Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, and solo violin
First LA Phil performance: January 11, 1924, with soloist Helen Teschner Tas, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Mozart’s practical involvement with the violin began at an early age. His father Leopold (1719-1787), who was himself an excellent violinist and accomplished composer of both religious and secular music, was also the author of a highly esteemed didactic work on violin technique, A Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing, published in 1756, the year of his son’s birth. (The treatise is still an important source for the study of the musical practice of the time.) Wolfgang began lessons with his father in 1762, and was soon actively participating in making music with his father’s colleagues and friends. During these sessions he was introduced to the music of two of Italy’s finest violinist composers, Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) and Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764). In 1769 he entered into the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg as both concertmaster and composer.
Between the years 1769 and 1773 Mozart made three separate journeys with his father to Italy. It was a period in which he spent much time studying and composing dramatic works for the stage as well as sacred works, but it was also a time of exposure to one of Italy’s finest violin virtuosi, Pietro Nardini (1722-1793). In addition, Mozart had befriended Thomas Linley, a young Englishman and gifted student of Nardini. In a letter to his wife, dated Rome, April 21, 1770, Leopold describes the friendly bond between the two boys: “In Florence we met a young Englishman, a pupil of the famous violinist Nardini. The lad, who plays very finely and is of Wolfgang’s age and height, came to the house of the learned poetess Signora Corilla… The two boys performed by turns throughout the evening amidst continual embracing. The other day the little Englishman, a most charming lad, had his violin brought to us and played all the afternoon, Wolfgang accompanying him, also on the violin. The following day we dined with M. Gavard…and the two children played by turns the whole afternoon, not like boys but like men!” The experience of making music with Linley, and that of Nardini’s playing, increased Mozart’s interest in perfecting his own playing, but more importantly, it became an impetus for him to begin to compose seriously for the violin.
This emphasis on music for violin and strings culminated in 1775 when, in the course of nine months (April - December), he composed five concertos for violin and orchestra.
In these five violin concertos, as with much of the music Mozart composed during his “apprentice” period, his first attempts seem groping until he fully assimilated the material and gained complete mastery of the form. Such is the case with the first two concertos, K. 207 and 209, wherein Baroque and Rococo characteristics dominate. Again, the works of such composers as Nardini, Boccherini (1743-1805), and Tartini provide the models for these two concertos. But as usual, Mozart was to transcend the limits of these models. Especially in his Violin Concerto No. 5 in A, K. 219, Mozart demonstrates great imagination in his experimentation with fluctuating tempos and diverse meters within single movements. Such freedom in his handling of material expresses not only an originality of form, but also Mozart’s knowledge and command of both the Italian and French styles, a demonstration of his cosmopolitanism at the age of 19!
The first movement of Concerto No. 5 quickly presents us with formal peculiarities that are odd for the period. Following the tutti exposition, the solo violin enters with a tempo change from Allegro aperto to Adagio, completely altering the mood. When the allegro returns we discover that what appeared to be the first theme of the Concerto (a rising arpeggio in the violins) turns out to be an accompaniment to what is the true first theme stated in the solo violin. Aside from these anomalies, the remainder of the first movement follows the processes of sonata form.
The Adagio, in E major, is a three-part song form of a lyrical and contemplative nature. In the finale, labeled Rondeau, Mozart tips his hat to French models. But the uniqueness of this movement stems from the introduction of a simultaneous meter and tempo change as well as a change of key to A minor.
This is an episode in the alla turca style, which was popular in opera at the time. Mozart achieves this effect not only by changing the mode to minor, but above all through his requiring the cellos and basses to play coll’ arco al roverscio, meaning “play with the wood of the bow,” thereby producing a percussive sound. The movement ends quietly with the last statement of the theme.
Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.