The woodwind section in Mozart’s late symphonies

December 1, 2003


The woodwind section of the symphony orchestra has long held a place of preeminence. Woodwind historian Anthony Baines gushes: “…the woodwind [section] is a small cluster of musicians in whom the greatest virtuosity in the symphony or opera orchestra is concentrated. It is the orchestra’s principal solo section… They are stars because composers for over two hundred years have made them so…”1 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart certainly made stars of the woodwinds—in fact, he may have been the most important link between the string-heavy ensembles of the early symphonies and the lush, varied sounds of the post-Beethoven orchestra.

Nathan Broder points out that Haydn and a multitude of lesser figures made contributions during this same period. However, when comparing Haydn and Mozart:

Of the two, Mozart was the more progressive. Younger, more impressionable, more sensitive to contemporary music, and possessed of a wider knowledge of it because of his travels, it was he who, after having learned much from the symphonies of Haydn, took the lead and reached the pinnacle of pre-Beethoven instrumentation. It was he in whose work were combined all the progressive tendencies of the various outstanding composers of the time, and whose symphonies present a summing-up of orchestral advancement in the latter half of the eighteenth century.2

The late symphonies3 in particular provide insights into Mozart’s relationship with the woodwinds. These represent a mature, though certainly still evolving, approach to orchestration, with a heightened sensitivity to the character of each instrument. Within the six years that these six symphonies were written, we see Mozart move from the more traditional orchestration procedures to a more modern sensibility where the woodwinds are given pride of place as section and soloists capable of bearing the weight of full-fledged symphony themes.

Symphonists before Mozart took a relatively casual approach to the makeup of the woodwind section. According to Adam Carse, “a certain freedom of choice between oboe and flute,”4 and later clarinet, was common in orchestral writing and performance practice. In Mozart’s late symphonies, however, we begin to see flute parts written for the flute’s unique colors and idiosyncrasies, oboe parts written for that instrument’s distinctive tone, and even the bassoons promoted above the level of continuo workhorses. And the addition of the clarinet to the woodwind section can scarcely be discussed without mention of Mozart’s contributions.

Mozart’s woodwind section

The six symphonies under consideration show some variation in the makeup of the woodwind section:

Symphony Flutes Oboes Clarinets Bassoons
K.385 “Haffner” [original Salzburg version] 0 2 0 2
K.385 “Haffner” [version revised for Vienna] 2 (1st and 4th movements only) 2 2 (in A – 1st and 4th movements only) 2
K.425 “Linz” 0 2 0 2
K.504 “Prague” 2 2 0 2
K.543 1 0 2 (in B flat) 2
K.550 [original version] 1 2 0 2
K.550 [revised version] 1 2 2 (in B flat) 2
K.551 “Jupiter” 1 2 0 2

According to Thomas Glastras:

Mozart had two main criteria for which wind instruments he would use in his symphonies; 1) the aesthetic nature of the various winds, and 2) the availability of the various instruments. Of course, many times these two were obviously considered together, or rather, it would be impossible to say which came first.5

This seems a reasonable explanation for the variation in Mozart’s woodwind section throughout the late symphonies, but Neal Zaslaw adds some additional possible criteria. First is range; Zaslaw points out that the flutes of Mozart’s day were weaker in their lower register, while the oboes “thinned out”6 above the treble staff. Therefore, depending on the key and register of the material, different instruments may have been appropriate for different situations.

Zaslaw also asserts that Mozart is more likely to use flutes in the keys of C, D, or E flat (five out of our six symphonies are in these keys—K.550 is in G minor) because in these keys the horns use shorter crooks and are pitched higher, leaving less space for high woodwind parts.7 The flutes, with their stronger and more expansive high range, are more effective in these cases than oboes, which would crowd the horns in their best register. This theory may explain why K.543 (in E flat) surprisingly omits the oboes altogether, using flute and two clarinets, with their stronger high registers, instead.

Finally, Zaslaw suggests that Mozart may have considered venue acoustics in his orchestrations, especially when writing for open, semicircular theaters rather than resonant, rectangular concert halls.8 Zaslaw points out that the Haffner symphony was first performed, with oboes and bassoons only, in a Salzburg hall, but performed later in a Vienna theater with added flutes and clarinets.

