“Like a rusty squeezebox… ” – Mozart’s Serenade No 10 for Winds III. Adagio

Although it has introduced many people to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which is a very good thing, I have to admit that I didn’t really enjoy the film Amadeus. This is partly because not much of it is actually true and partly because, even treated as a piece of fiction, the two main protagonists are depicted far too crudely.

It is probably true that Mozart was quite a strange man as an adult but I attribute that largely to the fact that he was an infant prodigy which, together with having a very pushy and ambitious father, denied him a proper childhood. You see the same phenomenon in the modern era with child stars in Hollywood and the music industry.

The film is also very hard on Antonio Salieri who is made out to be a musical incompetent, which he certainly wasn’t. Salieri actually wrote a lot of very lovely music, though he obviously wasn’t Mozart.

One thing that the play/film does get right however is in Salieri’s description of the Adagio movement from Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 (K361) for wind instruments (and string bass):

On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse, bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly; high above it, an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God.

I stick to my opinion that Mozart wrote a lot of music that wasn’t really all that good, but I also think you should judge artists by their best work rather than their worst and Mozart wrote enough masterpieces any one of which would confirm him as a creative genius of the highest order. This piece is one of those masterpieces. The whole Serenade – seven movements, lasting almost an hour – is beautiful but this movement stands out.

The hallmark of a genius is often simplicity, isn’t it? That goes for science as well as the arts. I don’t really know what beauty really is but the essence of it often lies in simplicity too.

Now I have to make a confession and ask for help from readers. The confession is twofold: (a) I have never heard this piece in a live performance; and (b) I don’t possess a recording of it. I’d therefore like to ask my readers for recommendations as to the best version to buy on CD or download.

In the meantime here is a taster in the form of a performance by the wind musicians of the London Symphony Orchestra. Enjoy!


10 Responses to ““Like a rusty squeezebox… ” – Mozart’s Serenade No 10 for Winds III. Adagio”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Good grief, he died when he was 35. Beethoven only found his voice when he was 32. What would Mozart have written had he lived longer?

    • telescoper Says:

      You could ask the same question about Schubert who was only 31 when he died.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        And a good question it would be too! But I am asking it here about Mozart. The really fascinating thing is that the zeitgeist moved on just after Mozart died, with the French Revolution moving into high gear in the terror and the execution of Louis XVI. Beethoven caught the revolutionary spirit in his middle period. Would Mozart have reinvented himself to ride it? Or ignored it and become dated? Or done something else entirely? I dare not even try to predict what genius *would* have done. Perhaps, mystically, he was fated to die when he did…

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t think Beethoven and Mozart ever met in person Mozart’s music obviously influenced Beethoven’s ‘classical’ period. Had Mozart lived longer they would have met. One can’t know how that would have turned out but it’s fascinating to think about it. Both were difficult men and they might have hated each other but I like to think they would have got on.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Beethoven would have modelled himself on the best while he was learning his art, and Mozart was the best. Beethoven’s friend Ferdinand Ries said that of all composers Beethoven valued most highly Mozart and Handel, then Bach (source: “Composers on Composers” by John L. Holmes).

        I have been listening recently to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and it is unique in coming toward the end of his “heroic” period that began with his third symphony, yet it is not in that style at all. It is in the early style of his immature pieces, yet a mature work. Fascinating. And of course a very large-scale choral work of the highest quality.

      • telescoper Says:

        It would be interesting to know how much of Bach’s music Beethoven actually knew about when he was young.

      • When he was in his early 20s Beethoven would have had access to van Swieten’s library which, like Mozart, he probably made good use of.

  2. John Peacock Says:

    I’m happy to say I’ve had the privilege of playing K361 more than a dozen times over the years, and it’s always a thrill. I still have a soft spot for the classic 1960s version by Jack Brymer and the London Wind Soloists. Recently, Radio 3 reviewed all the available recordings and the two that they favoured were by the Maurice Bourgue Wind Ensemble and by the Berlin Philharmonic (a new recording, not to be confused with older BPO versions). These are both really good.

  3. Martin Smith Says:

    I have long cherished that quote: one of the most amazing moments in cinema, because we are in about 7 (or even more) artistic dimensions at once: the historical granite, the sedimentary fiction of the film, the tertiary fooling around with Mozart and Salieri’s characters, the ironic ecstasy of the moment caught by the music when Mozart is brazenly lusting after a servant-girl, the magic of that opening, which is of course by no means the opening of the piece but 25 moments in, the way they play it in the context of Salieri’s commentary, and finally the deep poetry of his spot-on description. Add in the irony of his supposed confession of the sins of pride and possibly homicide in the outer ‘frame’ of the film, and we have eight levels of aesthetic delight all at once, just as the movement – though scored for 13 instruments (12 winds and double-bass) is at this point in about eight parts. I’d say Mozart (dying in 1791, two years after the French Revolution) indeed defines the end of an era of late Baroque grandeur and the last breezes of the classicism of the Renaissance, before Beethoven’s astonishing discovery of the subjective in. let us say, the opening phrase of his first Symphony – which seems to pick up just where Mozart left off, but as if it were viewing, James-Webb-telescope-like, a far wider vista of mystery and wonder. As for Mozart’s unevenness, sure – if you work 14 hours a day for 35 years flat out, there will be arid patches, but the earlier and sometimes more trivial-seeming works, eg the first 10 piano concerti and some of the Sonatas which in my view, given his letters to Nannerl, and as Glenn Gould picks up, may even have been intended as being ‘deliberately crass’. One slow movement indeed, in B flat, has the opening notes B flat, A, B flat – E NATURAL which must be one of the most counter-productive themes in all music. Yet that same motif is there in the greatest summation of them all, the ‘Jupiter’ finale, and you can find echoes of these four minims right over the spectrum of the music which follows.

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