Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a child prodigy born in Salzburg, Austria who toured Europe as a boy, playing keyboards and violin for nobility and the general public. He began composing at age 4, amassing an impressive output of over 600 pieces by the time of his untimely death at age 35. His compositions encompassed solo keyboard works, symphonies, operas, string quartets, concertos, chamber music of all stripes, and religious works. He famously died while composing his Requiem, K. 626. It is possible that he believed himself to be writing his own funeral music, but it is unlikely that he was poisoned by the composer Antonio Salieri, as is asserted in the film Amadeus. In life, he had a reputation as a prankster, which shone through in his music at times (witness the 4-voice canons Difficile lectu and O du eselhafter Peierl). He is remembered today as perhaps one of the greatest composers who ever lived.
The Serenade K 361 (370a) has long been known by its more famous nickname, Gran Partita. This was not Mozart’s invention: his manuscript for the piece originally had no heading, but some unknown hand scribbled the nickname on it, and it has stuck. It means, essentially, “big wind symphony,” which is not inaccurate: the Gran Partita uses an unusually large ensemble (13 players) for the era, as well as a seven-movement form that is larger than either a four-movement symphony or the more conventional six-movement serenade or divertimento that formed the core of the wind repertoire at the time. In addition to the usual harmonie ensemble of two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons, the Gran Partita adds two more horns, a pair of basset horns, and a string bass. The seven movements consist of a sonata-allegro with an adagio introduction, a minuet and double trio, an adagio, another minuet and double trio featuring an obvious ländler, a tripartite Romance, a theme and variations with a curious interruption, and a spritely finale, totaling nearly an hour of music. Its composition date remains in dispute: it could have been as early as 1780, although it was not performed in any form until March 23, 1784, when it was presented at a benefit concert put on by famous clarinetist Anton Stadler. This is the only known performance during Mozart’s lifetime, and it only included four of the movements! Thankfully, the manuscript has survived in complete form to the present day, and it has become a cornerstone of the repertoire for chamber winds.
There are many performances of the Gran Partita out there, and no two will interpret it the same way. Answers to the questions of eingangen (little cadenzas), double dotting, ornamentation, grace notes, tempos, and more can only be guessed at, since we have no concrete and specific style guide from the period, let alone any recordings. I chose the recording below because of the fabulous assortment of period instruments they used (despite the fact that there is no conductor). Each movement is a distinct video, so you can start anywhere. Listen, but also watch!
I. Largo – Molto allegro
II. Menuetto I
IV. Menuetto II
VI. Tema con variazioni
Now for the links I promised. The Gran Partita has its own pages at Wikipedia and Windrep.org. You can get certain versions of the score for free at the International Music Score Library Project. It is also featured in program notes from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, as well as this article by Roger Hellyer, who tries to get a fix on the elusive composition date.
I couldn’t write about Mozart without including a scene from Amadeus. Here, the fictional Salieri recounts his feelings on first hearing the adagio from the Gran Partita, which aptly serves to demonstrate the young Mozart’s genius: