WOLFGANG AMADÈ MOZART: Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218

Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began calling himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777, 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; the manuscript for K. 218 is dated “October 1775.” It likely 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 violinist and composer of some note, whose great contribution was a violin method, Essay at a Thorough School of Violin Playing, 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. (Musicologist Alfred Einstein 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.

Mozart’s 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. But during the earlier years, when he was still concertmaster in the court orchestra of the Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg, playing the violin was one of his duties. His father urged him to keep it up. In a letter of October 18, 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 the year 1775 (the first seems to have been written a year or two earlier). 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 of the violin concertos of 1775—when Mozart was but nineteen years old—date from a time when the composer was still consolidating his concerto style and before he had developed the range and dramatic power of his mature piano concertos. To some degree they still resemble Baroque concertos, with a 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 novel 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 these four were composed, Mozart’s 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 month gap 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 last three concertos, composed in the last four months of 1775, have a strong family resemblance, with luminous slow movements in the dominant key (rather than the more common subdominant), and a finale in the French rondeau style.

The first movement of the D major concerto begins with an orchestral ritornello featuring a lightly martial dotted rhythm, a figure that Mozart will later use in many of his piano concertos. Although it opens the entire work, Mozart makes relatively little use of this ritornello. Instead he keeps up a fertile flow of melody—gentle and exuberant by turns. Then he mixes them up, sometimes in complete form, sometimes abridged, so that the listener never quite knows which tune to expect next.

The Andante cantabile keeps the soloist busy almost throughout, except for the very opening and closing measures. The flowing, soaring melody of the main theme exploits the full range of the solo instrument in different octaves. A contrasting theme, presented first with a lovely echo in the oboe, also ranges over three octaves to exploit all the colors of the violin.

The term Rondeau, applied to the finale, indicates that Mozart is using a French pattern for the movement in which a graceful and elegant dance-like theme contrasts with other themes in different meters and tempos, here moving from 2/4 to 6/8 and from Andante grazioso to Allegro ma non troppo. These contrasts might cause such a movement to fall apart, but Mozart balances the proportions so adroitly that they work together brilliantly. Unlike many solo concertos, the ending does not bring a flash of brilliance to show off the soloist, but rather dies away quietly. —© Steven Ledbetter