- Composer’s life: Born in Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
- Year completed: 1775
- First BSO performance: Providence, Rhode Island, December 31, 1907, Karl Muck conducting, with Carl Wendling as soloist
Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart—who began calling himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777 (he used “Amadeus” only in jest)—was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. Based on evidence gleaned from the autograph manuscripts, Mozart wrote his first violin concerto in 1773 and nos. 2-5 over the course of 1775. No. 5 was completed December 20 of that year. We have no information about the first performances of any of the five concertos, but we do know that Mozart at some point played each of them, even if he likely composed them with other Salzburg-based violinists in mind (e.g., the Salzburg concertmaster Antonio Brunetti). Mozart provided for cadenzas—virtuosic, often improvised passages for the soloist—near the end of each movement. Hilary Hahn performs her own cadenzas in these concerts.
In addition to the violin soloist, the scores of all five concertos call for 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings, (except the slow movement of No. 3, which calls for flutes rather than oboes).
The year 1756 was very important in the life of Leopold Mozart (1719-1787) both personally and professionally. In January, his son Wolfgang Amadè Mozart was born, and as Leopold later said, he was “a miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.” Six months after the birth of his son, Leopold published his Essay on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. Leopold was in a unique position to write such a work. Not only was he an excellent violinist and teacher, but he had also been in the service of the Prince-Bishop of Salzburg since 1740, serving as composer and assistant maestro di cappella. The book was published in Augsburg, Leopold’s hometown, but quickly made its way throughout Europe. Soon the treatise was in such high demand that it was translated into Dutch, French, and English. Leopold himself expanded and reissued the work in 1770 and again in 1787, the year of his death.
Leopold’s text is important even today. It deals not only with violin technique but addresses performance practice, composition, and aesthetics, thereby presenting a complete picture of the 18th-century musician. Through it, we get a glimpse of Leopold’s comprehensive teaching style, which sheds light on Wolfgang’s development as a musician and a young man. Leopold was his son’s most important teacher, advising him on everything—literature, mathematics, philosophy, religion, and of course music. Indeed, when Leopold realized how formidable Mozart’s talent was, he put aside his own career and devoted himself to educating his son.
When Wolfgang was a boy, he traveled with his family throughout Europe, where his father showcased his son’s enormous talents. Mozart is often depicted as playing the piano or harpsichord, but what is sometimes forgotten is his extraordinary accomplishment as a string player. Although he preferred to play the viola, and later featured it in some of his most impressive chamber works (the string quintets K.174, 515, and 516, which add an extra viola to the string quartet), he was a distinguished violinist. In 1777 he wrote to his father, “I played as if I were the finest fiddler in all Europe,” to which his father replied, “You yourself do not know how well you play the violin.” Strong praise indeed from Leopold, who usually had nothing but scorn for other violinists!
When Mozart and his father returned from two trips to Italy in the late 1760s and early 1770s, Mozart found himself back in Salzburg without the opera commissions or a permanent position in Italy he had so desired. It was then that he turned his attention to instrumental composition, writing many of his famous serenades (including the Serenata notturna, K.239; Haffner, K.250, and Posthorn, K.320), his first original piano concerto (K.175), and the violin concertos.
Mozart’s compositional development in the concerto genre can be traced through an examination of these five concertos. Although they were all written within a mere two years of each other, one can clearly see in them Mozart’s progression from a competent composer indebted to the past, to a master of the genre, experimenting with innovative techniques such as abrupt shifts in tone, texture, and passion within a single movement. Perhaps these techniques are traceable in part to his father’s precept that a good performer should be able to move without effort from the “mournful to the merry...in a word, he must play everything in such a way that he will himself be moved by it.” Mozart’s concertos move seamlessly between extremes of emotion and passion; and when experiencing a good performance, the audience should too. Even at such a young age—he was only 19 when he wrote the last of these concertos—Mozart proved he was not only the master of the concerto but the master of the violin. He fully realized in these pieces not only the dramatic possibilities in the dialogue between soloist and orchestra but the real elegance and power of the violin, the possibilities of which he first learned from his father.
The final concerto, the Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, K.219, is the most daring. It begins with the orchestral exposition, yet when the soloist enters it is with an expressive Adagio, completely different in tone and feeling. The effect is almost as if the soloist has begun playing the second movement rather than continuing the first. After the initial surprise, however, the soloist again plays Allegro, but this time with a new theme. The innovation here is that Mozart restates the original orchestral theme as the accompaniment to the new melody. Because the unexpected Adagio section occurs so close to the opening, when the movement does come to a close we are left questioning if the Adagio music will recur before the first movement ends. It does not. Instead, Mozart continues on to the middle movement, the longest and most elaborate of the three. Several years later, Antonio Brunetti, then concertmaster of the Salzburg court orchestra, advised Mozart that he found this movement too long and “studied.” Mozart ultimately wrote a new Adagio for him, K.261. The final movement is a Rondeau composed in the style of a minuet. The contrasting middle section, often called the “Turkish section,” is filled with dramatic percussive effects with the cellos and basses instructed to “coll’arco roverscio” (hit the strings with the wood of the bow, not the hair), as well as being given forceful chromatic passages. After the rousing interlude, however, the movement ends again with the most graceful of minuet gestures.
Elizabeth Seitz is a faculty member at the Boston Conservatory, a frequent guest speaker for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Lyric Opera, and a musicologist whose interests range from Mozart, Schubert, and Mahler to Falla and Tito Puente.