Mozart’s expansion of the winds in K.385 may have been an effort to take full advantage of the Viennese orchestral forces at his disposal, but it was quite probably also an attempt to alter a work calculated for a hall to make it ideal for a theatre.9

The woodwind instruments of Mozart’s day were, of course, somewhat different in construction and timbre from in ones in use by modern instrumentalists. Baines comments:

Elementary though the old instruments appear to the eye, inwardly they are very subtle. Modern instruments possess many qualities that the old ones do not, but the converse is also true, and as one works patiently at the ‘antiques’ they reveal musical beauties that fully explain how it was that Mozart and the rest were able to put them to such superlative use.10

The bassoon was already well established as an orchestral instrument. But in the late symphonies, we see Mozart’s bassoon, as Adam Carse puts it, “release[d]… from its duty of always playing the bass part, and [getting] some measure of independence in the tenor register.”11 In the Haffner symphony, our earliest example (1782), the score calls for Fagotti in the plural, though in the first, third, and fourth movements, they spend most of their time playing a deux, doubling the bass line. However, in the second movement, we see the bassoons joining the oboes as a four-part reed choir. In subsequent symphonies, Mozart gives the bassoons more and more freedom, sometimes functioning as bass instruments, sometimes as members of a unified woodwind section, and with increasing frequency as key soloists.

In Mozart’s time the oboes were “indispensable”12 even in smaller orchestras. The large, established orchestra of the 18th century had flutes available, but used them less often than the oboes. When flutes were used, it was often in place of the oboes, sometimes only for one movement. It was not uncommon for the oboists also to play the flute, and, later, the clarinet.13 This is probably the intention in the Michael Haydn symphony mislabeled as K.444, where the oboes are replaced by flutes, likely played by the same musicians, during the first half of the second movement.

Mozart seems to have had a special affection for the clarinet. He was likely introduced to the new and still rare instrument by the virtuosos of the Mannheim orchestra. Broder mentions that in 1778 Mozart wrote to his father, sighing, “Oh, if only we too had clarinets!”14 Mozart’s concerto for the instrument is still the crowning jewel of the clarinetist’s repertoire.

Woodwinds in the late symphonies

Of the late symphonies, only the first, K.385,15 has the complete woodwind section of the so-called “full high-Classical orchestra,”16 with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, and this only after Mozart revised the orchestration for performance in Vienna. The woodwinds are used here in ways that only hint at the greater trust Mozart will give them in subsequent symphonies. Nathan Broder implies that the winds might have gotten more attention here had the symphony not been written in such haste; the symphony shows signs of having been conceived for the string section.17

Example 1
Example 1

The most interesting woodwind moments in this symphony belong to the oboes and bassoons which were in the original orchestration. Starting in measure 67 of the first movement they dominate a 7-measure woodwind interlude that sets up the tutti finish of the exposition. The descending “sigh” steps that characterize this interlude reappear starting in measure 118, at the closing of the development, in solo oboe and bassoon responses to the strings.

In the second movement Mozart does not add flutes and clarinets to his original orchestration; here the double reeds work closely with the horns in parts that are largely independent of the strings. The bassoons, surprisingly but very effectively, get to play a brief bass line almost free of the low strings (measures 12-15 and 61-64). The same instrumentation applies to the third movement, but in this minuet the reeds never play more than a supporting role to the violins and violas. The added flutes and clarinets reappear in the finale as little more than filler for tutti passages. The bassoons dutifully double the bass line, and the first oboe gets one all-too-brief moment of melody (measures 190-198), fortified at the octave by violins.

In the first movement of the “Linz” symphony (K.425) the oboes and bassoons make contributions to the introductory Adagio section and the coda, but participate significantly only in the development section (see measures 8, 169, and 123). Their only real thematic involvement occurs in the second theme gavotte (measure 71).

