Length: 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 1, 1932, with soloist Albert Spalding, and Artur Rodzinski conducting
About this Piece
Wolfgang Amadeus 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 through-out 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!” This experience of making music with Linley, and 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.
During this period Mozart the violinist did indeed compose several works for strings, including divertimenti and serenades, though in truth they are actually incipient string quartets of a light nature. It was not until his last journey to Italy (1772-73) that he composed his first true string quartets. Each is in three movements, reflective of Italian models, especially the quartets of G.B. Sammartini (1701-1775). In 1774 he composed his Concertone for Two Solo Violins, K. 190. This emphasis on music for violin and strings was to culminate in the following year when, in the course of nine short months (April-December 1775) he composed five concertos for violin and orchestra.
In these works, as with much of the music Mozart composed during his “apprentice” period, his attempts seem groping at first 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. The works of such composers as Nardini, Boccherini (1743-1805), and Tartini provided the models for these two concertos. But as usual, Mozart was to transcend the limits of those models.
The following material is from a note by Orrin Howard: Mozart began his Fourth Violin Concerto in a manner similar to that of several of his piano concertos to come – with a trumpety fanfare theme in the full, unison orchestra (but no trumpets). This is answered by an almost whimsical little tune in strings, which in turn is followed by more muscular material. Modeled somewhat on a concerto by Luigi Boccherini, Mozart’s Fourth follows the conventional concerto wisdom of his day in being as galant as the next composer’s, but with those inimitable differences that separate this boy from all other men.
Vive la différence! For example, what other composer in 1775 would have had the temerity to handle the first entry of the violin as he did? When it appears after the opening tutti, the violin presents the main theme in its very high register, in almost antic mockery of the fanfare heroics of the orchestra. This is an incomparable touch, the corollary of which occurs when the violin rakishly sings the graceful second theme in its deepest voice.
The slow movement, expectedly songful and reflective, glows with a pristine, cameolike loveliness that takes one into a kind of operatic twilight. The final movement comes into full daylight, but with a dual personality. The first is a gentle, slowish, unassuming Contredanse, well-mannered as can be; the second takes flight in a kind of jig rhythm, darting about energetically. Gracefulness and rollicking good humor exist side by side here, with the soloist very busily engaged in much rapid passagework and, in one theme, employing double stops. At the finish, Mozart’s wit did not fail him any more than it did elsewhere. In the coda, the movement’s two identities are juxtaposed, and finally, the thematic protagonists join and simply walk off together into the sunset, in Mozartean bliss.
- Steven Lacoste