Mozart Horn Quintet in E flat, K. 407

performed by David Pyatt, horn; Kenneth Sillito, Robert Smissen, Stephen Orton & Stephen Tees, or below by members of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble, with Timothy Brown as soloist

(I’d also like to mention Andrew Clark’s recording with Ensemble Galant, as he uses the natural horn in the performance, quite an impressive feat. Maybe it’s more common than I realize, but I don’t think so.)

I would like to extend a warm welcome to something I love that hasn’t appeared on the blog in the three and a half years I’ve been writing: cheese. But it’s actually incorrect, and despite that, I’m keeping the cover image the way it is, because it’s pretty, and far more appealing than a picture of logs of dried meat.

Today’s work isn’t about cheese, but the dedicatee of Mozart’s first work featuring the horn was written for a musician friend and fine horn player of his who (is said to have) supplemented his musical income by owning a cheese shop. Joseph Leutgeb was apparently known as one of the most famous solo musicians, horn or otherwise, in Vienna during the early to middle 18th century. He had connections to people like Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and even Joseph Haydn. As Wikipedia says, in fact, Mrs. Haydn served as godmother to Leitgeb’s daughter. He had some kind of position with the Esterhazy family, but “for reasons unknown” stayed just over a month before leaving, where he went onto Salzburg and became an associate of one Leopold Mozart, and the little Mozart child Wolfgang, only seven years old at the time.

(Some clarity here: there is apparently almost zero clarity on Joseph Leutgeb, or as he himself, and his friend Mozart spelled it, Leitgeb. If you want as much information on Leitgeb as there seems to exist anywhere, read this fine compendium of information on him rather than the above Wiki article. The blog post was written by one Michael Lorenz, who has apparently done an impressive amount of research on the man. For one, there seems to be some confusion about the cheese shop. Leitgeb was apparently not a cheesemonger, and did not open the shop, but rather inherited or otherwise acquired it. But he was still close with the Mozarts and a very respected musician. Go read that article.)

It seems Papa Mozart was fond of Leitgeb, because he lent the horn player money to help open his cheese shop, which Mozart the Elder described as  being “the size of a snail’s house.” The horn quintet was the first of the works that the Young Mozart wrote for Leitgeb, dating from just after Mozart’s marriage to his bride Constanze. Again, it is the first of the horn works Mozart would write for Leitgeb, and a very fine work at that. It will also give you an idea of what we’ll be discussing for the next month or so.

The quintet is written for solo horn and a quartet of strings, but not the typical string quartet. Instead of two violins, we have only one. We are instead graced with two violas, beefing up the middle range of the ensemble and melding quite nicely with the horn. The work is in three movements and lasts just over a quarter of an hour.

The first movement presents friendly music, a chamber-like conversation among the five players, and the single violin stands out a bit more and interacts with the soloist here and there, while the violas and cello give a warm, rich background upon which the horn can do its warm, melodious, virtuosic things.

Obviously, the focus of a work like this, and the others we’ll be discussing (spoiler alert) is the horn, but the reason I wanted to feature some of Mozart’s other symphonies recently, as early as they may be, is that ‘profound pleasantness’ I spoke of in those articles. We have that here, but arguably more of it, or perhaps more polished, and focused down to a soloist to present this beauty.

I’m sure if I had access to a horn player who wasn’t so busy, or if I were dedicated enough to go do research, I could say something about the challenges and specific points of interpretation for this work, but we hear variations of dynamics from the soloist, through different timbres and ranges, and it all dispels any doubt we might have had about the horn being an expressive, delicate solo instrument. In fact, the first movement is really a study in contrasts, of fast technical passages against flowing lyricism, dynamics, and even the ranges of the instruments and how they’re combined. It’s positively beautiful. There’s a clear exposition repeat and recapitulation in this beautiful little sonata form movement.

The second movement gives us a laid back lyricism, less contrast and more romance. Remember that Mozart had written this just after his marriage to his wonderful bride, and around the same time as his Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and these are perhaps some reasons for the almost operatic, romantic sentiments in this middle movement. The lower strings continue to provide a solid foundation for the horn and its more direct accompanist, the violin, to sing.

The third movement, finally features not only Mozart’s compositional skills, but the challenge he presented to Leitgeb, and what a great performer he must have been. Here we have a rondo, with contrasting themes, a demanding first subject that’s articulate and bouncy and fast, with crisp repeated notes, and a minor-key second subject that touches on the more mellow expressive sound of the instrument. Leitgeb must have been delighted to have this as a showoff piece because not only is it beautiful, it’s virtuosic. This is also the earliest of Mozart’s pieces for Leitgeb, and as he ages they become less ambitious, as we shall see.

We could get into specific harmonic analysis of the work, but I’ve never really been one to do that. Maybe I’m missing out on some of the genius of this work and the chops it takes to perform, but the reappearance of the first theme at the end of the rondo and the way it wraps up reminds me that just listening and appreciating is plenty for me from Mozart.

Spoiler alerts ahead: I think friendly approachableness that characterizes a work like this is something we’ll see more of from Mozart in the works he’s written for Leitgeb. We’re not going to be discussing them all, but they are marked by a charming pleasantness that one might attribute to the friendly relationship that Leitgeb had with the Mozarts. In fact, later in life, when Mozart found himself in difficult financial times, Leitgeb apparently repaid the favor and lent Mozart some money. Maybe that’s not true, either, though.

In any case, we’ll be seeing more of Mozart and Leitgeb in the coming week, so do stay tuned. There’s an introduction article on the way for the series that this will be a part of, and we’ll span about two centuries in it, albeit quite sporadically. Thanks for reading, and come back soon.

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