Mozart, Horn Concerto no. 3 in Eb Major, K. 447

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Unless you are a horn player, the horn is not the instrument usually associated with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A master of the classical concerto, the prodigious composer wrote over two dozen featuring his primary instrument, the piano. Many were composed for his own performance. He also wrote a five violin concertos. But while Mozart wrote many beautiful wind parts in his orchestral and opera music, his output of wind solos is not nearly as striking. Still, of the composer’s dozen surviving works featuring wind soloists such as flute, oboe, bassoon, and clarinet, an impressive four showcase the horn, in addition two rondos written for the instrument. Another two survive in fragments. The impetus for many of these pieces was Mozart’s relationship with Joseph Ignaz Leutgeb, a hornist and longtime friend of the Mozart family. Leutgeb had served in the Esterhazy orchestra, earning the respect of Haydn, before taking a position in Salzburg where he served with Leopold Mozart. In this position, he watched the young Wolfgang Amadeus come of age as a musical master. Simultaneously, Leutgeb made a name for himself as a soloist in important musical centers across Europe. He was lauded in Paris for his impressive lyrical abilities. This is especially noteworthy, as the horn of the time did not yet include valves as we know them. The natural horn’s range of possible notes was limited and often not treated in the same melodic ways as other instruments. Leutgeb, however, was adept at the recently-introduced stopping technique in which the right hand is inserted into the horn’s bell, thus enabling the performer to add additional notes to the instrument’s natural harmonic series, especially in the lower range. An excellent player like Leutgeb could accomplish this so smoothly that the melodic line sounded seamless.

The younger Mozart settled in Vienna in 1781 after his release from the Archbishop of Salzburg’s service. There he pursued musical activities as an independent artist, a risky venture for the time. It was in Vienna that he wrote his horn works for Leutgeb. Horn Concerto in E-flat, K. 447 was likely composed in 1787. The year 1783 is noted as an addition on the original score, now housed in the British Library, but later evidence shows the piece was scribed on the same manuscript paper stock as Don Giovanni, which was completed in 1787. This discovery prompted musicologists to rethink the concerto’s chronological listing. The work also features a narrower range for the soloist than Mozart’s previous horn works, which may indicate an accommodation for Leutgeb, whose embouchure likely weakened with age. The work is organized in the manner of most Mozart concertos, with a standard three-movement fast-slow-fast structure. The orchestration, however, varies from the expected two oboe and two horn wind section, substituting clarinets and bassoons instead. This unique color provides an especially mellow aesthetic to the ensemble, complementing the horn timbre. The first movement of K. 447 is full of motives that can only be described as “Mozartian” with their dotted rhythms and scalar contour. The second “Romanze” movement provides an opportunity to imagine Leutgeb’s lyrical acumen, while the third falls back upon the hunt motives so stereotypical for the instrument in that era. 

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2022

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

Horn Concerto No. 3 in Eb Major K. 447
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

During his relatively brief life Mozart composed at an amazing rate, and so today we are blessed with a multiplicity of his works in almost all musical genres.  His operas, of course, are his most important contributions, but they are followed close in significance by his concertos.   Collectively, they defined the form and set the mark for all composers who followed.  Mozart wrote over twenty concertos for piano, about a dozen for various stringed instruments, and roughly the same number for wind soloists.   The latter include such important works as the bassoon concerto and the clarinet concerto, but certainly none more esteemed and cherished than the four horn concertos.  They are the cornerstones of solo horn literature.

They were composed for Joseph Leutgeb, a friend of Mozart’s since childhood and a virtuoso of the highest order.  Leutgeb circulated in the most august circles of Viennese musical society.  Joseph Haydn, his brother Michael Haydn, and Wolfgang’s father, Leopold Mozart, were among his close acquaintances—Joseph Haydn also having written a horn concerto for him.  Leutgeb traveled widely in the European capital cities, such was the demand for his formidable talents.  And so close was his relationship with Mozart that he, Wolfgang, and Leopold Mozart toured Italy together in 1773—about a decade or so before Mozart wrote the four concertos for him.  The easy casualness of their friendship is famously known for Mozart’s mocking notation about him in the manuscript of the first and second horn concertos.  They border on the obscene (not unusual in Mozart’s writings) and include such comments as: “you awful swine!,” “Oh, pain in the *****.” and “. . . Mozart takes pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and simpleton . . . .”  They must have had a close relationship.

To fully appreciate the concertos, and anything written for the horn in those times, we must remember that eighteenth-century horns were natural horns, rather like a bugle. That is, they had no valves to facilitate the production of all of the notes of the chromatic scale.  So, much use was made of the technique of “hand stopping” which elicits many of the necessary pitches by dexterous shaping of the right hand in the bell of the instrument. It’s fiendishly difficult.  And as any hornist will quickly tell you, the addition of valves to the modern horn doesn’t make this beast that much more tractable.  Finally, in his works for horn, Mozart didn’t make things any easier by requiring frequent “lip trills” and challenging tonguing.

Concerto No. 3 was composed about 1787.  It is cast in the usual concerto format of two relatively fast movements with a slow one in the middle.  In all three movements one will hear the delightful results of Mozart’s creativity in wresting seemingly effortless melodies out of an instrument severely restricted in possible note choices.  Leutgeb’s virtuosity made it all feasible.  The first movement is in typical concerto form: an opening passage for the orchestra setting forth the main and second themes, followed by the horn taking the same.  A short development section follows, usually exploring contrasting keys.  In this situation, the horn, not able to modulate to those keys, often plays a minor role.  But here, Mozart shows his ingenuity, and composes a development that affords the horn opportunities to participate. The recapitulation, a cadenza for the soloist, and a short coda caps it off.

Mozart captioned the slow movement a “Romance,” and it is perfectly suited to Leutgeb’s vaunted talent for lyrical playing.  In form it’s a rondo, but a slow one—a rondo in that a main thematic section alternates with three short contrasting ones.  The last movement is the more familiar kind of rondo, a galloping, rollicking affair that clearly stems from the horn’s ancestry as the musical instrument of the hunt.  In the short contrasting sections most especially will you hear horn calls that vividly evoke the signals of say, fox hunting.

This concerto, like its other three brethren, is charming evidence, not only of an engaging and delightful eighteenth-century genre, but also of the consummate skill of both Leutgeb and Mozart—unlikely, but dedicated friends.

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2022

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the concert Anxious, Tender & Jaunty at the Lincoln Center, March 2022.

Keep in touch!

Subscribe to our email newsletter to stay up-to-date with everything FCS.

Be the first to hear about concert announcements, updates, and fascinating information about the music we play.