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Did Mozart Really Dislike the Flute?

March 08, 2016

Maybe you’ve heard that Mozart disliked the flute. He once wrote his father that he “couldn’t bear” the instrument, possibly because the one played in his day was a pale shadow of the technical marvel used by modern musicians. The Mozart-era flute was much simpler and was harder to play in tune. 

A modern copy of an 18th-century flute

Even worse, Mozart was struggling to fulfill a commission from an amateur musician for numerous flute works (including his two concertos for the instrument) when he penned those disparaging words to his father; he sounds like a procrastinating student making excuses for not finishing his homework: “I never have a single quiet hour here … besides, one is not always in the mood for working. I could, to be sure, scribble off things the whole day long, but a composition of this kind goes out into the world, and naturally I do not want to have cause to be ashamed of my name on the title page. Moreover, you know I am quite powerless to write for an instrument [the flute] which I cannot bear.”

But whether or not Mozart was annoyed by the circumstances surrounding the composition of these works, Principal Flute Jeffrey Khaner (who performs Mozart’s First Flute Concerto with the Orchestra March 17-19) points out it’s a very cheerful piece, perfectly suited to the flute’s essential character. He’s especially fond of the slow second movement. “It always makes me think of a very beautiful and expensive Viennese music box, where you open the lid and inside is a ballerina!”

Principal Flute Jeffrey Khaner. Photo by Jessica Griffin

The Flute Concerto No. 1 is a sparkling jewel in a program that also includes Johann Sebastian Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite (with the famous “Air on a G String”); his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords in F major; and Haydn’s Symphony No. 83 (“The Hen”), so-called because the music at times sounds like a clucking chicken. Mozart would have felt right at home at this concert: He would have been familiar with all the other composers, especially his dear friend Haydn, and in a touch straight out of Mozart’s day, early-music specialist Ton Koopman is conducting from the harpsichord. (He’s also performing the Concerto alongside his wife, Tini Mathot.)

Khaner has been a stalwart of the Orchestra’s wind section since 1990. Like many music lovers, he marvels how the Philadelphians have managed to maintain a distinctive sound through the years, despite a change of concert hall, and of course, personnel. He concedes it can be difficult to talk about the Philadelphia Sound: “How can you describe these things with words? That’s why it’s ‘music’ … because it’s not ‘words!’” In the end he believes the famous Sound comes from the passion and commitment of the players, an attitude that rubs off on new musicians, and through the decades has proven to be self-sustaining.

Khaner’s passion and commitment will be center stage for the Mozart Concerto. And, despite the composer’s dismissive comments about the flute, he produced magnificent music for the instrument. 

Go here for more information on the March 17-19 concerts or to purchase tickets.