A Jestful Piece Hiding Mozart’s Desperation

Hey, hey, Mister Postman! © Charles Thibo

Illustrating this post required some undercover work. I had the idea to write something about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Serenade for Winds and Strings in D major “Posthorn” (KV 320) since last year’s summer. And I knew that many years ago, postmen in Luxembourg wore caps with a posthorn. Nowadays, they wear basecaps with a modern logo that has no charm at all. So where could I get a picture of such a cap? The post museum was one option, but all the stuff is exhibited behind protective and reflecting glass.

By chance one day I passed the window of a downtown antiquarian displaying several types of uniform caps. I sneaked inside and – oh lucky me – there was a postman’s cap! Hm, the shop owner had unmistakably made clear he did not wish any pictures being taken inside the shop. But a quick snapshot with the mobile phone, inconspicuously held in the direction of the cap while the shop owner turned his back to me, did the trick. Exit Charles.

So that’s that. Mozart would have appreciated this little trick. He was somewhat of a jester, and the Posthorn serenade reflects this mischievous character trait. It’s playful character, the fact that he experiments with different styles, give the piece its jestful aspect, are well suited to hide Mozart’s loneliness and his frustration over not having the opportunity to show his full talent and to fulfil his professional ambition.

Mozart wrote this serenade after his return to Salzburg from a lengthy trip to Germany and Paris. In January 1779 he had secured himself a job as Court Organist in the service of Archbishop Count Hieronymus von Colloredo. He finished the serenade most likely in August 1779; it was probably composed for the end of the school term of the Salzburg’s Faculty of Philosophy. But as the Mozart biographer Maynard Solomon writes, Mozart “was leading a life of anxious desperation, ever conscious of the enormous disparity between his powers and his opportunities.”

“I have an inexpressible longing to write another opera”, he had once written to his father. The theatre was in his blood and this boiling passion could not be satisfied in Salzburg. He felt his calling as a composer and despaired that his gifts were being wasted, Maynard writes. Being an organist at Salzburg’s court was nice, he had a secure income of 450 florin a year, which made his father feel a little better about the future of his unruly son, but Salzburg was not Vienna, where opera writing could lead to fame and wealth. And Colloredo was a sworn enemy of the opera genre.

The serenade is written in seven movements with changing orchestration. Strings, two oboes, two bassoons and two Corni di posta (posthorns) form the core ensemble. The introduction, the two minuets and the final feature timpani and trumpets, replaced by flutes in the third, fourth and fifth movement. In Mannheim Mozart had become acquainted with the sinfonia concertante and the serenade was a step towards the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viol and Orchestra in E flat major, KV 364, the first full-scale work of this genre.

This piece lets contemporaries anticipate  Mozart’s potential, even if the composer was far from showing his full genius. The rhythm, the melody, the diversity of means, the balance, the emotional expressiveness – it’s all there. And if you listen closely to, let’s say, the recording by the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood – you will hear Mozart’s frustration in the winds’ parts in the Andantino – the composer muted crying for a chance to shine.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.