Mozart Flute Quartet no. 1 in D, K. 285

performed by the Grumiaux Trio and William Bennett, or as below by Ensemble Connect

(cover image by Aleyna Rentz)

With this piece, we jump ahead a bit in Mozart’s chronology, to 1777. The work was apparently completed on Christmas day of 1777. It was part of a commission for flautist Ferdinand De Jean, which Brian Robins states was “for three easy, short flute concertos, and two quartets, for which he was prepared to pay 200 gulden.”

Robins also tells us that this is one of the rare cases where Mozart puts winds with strings in a chamber setting:

The combination of wind and string instruments in chamber music is rare among Mozart’s works, the composer preferring the greater homogeneity of the string quartet. Four of the five such works he composed in this form are flute quartets, of which the present work is the first.

He must mean quartets specifically, because the clarinet quintet would make a sixth, after the four flute quartets and the oboe quartet. As if to demystify or even sort of dismiss the quartets (excepting, thankfully, the exceptionally wonderful clarinet quintet), Robins says:

As with his other flute quartets and the Oboe Quartet in F major, K. 370, Mozart constructed the work as if he were writing a string quartet with the wind instrument replacing the first violin.

Sounds less special that way, doesn’t it?

The work is in three movements, as follows, with a playing time of around 13 minutes:

  1. Allegro
  2. Adagio
  3. Rondeau

Keep Robins’ statement in mind about the first violin being swapped out for flute. It at least gives us an idea of the relationship between the instruments that we’ll be hearing. Of course, the color and timbre of the flute provides a unique contrast and different feel than if it were simply a string quartet, but the writing does also seem specifically fitted to show off the intonation and fingerwork of the woodwind.

This first movement is in sonata form, with a repeated exposition that’s hard to miss. This obviously takes up the vast majority of the first (and longest) movement, which makes up about half the playing time of this work (at least in the Grumiaux/Bennett recording). The development is easy to spot, swapping familiar material into the minor key, lasting for about a minute before giving us a recapitulation. Think of your typical association of the flute: a fluttery, angelic, delicate, crystalline, pristine sound. That role with a trio of strings behind it is well emphasized in this first movement.

The adagio moves us to B minor, and the plucked strings give it a serenade-like quality, only slightly melancholy, like a lonely drinker telling you a story in a bar once most of the rest of the patrons have already gone home. It’s not tragic, not mournful, but a little bittersweet, and there’s a nice dramatic touch that doesn’t resolve but leads us right into the rondo finale.

It’s lively and exciting, with much more interesting interaction among the players. The flute may play in unison with one of the strings, or engage in a question-and-answer discussion, but at the very least the other players get a little more time to contribute, and makes this finale, with its cheerful themes, by far the most engaging and memorable of this small chamber piece, also with a bit more delicacy and finesse in dynamics and contrast. It’s all kinds of pleasant.

I hope you’re not sick of Mozart yet, because there are a few more weeks of him left, but after this stretch, we won’t be seeing him for a while, so we’ll get our fill while we can! Stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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