WOLFGANG AMADÈ MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, K. 216, "Strassburg"

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began calling himself Wolfgang Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777 (and never Wolfgang Amadeus), was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He composed the last four of his five violin concertos, K. 207, 211, 216, 218, and 219, between April and December 1775; K. 216 was completed on September 12 and probably had its premiere in Salzburg not long afterward. In addition to the solo instrument, the score calls for two each of oboes and horns plus orchestral strings.

Wolfgang’s father Leopold was himself a musician of some note, a violinist and composer, whose great contribution was a violin method book, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, published in the very year of Wolfgang’s birth and for a long time the standard work of its type. Needless to say, when Wolfgang’s musical talent became apparent, the father undertook to devote himself wholeheartedly to his training and exhibition both as a moral obligation and a financial investment. (Alfred Einstein has justly remarked, “The proportions of obligation and investment are not easy to determine.”) The training included instruction on both the violin and the harpsichord, with the result that Wolfgang was able to make professional use of his skill on both instruments.

It appears that his devotion to the violin dwindled after he moved permanently to Vienna and left his father’s sphere of influence. Certainly in his maturity he preferred the keyboard as the principal vehicle of virtuosity, and it was for the keyboard that he composed his most profound concertos, whether for himself, for his students, or for other virtuosos. But during the earlier years, when he was still concertmaster in the court orchestra of the Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo of Salzburg, playing the violin was one of his duties—one that he fulfilled with some distaste. His father continued to encourage his violin playing. In a letter of 18 October 1777, Leopold wrote, “You have no idea how well you play the violin, if you would only do yourself justice and play with boldness, spirit, and fire, as if you were the first violinist in Europe.” Perhaps it was the constant paternal pressure that caused Wolfgang ultimately to drop the violin as a solo instrument. In Vienna he preferred to play the viola even in chamber music sessions, and his concert appearances were as a pianist.

In any case, four of the five violin concertos were all composed during a single year, 1775 (the first seems to have been written a year or two earlier), while Wolfgang was still concertmaster in Salzburg. It is not clear whether he wrote them for himself or for Gaetano Brunetti, an Italian violinist also in the Archbishop’s orchestra. There is some evidence to suggest the latter possibility: a few years later, when Mozart wrote a new slow movement (Adagio in E major, K. 261) to replace the middle movement of the Fifth Violin Concerto (K. 219), Leopold referred to K. 261 in a letter of October 9, 1777 as having been written for Brunetti “because he found the other one too studied.” But that is certainly not solid proof that the original concerto, much less all five of them, were composed for the Italian instrumentalist.

All five of the violin concertos of 1775—when Mozart was but nineteen years old—date from a period when the composer was still consolidating his concerto style and before he had developed the range and dramatic power of his mature piano concertos. They still resemble the Baroque concerto, with its ritornello for the whole orchestra recurring like the pillars of a bridge to anchor the arching spans of the solo sections. Mozart gradually developed ways of using the tutti-solo opposition of the Baroque concerto in a unique fusion with the dramatic tonal tensions of sonata form, but the real breakthrough in his new concerto treatment did not come until the composition of the E-flat Piano Concerto, K. 271, in January 1777. Thus all of the five violin concertos precede the “mature” Mozart concerto, which is not at all the same thing as saying that they are “immature” pieces.

Even within the space of the nine months during which they were composed, Mozart’s concerto technique underwent substantial development, and the last three of the five concertos have long been a regular part of the repertory. Whatever it was that happened during the three months between the composition of the Second and the Third Violin Concertos, it had the effect of greatly deepening Mozart’s art, of allowing him to move beyond the pure decoration of the galant style to a more sinewy and spacious kind of melody. The second theme of the orchestral ritornello has a striking shape that Mozart withholds from reuse until the end of the recapitulation. The development section begins in the dominant minor and moves with purposeful strides through a series of closely related keys back to the tonic and the recapitulation, in which the soloist dominates.

The Adagio is wonderfully dreamy, with muted upper strings in triplets and pizzicato cello and bass imparting some of the same expressive qualities as the slow movement of the much later Piano Concerto in C, K. 467. The oboes take part in the dialogue with their little interjections in pairs. The Rondeau is a sprightly 3/8 dance in Allegro tempo. At the opening the wind instruments appear only for occasional punctuation, but they play a progressively more important role throughout. The biggest surprise comes with a change of meter (2/2) and the appearance of a totally new idea in G minor, a graceful dance step for the solo violin over pizzicato strings. This runs directly into a livelier tune of folklike character in G major. This two-section minor/major tune has recently been identified as a Hungarian melody known as the “Strassburger”; hence the present concerto is the one that should bear the nickname “the Strassburg,” not the Fourth Violin Concerto, to which the name is sometimes applied. The wind instruments, having played a more vital role in the G major section, withdraw from prominence for a time after the beginning of the recapitulation, but they return in the whimsical coda to bring the concerto to a surprising and witty ending without any of the stringed instruments. —© Steven Ledbetter