Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

No reminder is really needed of the unique stature of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the history of Western music. His vast catalog of compositions – over 600 of them, including some 15 operas, 17 masses, 50 symphonies, 20 piano concertos, 23 string quartets, and much more – epitomizes the German-Austrian Classical style. His music is recognized and loved all over the world for its melodic, harmonic, and textural richness and beauty. The son of a well-known violinist and pedagogue, Mozart was one of the greatest prodigies ever, playing his first public concert at age five and composing his first music at seven. Before reaching the age of ten he had already played recitals in front of the likes of Marie Antoinette and King George III of England. He traveled throughout Europe through his teens. After failing to find a secure post elsewhere, and having grown dissatisfied with his career in Salzburg, Mozart moved to Vienna, where he spent the last decade of his life. While he enjoyed some successes with his new operas and piano concertos, life there grew more and more precarious, leading to his early death at age thirty-five.

Serenade No. 9 in D major, K. 320 “Posthorn”

Composed: 1779
Duration: 45 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, posthorn, timpani, strings

Practically all the composers of Mozart’s time composed music to accompany social occasions – garden parties, dinners, dances, official court functions, weddings, and so on. Typically these works – names like Serenade, Divertimento, and Cassation were used more or less interchangeably for them – would feature an orchestra performing a sequence of lighthearted, loosely related movements, often of a dance-like character. Marches and concerto-like movements featuring soloists could also be part of the mix. Sometimes referred to as “occasional” works, they would usually be played once, then abandoned.

Mozart wrote many such works, including the “Posthorn” Serenade, the last of his serenades written for Salzburg, completed on August 3, 1779. The occasion for which it was written is unknown. However, Mozart’s own reference to this work as a “Finalmusik,” as well as the timing of the composition of the work – early August, when final exams were taken by local students – leads many to link it to a Salzburg tradition in which graduating students commissioned a musical composition to be presented to a favorite teacher and the Archbishop of Salzburg. The size and diversity of the orchestra here – featuring such unusual instruments, for Mozart at least, as piccolo and posthorn – also indicate an occasion of some importance.

The first movement’s short, slow introduction leads into faster, rhythmically exciting music, its main theme featuring an aggressive one measure gesture for the strings, followed by a quieter, almost pleading phrase for first violins. Alfred Einstein thought this might be a symbolic evocation of Mozart’s frequent requests to leave Salzburg for musical tours, contrasted with the firm refusals of his dreaded employer, Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg. One might also hear a satirical portrait of a teacher and the students’ responses to his ill-tempered questions. In any case, much is made of dynamic contrasts, soft versus loud, in this movement, including examples of the famed Mannheim crescendo, which Mozart encountered during a 1777 visit there.

A charming Minuet features a chamber music-like central section for flute and bassoon with strings. Then comes the “concerto” section, two movements highlighting solo winds. In the Concertante, the flute, oboe, and bassoon players each get a brief solo, followed by a humorous group cadenza in which each soloist tries to interrupt the others until all are carrying on at the same time. The Rondeau carries on the concerto writing for winds. The emotional heart of the work, the Andantino, written in Mozart’s rarely-employed dramatic key of D minor, is much more serious in tone than the other six movements, and uncharacteristically dark for an occasional piece like this.

The mood lightens considerably with the second Minuet, where the posthorn makes its appearance. Similar in sound to a cornet or trumpet but similar in circular shape to the French horn, the posthorn was used for centuries by guards on mail coaches to announce arrivals and departures. Probably best-known for its use in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, the posthorn only appears in one other Mozart work (the German Dance, K. 605/3). Its use here perhaps makes reference to the graduate students’ imminent departure from Salzburg. This lively movement is followed by the brilliant, exuberant Presto finale.

— Chris Morrison