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Composed: 1778
Duration: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings, with solo oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 18, 1928, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting

The mysteries surrounding this work are deep and impenetrable. There is no mystery about its charm, its melodiousness, or its wide appeal, but there is no solution to the problem of when or for whom it was written, or even whether it is truly by Mozart. Robert Levin has devoted a whole book to this last question without being able to resolve it conclusively. The last edition of the revered Köchel catalog removed it from the list of authentic works. While most listeners’ ears will tell them that this is genuine Mozart without a doubt, those who also enjoy sleuthing historical questions will find the puzzle intriguing.

In short, the problem is to figure out how a work which Mozart said he wrote for four friends in Paris in 1778 who were respectively flutist, oboist, bassoonist, and hornist should turn up in Berlin in 1870 in a manuscript copy, not in Mozart’s hand, with solo parts for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. Could the manuscript be an arrangement for different instruments of the lost concerto? If so, who did the arranging? Listening to the clarinet’s superbly idiomatic writing, we cannot imagine that the work might have existed in a form in which a flute was the soloist and not a clarinet. Assuming that the original autograph, which Mozart said he left behind in Paris, is lost, could he have written a second work for slightly different instruments without leaving any trace other than this mysterious posthumous copy? The rather lame excuse he offered his father for not bringing this manuscript (and others) home from Paris raises the suspicion that he never actually wrote it, a fact he would have reason to conceal from the over-concerned Leopold.

It is sufficient to know that Mozart was much taken by the special problems of composing for more than one soloist. We have a concerto for two pianos and one for three pianos, and we have the beautiful Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola probably composed in Salzburg in 1779, and a promising Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola, and cello, of which alas only 134 bars were completed. In the 1770s the French were particularly fond of these multiple concertos, so it was natural that Mozart would think of composing one while he was in Paris, even more natural to imagine him writing another (with clarinet) for his friends in the superb orchestra in Mannheim either before or after they were transferred to Munich, although there is no evidence whatever to link the work as we have it with these, or any other, players. 

No composer understood wind instruments better than Mozart, so the solo lines are composed with a fine feeling for their special qualities: the oboe’s expressive, penetrating voice; the clarinet’s liquid fluency over a wide range; the horn’s elegant adventures in its upper octave; and the bassoon’s many functions as bass line, tenor line, or tune. Their interplay is balanced and lucid, and they have a neat cadenza at the end of the first movement, carefully composed, as such cadenzas have to be, not left to group improvisation. The slow movement is, unusually, in the same key, E-flat major, and unusually long. In contrast, the finale is a series of variations on a brief and simple theme. One phrase from this melody is taken directly from the second main melody of the first movement. Ten variations reproduce the outline of the theme with increasingly decorative display from the soloists. Then the tenth variation dissolves into an Adagio before the jolly close in hunting style.