Example 2
Example 2

The Poco Adagio and Menuetto movements would miss the woodwinds little (besides octave doublings) were they removed altogether. The exception is the final eight measures of the Menuetto’s Trio section, in which the solo bassoon plays echoes to the violins and oboe (m. 50).

In the final movement, the woodwinds are once again relegated to strictly accompanimental roles except for teasingly short solos buried in the development section (mm. 201 and 204).

In the “Prague” Symphony, K.504, the woodwinds (here, a pair each of flutes, oboes, and bassoons) are used much more fully, and in more idiomatic ways. This is clear from the very introduction of the first movement. Within these 36 measures, the woodwinds are used in a surprising variety of formats. They are used in tutti in six-part harmony, in quartets of fl-ob-ob-bsn, fl-ob-bsn-bsn, and fl-fl-ob-ob, and in duets of fl-ob and ob-bsn. All three principal woodwind parts include brief solos.

Example 3
Example 3

The woodwinds also make their true expository-material debut in this movement. In the seventh measure of the Allegro section (m. 43 of the movement) the winds seize a rare opportunity to powerfully rebuff the string section’s timid opening argument. The oboe then makes an eloquent solo statement. At the close of the first theme, the winds retain the stronger position while the strings, unusually, content themselves with subservient fanfare figures (m. 63).

As if to legitimize the dominance of the winds in the first theme, Mozart scores the second for a humbled string section. The bassoons comment in harmony on the strings’ melody (m. 105).

The woodwinds participate actively and independently in the development section. At the recapitulation, the oboe develops its solo remarks from the exposition, and then passes them to the flute for further commentary (m. 217).

In the second movement, the woodwinds are perhaps less independent but make up the difference in vividness of color. Mozart enthusiastically avails himself of the palette of available woodwind colors here (see especially the flute in mm. 36 and 61, the oboe in mm. 20, 60, and 67, and the bassoon in mm. 31 and 82).

The finale casts the woodwind choir as a foil to the string section. Though used primarily for contrast rather than exposition, the woodwind passages (often unaccompanied!) are given weight and authority that belies their mostly nonfunctional nature. The principal flute leads these woodwind episodes much in the manner of a prima donna operatic soprano.

Mozart’s three final symphonies showcase a mature, personal approach to orchestration. Christoph Wolff opines:

… one likes to single out Mozart’s Last three symphonies of 1788 as a category in its own right where Mozart demonstrates an extraordinary and largely unprecedented command in his handling of symphonic form and orchestral possibilities. And it is nearly a cliché to characterize his technique of instrumentation as natural, intuitive and most ingenious … The degree of refinement in Mozart’s orchestral writings from the mid-1780s on is well above everything else in both theory and practice of instrumentation. We have no choice but to regard Mozart as basically a self-taught master of instrumentation. This is by no means a revolutionary notion, since there are so many elements and aspects of Mozart’s style that are without any precedents.

Mozart’s purpose in writing the final “trilogy” of symphonies has been debated at length. In a 1992 article, I. Grattan-Guiness makes a convincing argument that Mozart wrote them, despite desperate financial circumstances and a lack of commissions (as far as modern scholarship has been able to determine), as an expression of Masonic devotion. If this is indeed the case, it seems strange that Mozart wrote three symphonies in such a short time with different woodwind sections—surely works of such personal import and free of practical limitations would be written with an ideal woodwind section in mind (which we might presume would include one flute and two each of oboes, clarinets and bassoons)? It is probably a safe guess that the clarinets were added to Mozart’s original K.550 orchestration as a consideration for some later performance of that work. After such success with the clarinets in previous works, it is surprising that Mozart omitted them in K.551, unless it were written with a specific commission in mind.

The most immediately striking feature of the K.543 woodwind section is the omission of the oboes. Somehow less conspicuous is the substitution of clarinets—they are handled with subtlety, though given small moments in the spotlight. The use of a single flute seems curious from a perspective of post-Beethoven scoring practices, especially since Mozart scores the flute higher here than in any of the previous late symphonies. The clarinets provide stronger high-register support than the oboes (especially those of Mozart’s time) would have been able to offer, but the intervals between flute and first clarinet are precariously wide in places. Still, a cursory survey of Mozart’s orchestral works shows a strong preference for the single flute.

