Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, K. 361/370a (Gran Partita)

September 18, 2022: WINDS OF THE MET

In March 1784 the Wienerblättchen announced a benefit concert for virtuoso clarinetist and basset-horn player Anton Stadler that would include “a big wind piece of quite an exceptional kind composed by Herr Mozart.” Johann Friedrich Schink, who had attended the concert, later published the following account:

I heard music for wind instruments today by Herr Mozart, in four movements, glorious and sublime. It consisted of thirteen instruments; viz. four corni, two oboi, two fagotti, two clarinetti, two basset-corni, a contreviolin, and at each instrument sat a master—Oh what an effect it made—glorious and grand, excellent and sublime.

This concert at the National Hoftheater in Vienna had indeed included only four movements of this marvelous work, though the manuscript shows that all seven had been composed at the same time. Perhaps concert or rehearsal time was restricted, necessitating the cuts, or perhaps Mozart was aiming more at symphonic proportions—it was common practice for him to delete movements of typical six- or seven-movement serenades to make four-movement symphonies.

The exact date of the Serenade’s composition cannot be pinpointed. Expert Alan Tyson has shown that the paper was a type Mozart used in 1782 and not for any composition thereafter, but circumstances and style suggest late 1783 or early 1784 as a more likely date of composition, and Mozart scholars such as Daniel Leeson and David Whitwell stand by this date. Thorough investigation of the manuscript only became possible beginning in 1942 when it was purchased by the Library of Congress after being passed from one noble family to another for over 175 years. The familiar title “Gran Partita” was not Mozart’s idea—it appears in a hand other than his on the manuscript.

The instrumentation was indeed unusual, and Mozart apparently worried that such a piece would not be of much use after the occasion for which it was written. Stadler probably played the first clarinet part as “concertmaster,” though he was equally adept on the basset horn (a customized clarinet with a lower range). There can be no mistaking that Mozart intended a string bass as his lowest instrument, for the manuscript says “contrabasso” and the part contains pizzicato indications. Nevertheless it is often played on contrabassoon.

A stately introduction, common to such serenades but less common in his symphonies, features contrasting fanfares and gentle responses. The main Molto allegro proceeds in a wonderfully witty manner that has much in common with Mozart’s comic opera style. Its extended sonata form contains a number of memorable features such as the wandering approach to the right key for the beginning of the recapitulation and the almost wistful moments in the coda before the snappy conclusion.

The first of the minuets elegantly contrasts the full group with solo utterances. In the first trio we are treated to the singular sound of the two clarinets and two basset horns, while the second trio in the minor mode contrasts a section of scurrying triplets and sequences with a horn call that is answered by oboes and basset horns.

“Sublime” is indeed the word for the Adagio, which Mozart starts out in solemn unison before setting up the pulsing accompaniment that will support the exquisitely poignant solos above it. Sustained notes that blossom into motion and expressive leaps between registers play a wonderful role here.

The second minuet swings along merrily, again employing pointed contrasts between the full ensemble and solo instruments, in addition to dynamic contrasts. As in the first minuet Mozart includes two trios, the first a slightly mournful piece in B-flat minor—an extremely rare key in his time—and the second based on a simple folklike melody played by oboe, basset horn, and bassoon.

Mozart labeled the fifth movement “Romance,” which typically meant something in a vocal style. Here poised, lyrical outer sections frame a lively minor-mode section. In this center section the bassoon’s continuous fast notes drive the shorter phrases of the upper winds to a major mode conclusion before the solemn singing style resumes.

The charming theme-and-variations sixth movement is almost exactly reproduced in the C major Flute Quartet, K. Anh. 171, a work whose pedigree is still under scrutiny. Whether or not that arrangement is genuine, Mozart’s music captivates the listener. The movement follows double variation form, in which two themes are alternately varied, giving rise to myriad instrumental combinations. Most impressive is the great pause that halts the action in preparation for Mozart’s poignant Adagio variation. The sprightly final Allegro variation concludes the movement in high spirits.

The last movement is a jolly rondo, which might have inspired Beethoven’s finale in his well-known Wind Octet, op. 103. Mozart’s two contrasting episodes each contain a section in his agitated, minor-mode “alla Turca” style. The second also features the bassoon in a fast-paced solo. Mozart extends the ebullient refrain on its final appearance with a brilliant wind-up to a decisive end.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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