The Early ‘Wind Band’ Music of Mozart

The modern wind band has undergone a renaissance over the past 40 years, largely through the advocacy of Tim Reynish, who we met last week. Although it lends itself so well to the ‘light’ side of music and has a particularly important role in music education … how many school have enough strings for a full symphony orchestra, while most can muster a workable flexible wind band? However the symphonic wind orchestra has an established place on the mainstream concert platform and many leading composers have contributed works which I am sure will endure.

However the story of wind band music goes back a long way, with what we might consider the original wind band music being the Harmoniemusik of Mozart and Haydn. The “Harmonie” was the name for an ensemble of wind instruments which would perform for the guests at hunting parties and social events of the patron, often outdoors where it was not practicable to have a full orchestra (or the patron wasn’t rich enough to employ a full orchestra).

Mozart composed many divertimenti for wind and strings for these kind of events, including his two wind serenades in Eb major and C minor. But his masterwork was the Serenade for 13 Instruments in B-flat major, K. 361 which became known as the “Gran Partita”.

Scored 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 basset-horns,2 bassoons, two pairs of natural horns (pitched in different keys) and double bass, this was the largest work of the classical period for solo instruments. Although it is a divertimento (which by definition might be a more light-hearted form of musical entertainment) the ‘Gran Partita’ stands alongside the great genres of instrumental music – sonata, string quartet and symphony – with a richness of tone-colour and a density of texture unheard of in the wind ensemble repertoire of its time. The configuration became the basis for several  works that followed, including (much later) the Strauss Wind Serenades and Dvorak’s Serenade, which had similar scoring but also included cello and double bass. Much more up to date, Adam Gorb wrote his Symphony No.1 for this combination of instruments – a cleverly composed (and often quite humorous) pastiche of many other composers first symphonies.

Salieri, a contemporary (and some believe rival!) of Mozart, is reputed to have said of the opening of the 3rd movement …

“Extraordinary! On the page it looked nothing! The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons, basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. And then, suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took it over, sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I had never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.”

There are many excellent recordings of the work, but I have chosen this one by the Zefira Ensemble performing on original instruments. Although the video quality isn’t the best, I thought it would be interesting for you to see these instruments in action.

I hope you enjoy this performance of the ‘Gran Partita’ and thought that some of you may like to follow the score. I have included here a link to the facsimile of Mozart’s original handwritten score which I always find fascinating:
Mozart’s Original Handwritten Score
For anyone exploring these pieces in depth I would strongly recommend using the Bärenreiter edition which is the most reliable for editorial schloraship:
Bärenreiter Edition