Example 4
Example 4

Throughout K.543, the woodwinds are used almost exclusively as a unit, sometimes supporting the strings and sometimes playing contrapuntally with them. The most remarkable woodwind occurrence is the clarinet solo in the Trio of the Menuetto with its equally interesting Alberti-bass-like figure in the second clarinet (m. 45 of the movement). The second clarinet here uses the low “chalumeau” register to extraordinary effect in a perhaps unprecedented manner. Also very effective are several places throughout the symphony where Mozart uses a clarinet-bassoon choir (1st mvt. mm. 115, 152; 2nd mvt. mm. 39, 73; 4th mvt. mm. 89, 139, 198).

The G minor symphony, K.550, is of special interest because Mozart modified the original orchestration, with flute, two oboes, and two bassoons, to accommodate the addition of two clarinets in B flat. In the case of the Haffner symphony, parts were added for flutes and clarinets, but in this case the original oboe parts have been changed to allow the clarinets to take a more integral role in the orchestration.

In many places, clarinets have been added to tutti sections without modifying the oboe parts. In several instances, however, what was formerly an oboe-bassoon duet has been changed to the clarinet-bassoon sonority so favored in K.543 (see 1st mvt. mm. 45, 55, 72, 140 [tied whole notes]). In other places, the woodwind choir has been revoiced to blend the clarinets seamlessly into the texture (1st mvt. mm. 127, 153, 196, etc.), or the clarinets have simply taken the place of the oboes in the woodwind choir (1st mvt. mm. 14, 148, 160, etc.).

In the Menuetto movement, the woodwinds are used at the end of the second strain to soothe the listener with a soft, legato melody after the relative harshness of the preceding measures. Mozart elects to replace the oboes with sweeter-sounding clarinets at this juncture, though he keeps the original oboe parts to give added brilliance to the G major Trio section while the clarinets sit out.

The final Allegro Assai movement adds clarinets to ensemble passages leaving the original oboe parts nearly unaltered. Virtually every oboe solo, however, has been stripped from the original part and given to the clarinet (mm. 86, 190, and 262; the sole exception is m. 146).

In the C major “Jupiter” symphony (K.551), we see further evidence that Mozart’s woodwind section has coalesced into a full member of the orchestra, capable of carrying important thematic material, but having risen above novelty.

Example 5
Example 5

In the first movement alone, several examples prove this to be the case. In measure 24, the flute and oboe (joined shortly by the bassoon) subdue and calm the fiery opening motive, reducing the violins to a whisper. The simplicity of this woodwind motive belies its power—in measure 37, it returns at forte in the dominant key, whipping the strings again into a frenzy. Mozart further entrusts the woodwinds with the opening bars of the development section (m. 121), where they play a four-note figure, unaccompanied, in authoritative octaves, driving the orchestra into E flat major. The woodwinds continue to play a major role throughout the extensive development section, on a completely equal footing with strings, brasswinds, and timpani, but perhaps having the advantage in variety and subtlety of color. This mature, sophisticated woodwind section continues to manifest itself throughout the remainder of the symphony, imparting a stern dignity to the Andante Cantabile, a lightness (without frivolity) to the minuet, and diving headlong into the fuguelike fray of the finale.


In the space of six years and six symphonies, Mozart bridged the gap between earlier woodwind scoring practices and the dictates of his own genius. Indeed, Mozart’s mighty woodwinds would become the birthright of Beethoven, Wagner, and Schoenberg. Haydn said, close to the end of his life, “Only in my old age have I learned how to use the wind-instruments.” From whom else but Mozart could the great Haydn have learned such a lesson?


Recommended Recording

Wiener Philharmoniker, cond. Leonard Bernstein, Mozart: The Late Symphonies; Symphonies Nos. 25 & 29 (Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon, recorded 1984-1990).

Recommended Scores

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Later Symphonies (Nos. 35-41) In Full Score (New York: Dover, 1974).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Five Symphonies in Score, ed. Hugo Liechtentritt (New York: Books and Music, 1939).

