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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart & the Violin

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart & the Violin

An in-depth exploration of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5 in A, K.219.

During the mid-1770s Mozart (1756-1791) composed a number of works in quick succession that prominently feature the solo violin. Apart from the five violin concertos, most of the serenades and ensemble divertimenti he wrote at this time contain movements where the concertmaster assumes a leading concertante role.

These works were composed during Mozart’s employment at the Salzburg court where one of his chief duties was to lead the court orchestra from the violin. Although it is highly probable that he performed the solo part himself in many of these works, there are reports (through the letters of Mozart’s father Leopold) of other Salzburg-based violinists performing the concertos.

The Italian virtuoso Antonio Brunetti (who succeeded Mozart as the court orchestra’s concertmaster) was one of these. He certainly performed the Violin Concerto No.5 soon after it was completed on 20 December 1775, for the following year Mozart provided an alternative slow movement – the Adagio, K.261 – after Brunetti remarked that the original was too ‘artificial’.  

The violin writing in all the concertos is highly idiomatic and displays Mozart’s deep knowledge of the instrument’s capabilities. In the final two concertos, considerable use is made of the violin’s high register (exploited to a much greater degree than in earlier violin concertos of Bach and Haydn, for example). This puts the soloist in clear textural relief against the orchestra and helps the projection of the violin tone. The virtuosic passagework found in the solo part is not for ostentatious display but is rather an inspired and florid growth out of the music’s melodic material.

The Violin Concerto No.5 is perhaps the most substantial of the group and is one of the high points of the composer’s early maturity. The opening movement is marked with the unusual tempo indication Allegro aperto: to be played in a lively and open manner. After the customary orchestral exposition, the violinist enters unexpectedly with a short and introspective Adagio

Upon resumption of the quicker tempo, a striking new theme is boldly launched by the soloist that traverses a wide register above the orchestra’s initial material. Formal surprises such as these, as well as the exploration of the dramatic interplay between soloist and orchestra, would become salient features of Mozart’s piano concertos.

The second-movement Adagio, although cast in the bright key of E major, possesses a dark emotional undercurrent that surfaces in the movement’s development section. The rondo finale commences with an amiable theme in a minuet character. However, the music takes a startling turn to the minor key in a central episode when the sound of a Turkish band is vividly imitated. Turkey was considered an exotic culture for Europeans in the 18th century and Mozart used elements from Turkish music to add an oriental flavour in several works, including the Alla turca from his Piano Sonata, K.331, and his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio. The cellos and basses here reverse their bows to hit the strings percussively with the wood and the soloist plays an energetic figuration that winds up and down in a folk style. 

The music soon returns to its original genial mood and, as in the two preceding violin concertos, ends gracefully in quiet simplicity.

James Cuddeford © 2019
Reprinted by permission of Symphony Services International

Hear Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5 in A performed live this May by musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music in Mostly Mozart: Mozart & Mendelssohn

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