The first two flute quartets (K285 and 285a) are commissioned works composed in haste in Mannheim in 1778-79. Mozart was on the Grand Tour that later ended in tragedy, when his mother died in Paris. In Mannheim he struggled to find a permanent position and fell hopelessly in love with a young singer. He was passionately preoccupied with dreams of opera, but he also found time to compose a number of boundary-breaking piano works. The Mannheim court orchestra was one of Europe’s best and Mozart made many new musician friends there, including the flautist Wendling, who was considered one of the world’s leading virtuosi. Mozart admired his sensitive playing and composed wind parts for one of his flute concertos. It is not impossible that Wendling’s quartets and trios inspired him when he himself went to work composing a small collection of concertos and quartets for flute. It was a commission, and the client was Ferdinand Dejean, a doctor in the Dutch West India Company. The money was good, but Mozart was probably not overwhelmed with enthusiasm. He delivered two small masterpieces, but it is not clear whether he managed to write all that he had promised. The two quartets, along with few other works, are what we have left of the order from the Dutch amateur musician.
The quartet in C major (K. Anh. 171 (285b)) is from Mozart’s first period in Vienna, 1781-82. He was making an impact as an independent artist. He had freed himself from the Archbishop of Salzburg, and was close to freedom from his father. He was earning good money, and experiencing success as a pianist, teacher and opera composer. The quartet was probably intended as an offer to the city’s many amateur musicians. The second movement consists of variations and is almost identical to a movement from Mozart’s large Serenade in B flat major for 12 winds and double-bass. The Serenade was written in the same period for Vienna’s leading wind players and aroused great attention in the city. A modern theory claims that the large Serenade was Mozart’s gift to Konstanze Weber, who in her old age spoke of a fine Serenade that was performed at her and Mozart’s wedding. Whether it really was this Serenade we shall probably never know, and the scholars have been unable to agree on this point. Movements and fragments from the great Serenade soon spread all over Europe in all sorts of arrangements, and one of them forms the second movement of the little quartet in C major. It is not clear whether it was Mozart who arranged the variations in the second movement of the flute quartet, but we know with certainty that he wrote the first movement. Sketches for it are notated in his own hand on one of the sheets of music paper he used when he composed his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1781.
The quartet in A major (KV298) was probably composed in 1787 in a period with both joys and sorrows. Mozart lost his father and had great successes in Prague with the operas The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. The quartet was very likely a gift to Mozart’s musical friends in the Jacquin family. It is entertainment music, perhaps intended for a private chamber music evening in the family’s drawing-room. The last movement is built up over a melody from Paisiello’s opera Le gare generose, which was premiered in Vienna in the autumn of 1786, so the quartet can be no earlier than that period. Perhaps it is even a little later, for we know that Mozart heard Paisiello’s very popular opera in Prague in 1787.