W. A. Mozart Symphonie 38 [K.504], D major (Germany: Philharmonia).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K.543 (New York: Edwin Kalmus).

Mozart Symphony in G Minor, K.550, ed. Nathan Broder (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No.41 in C major, K.551 (New York: Edwin Kalmus).

Books and articles

Baines, Anthony. Woodwind Instruments and their History (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1959).

Broder, Nathan. “The Wind-Instruments in Mozart’s Symphonies,” The Musical Quarterly (1933), 238-259.

Carse, Adam. The Orchestra in the XVIIIth Century (Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, Ltd., 1940).

Grattan-Guiness, I. “Why did Mozart write three symphonies in the summer of 1788?” The Music Review, vol. 53, no. 1 (1992), 1-6.

de St. Foix, G. The Symphonies of Mozart, trans. Leslie Orrey, (England: Wessex, 1932)

Tovey, Donald. Essays in Musical Analysis (London: Oxford, 1935).

Wolff, Christoph. “Aspects of Instrumentation in Mozart’s Orchestral Music,” L’interpretation de la Musique Classique de Haydn a Schubert (Paris: Editions Minkoff, 1977).

Zaslaw, Neal. “Mozart’s Orchestral Flutes and Oboes,” Mozart Studies, ed. Cliff Eisen (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).


1. Anthony Baines, Woodwind Instruments and their History (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1959), 25.

2. Nathan Broder, “The Wind-Instruments in Mozart’s Symphonies,” The Musical Quarterly (1933), 238-239.

3. Beginning with K.385 (1782), and omitting K.444, of which it is now known that only the introduction to the first movement was written by Mozart (and the remainder by Michael Haydn).

4. Adam Carse, The Orchestra in the XVIIIth Century (Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, Ltd., 1940), 126.

5. Thomas Glastras, Thirty-Five First Movements of Mozart Symphonies: Their Structural Development, Distribution of Instruments and Parts, and Character (Master’s thesis: Indiana University, 1954).

6. Neal Zaslaw, “Mozart’s Orchestral Flutes and Oboes,” Mozart Studies, ed. Cliff Eisen (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 204.

7. Zaslaw, 205.

8. Ibid.

9. Zaslaw, 210.

10. Baines, 274.

11. Carse, 33-34.

12. Carse, 34.

13. Zaslaw, 202.

14. Broder, 252.

15. For analysis, see International Music Edition. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Five Symphonies in Score, ed. Hugo Liechtentritt (New York: Books and Music, 1939).

16. Zaslaw, 201.

17. Broder, 254.

18. Measure numbers based on Dover edition. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Later Symphonies (Nos. 35-41) In Full Score. New York: Dover, 1974.

19. For analysis, see Donald Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis (London: Oxford, 1935), 183-185.

20. For analysis, see Philharmonia edition. W. A. Mozart Symphonie 38, D major (Germany: Philharmonia).

21. Christoph Wolff, “Aspects of Instrumentation in Mozart’s Orchestral Music,” L’interpretation de la Musique Classique de Haydn a Schubert (Paris: Editions Minkoff, 1977), 37-38.

22. See G. de St. Foix, The Symphonies of Mozart, trans. Leslie Orrey, (England: Wessex, 1932), 94-95.

23. I. Grattan-Guiness, “Why did Mozart write three symphonies in the summer of 1788?” The Music Review, vol. 53, no. 1 (1992), 1-6.

24. For analysis, see Kalmus edition. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K.543 (New York: Edwin Kalmus).

25. See Broder, 257.

26. For analysis, see Norton Critical Scores edition. Mozart Symphony in G Minor, K.550, ed. Nathan Broder (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967).

27. The Dover edition includes the original parts, plus the added clarinets and modified oboe parts.

28. For analysis, see Kalmus edition. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No.41 in C major, K.551 (New York: Edwin Kalmus).

29. Quoted in Broder, 259.


  1. […] that Mozart was a self-taught master of instrumentation. Link to the actual article can be found here So if you have any answer(s), or theory(ies) that you'd like to advance, please do […]


Leave a comment

Commenting policy