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Composed: 1773
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

We rightly revere Mozart as a keyboard virtuoso, but it is worth remembering that his first official position in Salzburg was as concertmaster and that his father Leopold wrote an important instruction manual on violin playing. The younger Mozart wrote a remarkable series of 33 sonatas for violin and piano, in addition to five violin concertos and numerous other movements for violin and orchestra.

In 1772 Wolfgang had finally been given a salary as concertmaster – for the previous three years the position had been honorary – and violin concertos would naturally be expected of him. The premieres of Mozart’s violin concertos are not known, although later performances by the composer are documented. For many years it was thought that all five of Mozart’s violin concertos (there are another two of doubtful authenticity) were composed in 1775, but close study of the paper and handwriting of the autograph scores has now persuaded scholars that the first concerto was completed two years before the others.

“You are not quite aware yourself of what an excellent violinist you are, when you gather up all your strength and play with self-confidence, verve, and fire,” Leopold wrote to his son. Wolfgang knew the popular concertos of the Italian school – Nardini, Locatelli, and Pugnani – and enjoyed the violin concertos of the Bohemian composers Josef Myslivec?ek and Johann Baptist Vanhal. His own first effort in the genre clearly shows those influences, although casting all three of the standard movements in sonata form was unusual and indicates how much he valued beauty and balance over superficial entertainment and technical display even in a youthful calling-card concerto – no minuets or buffo rondos here. (Mozart’s four other violin concertos all close with rondos – rondeaus, French in both spelling and style.)

The first movement is a blithe affair, with a touch of courtly, spirited grace. A sublime, operatically poignant Adagio is the centerpiece, the longest movement of the three. Musical athleticism comes to the foreground in the fleet finale, but never overwhelming structural logic or expressive nuance. “You know I am no lover of difficulties,” Mozart wrote to his father but the interpretive challenges he posed go far beyond mechanical virtuosity. Artur Schnabel got at the heart of this paradoxical dichotomy when he wrote, referring to Mozart’s piano sonatas, that “they are too easy for children, and too difficult for artists.”

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.