unlike the previous tours, Wolfgang would not travel with his father, but with his mother instead. Despite several successes in Mannheim, Wolfgang failed to find a new employer, and Leopold ordered him on to Paris in early 1778.

Paris was likely one of the unhappiest periods of Mozart’s life. He disliked the French, hated French music, and in his (not always fully trustworthy) epistolary communication with his father claimed to have been offered, only to have summarily rejected, the position of court organist at Versailles. He received commissions, failed to fill them, and thereby incurred the wrath not only of his financial supporters but also of the ever-domineering Leopold. And, on at least one occasion, he filled a commission only to receive no payment at all: the Concerto for Flute and Harp, K. 299, written in April 1778 for the Court of Guines, and featured on NOVA’s November 29 concert. To make matters infinitely worse, his beloved mother died in Paris, and Leopold’s accusations that Wolfgang’s recalcitrant behavior had caused his mother’s death contributed to a growing rift between father and son.

Despite the embittered tone of Mozart’s correspondence from this time, the compositions he wrote while in Paris are, without fail, charming and lovely, and the Concerto for Flute and Harp is no exception. Mozart would write over forty concertos in his short lifetime, including twenty-seven for the piano; the final seventeen piano concertos (all written during the final decade of his life) would establish the norms of the genre for generations to come. Yet the earlier concertos, for a wide variety of solo instruments, beautifully display Mozart’s creativity and wit across an array of instrumental timbres. The Concerto for Flute and Harp is scored for two oboes, two horns, and strings, in addition to the two solo instruments; NOVA’s concert will feature Mercedes Smith and Matthew Tutsky as soloists. Although this group seems small to us today, it was the ensemble typically employed by Mozart in his concertos (at least until the final works from Vienna), and the small, chamber music-sized forces employed by NOVA will offer an exciting opportunity not only to hear this piece in an intimate setting, but also to hear the concerto with an ensemble size more in line with Mozart’s own.

Hieronymous von Colloredo, Archbishop of Salzburg and Mozart’s employer

The relationship between Wolfgang and Leopold, and between Wolfgang and Archbishop Colloredo, continued to deteriorate. Matters finally came to head in June 1781, when, in Mozart’s own words, he was dismissed from Colloredo’s employment with “a kick in the ass.” Mozart now turned his sights to Vienna, the seat of the mighty Hapsburg Empire and one of the bustling cultural hubs of Europe. The list of compositions from the Vienna period, from 1781 until Mozart’s death in 1791, is simply astonishing: it includes the aforementioned seventeen piano concertos; the most famous of the symphonies; the three operas with Lorenzo da Ponte, along with Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte; the C Minor Mass and the Requiem; and a large number of chamber compositions, including the Duo for Violin and Viola in G Major, K. 423, and the Twelve Horn Duos, K. 487, also featured on NOVA’s upcoming concert. The duo was written in 1783, after the move to Vienna, and Mozart’s rocky history in Salzburg renders the provenance of the duo all the more surprising. Hieronymus von Colloredo, archbishop of Salzburg and the man behind the kick (metaphorical or not) that swiftly severed Mozart’s ties with that city, had commissioned six duos for violin and viola –– from Michael Haydn. Yet Haydn, Salzburg court composer and brother of Franz Joseph, fell ill before completing the full set, and asked Mozart to write the last two; it is said that Colloredo never noticed the difference. On November 29, NOVA audiences will get to judge for themselves just how “Mozartian” this lively duo really is.

One of the more charming aspects of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp is the way that Mozart weaves together the strikingly different timbres of the solo instruments. The combination of soaring wind melody and murmuring plucked strings offers a range of possibilities for experimentation and expression. On the November 29 concert, alongside the two works by Mozart, NOVA will perform three works by the young composer Nico Muhly, all of which present unusual combinations of instruments: Clear Music, for Cello, Harp, and Celesta; Duet No.1––Chorale Pointing Downwards for Viola and Cello; and Radiant Music, for Flute and Pre-recorded CD, in which a single flutist plays alongside a “tape part … made up of several episodes of shimmering music for electric flutes, dulcimers, organs, baroque strings, trumpet, and choir.” All three will be Utah premiere performances, and NOVA’s presentation of Muhly’s work occurs in conjunction with the Utah Symphony’s own performance of a new work by Muhly on December 4 and 5.

––Kamala Schelling