Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, and solo flute
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 2, 1935, with soloist Anthony Linden, Basil Cameron conducting
In 1777 Mozart was 21 years old and in Mannheim on one of his job-hunting tours, that city being the base for one of Europe's great orchestras, with whose principals the young composer quickly became friends. One of these new friends was Johann Baptist Wendling, the orchestra's principal flutist. Mozart and Wendling, some 30 years Wolfgang's senior, formed a sort of mutual admiration society. The composer was entertained by the Wendlings and eventually lodged with them. In return, Mozart orchestrated and presumably improved a flute concerto Wendling had himself written. The latter attempted to gain from his employer, Karl Theodor, the Elector Palatine, commissions for his young guest. When this failed, Wendling successfully sought out a private commission from a wealthy amateur flutist, Ferdinand De Jean - there are several alternate spellings - a Dutch physician then living in Mannheim. De Jean commissioned from Mozart four concertos and six quartets. (The number of works involved differs in various accounts.)
At any rate, the composer did not complete the commission and received only half of the very generous agreed-upon fee. Two concertos and three quartets were delivered. Moreover, one of the concertos - the present Flute Concerto in D, K. 314 - is a reworking of the oboe concerto he had written a year earlier for the Salzburg court oboist Giuseppe Ferlendis and which he had presented as a gift to the Mannheim principal, Friedrich Ramm, who, according to Mozart, was "crazy with delight over it." So crazy that he made it the centerpiece of his repertoire, performing it some five times in 1777 alone. Surely De Jean, who may not have been a great flutist but was no fool, knew of - perhaps had even heard - the oboe concerto. It's unlikely that he would have been delighted at receiving an arrangement when he was paying for an original composition. Nor could he have been delighted that Mozart failed to take into account his (De Jean's) limited technical expertise.
The composer understandably chafed at having to write this music - the aforementioned (possible) four concertos and six quartets - for a merely competent amateur. But he was also an impatient young man, ready to conquer the world, with Paris in his sights. Thus, a series of rather implausible excuses, the most startling one contained in a letter from Wolfgang to Leopold: "You know that I become powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument I cannot bear." Viewed in context, it seems little more than a slap at his overbearing father for failing to come up to his expectations. In light of the music that he did write on this occasion - and perhaps even more for the superb, indispensable flute parts in his piano concertos, beginning in 1784 with K. 453 and ending with K. 595, written in his last year of life - the remark can be dismissed. The flute was clearly a magic instrument for Mozart, as was every other instrument available, whether in a solo or ensemble capacity. Perhaps the full measure of the necessary flute-love had to wait until the Vienna years. But still, Mozart's unconvincing disclaimer has been taken at face value by putative Mozart scholars, picked up by the herd, and turned into one of those canards that simply refuses to stop quacking: "Mozart hated the flute."
The composer, as noted, relieved himself of some of the drudgery of the commission by recycling his Oboe Concerto, but with sufficient changes - including the key signature - to allow us to regard it not so much as a knockoff as a valuable addition to a too-slender repertoire: lighthearted, exemplary in its balance between solo and the small orchestra, and sufficiently virtuosic to satisfy a demanding soloist.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.