Program notes by Linda Shaver-Gleason (www.shavergleason.com)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote several works featuring the horn, mostly due to his lifelong friendship with horn player Joseph Leutgeb. Mozart wrote at least three of his horn concertos for Leutgeb, a cheese merchant by trade. He was also the intended horn player for Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat Major for Horn, Violin, Two Violas and Cello, K.407, composed in 1782. Mozart often teased Leutgeb for being slow-witted, scribbling notes on his music referring to him as a “donkey” among other things, but the composer’s respect for his talent as a performer can be heard in the virtuosity of the horn parts. In the days before horns had valves, Leutgeb mastered an innovative technique that allowed horn players to play chromatically by placing their hands in the bell of the horn. Whereas most works for horn from this period rely heavily on hunting calls based on the natural harmonic series, Mozart avoids this cliché and grants the horn a greater range of expression.
Though the opening chords of the Allegro use the horn only for simple octave leaps, the horn soon emerges with a singing melody that soars over the strings. Throughout the movement, the horn introduces the thematic material, leaving the violin in the subordinate role of echoing or responding to its phrases as the violas and cello provide accompaniment. Using two violas instead of two violins emphasizes the middle register, matching the warmness of the horn. The strings begin the Andante alone, allowing the violin to unfurl the contented melody. When the horn finally enters, it steers the melody in new directions, hinting at darker harmonies and adding subtle embellishments, establishing itself as the true soloist of this operatic movement. The final Allegro is a rondo, featuring a recurring theme: a brisk variant of the melody from the preceding slow movement. The episodes interspersed between instances of the rondo theme display both the horn’s virtuosity and the strings’ interdependence as an ensemble.
The career of flute and bassoon virtuoso François Devienne demonstrates the flexibility necessary to live as a musician during France's revolutionary period. Born in Joinville, Haute-Marne in 1759, Devienne joined the Paris Opéra orchestra as the last chair bassoonist when he was twenty years old. He played in theater orchestras and military bands, moving between Paris and Versailles as needed. He became a frequent soloist at Paris's famous Concert Spirituel, playing both flute and bassoon. Unsurprisingly, many of his compositions feature one of these two instruments, as he was the intended soloist at their premieres. One of his bassoon concertos was erroneously attributed to Mozart before musicologists discovered the true source. Devienne also wrote operas, including Les visitandines, which became so popular that it had over 200 performances between 1792 and 1797. One of Devienne's stints in a military band turned into a more permanent position as his job entailed teaching the children of French soldiers. This institution became the Free School of Music, which then became the National Institute of Music, and finally the vaunted Paris Conservatoire in 1795. Thus Devienne became one of the Conservatoire's first administrators and flute professors. Unfortunately, he was overworked and committed to a Parisian home for the mentally ill, where he died in 1803.
Devienne's Quartet for bassoon and strings in G minor, op. 73, no. 3 comes from a set of three quartets that he composed around 1800. The Allegro con espressione begins mysteriously and dramatically, with the bassoon in the forefront of the ensemble, on rare occasions stepping aside to let the violin carry the theme. The second theme is more genial and balanced while maintaining virtuosity with triplet runs and leaps. The bassoon dominates the texture, but the strings still have their moments, such as a brilliant cello cadenza that caps off the development section. The Adagio, non troppo reveals Devienne's ties to the opera as it follows the form of a da capo aria—after the basssoon presents the gently rolling melody, it yields to the strings for a contrasting middle section before returning with an extravagantly embellished version of the original theme. The finale, Allegretto poco Moderato, is in rondo form, with a tragic recurring melody. One of the episodes relegates the bassoon to a more traditional role by featuring a walking bass line, but the bassoon ends the quartet in a blaze of glory.
Returning to Mozart, his Quintet no. 4 in G minor, K. 516 is the most somber of his six string quintets. Having learned that his father, Leopold, was gravely ill the previous month, the younger Mozart completed the quintet on May 16, 1787, less than two weeks before the elder Mozart's death. An inescapable gloom pervades the work; Tchaikovsky once said of the quintet, “No one has ever known as well how to interpret so exquisitely in music the sense of resigned and inconsolable sorrow.” In all of his string quintets, Mozart expands the standard complement of a string quartet with the addition of a second viola, rather than a second cello or a string bass. This choice creates symmetry, as Mozart introduces the tragic opening theme of the Allegro by dividing the quintet into two smaller sub-ensembles. The first phrases of the melody occur in the first violin, accompanied by the second violin and first viola. The first viola takes over the melody, accompanied by the second viola and cello. It meanders into major harmonies, producing more cheerful versions of the previous material. After a development section in which gestures from both themes pass between all the instruments, the recapitulation revisits the opening. This time, however, the second theme does not wander into the realm of major, eliminating any hint of optimism.
With its heavy, disruptive chords, the Menuetto is rawer than most minuets. It gives only the slightest hint of the refined nature of the courtly dance before succumbing to despair. The contrasting Trio section lightens the mood as the carefree melody glides over the bar lines, but the weighty minuet inevitably returns. The third movement, Adagio, ma non troppo, features a hesitant melody in the first violin gently urged on by the other instruments. It becomes a delicate dialogue between the first violin and cello, often punctuated by silence. The movement ends contentedly, wafting upward before the gentle final chords. The last movement begins with a despondent Adagio; the first violin launches into an operatic lament, supported by pizzicato cello and a trudging accompaniment from the inner instruments. After the tragic cavatina draws to a close, the mood shifts abruptly for a chipper Allegro that seems entirely untouched by the dark sentiments which permeated the entire rest of the quintet. The skipping rondo melody recurs several times in the finale, alternating with episodes that maintain the bright mood.