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Sinfonia concertante K. 364

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Nurit Bar-Josef, violin, Daniel Foster, viola, David Hardy, cello Jan. 27 - 29, 2005
© Richard Freed

Mozart composed this “double concerto” in Salzburg in the summer of 1779, and very likely was the soloist in the first performance as soon as the score was completed. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed the work on March 15, 1934, with Hans Kindler conducting and the violinist Frank Gittelson and violist George Wargo as soloists; in the orchestra's most recent presentation of the Sinfonia concertante, on September 14, 1998, the violin soloist was Ariel Shamai, the violist was Ori Kam, and Anthony Aibel conducted.

In addition to the two soloists, the score calls for 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings. Duration, 30 minutes.

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The sinfonia concertante was the Classical period's successor to the Baroque concerto grosso, with more clearly soloistic roles for the specified instruments—in other words, a double, triple or quadruple concerto. This form was especially popular in France (hence the French designation symphonie concertante for many such works), and it was in Paris that Mozart received the impetus for at least two, and possibly four, of the six works he completed for multiple soloists.

Prior to his 1778 sojourn in the French capital Mozart had written, as his first concerto for instruments other than keyboard, a Concertone (literally “Big Concerto,” or “Grand Concerto”) for two violins, with somewhat less prominent parts for oboe and cello (K. 190), in 1773, and the Concerto in F major for Three Pianos (K. 242) in 1776. Shortly after his arrival in Paris, in April 1778, he composed a Concerto for Flute and harp (K. 299) and is thought to have composed the Sinfonia concertante for wind quartet and orchestra (K. 297b) whose authenticity is still somewhat uncertain. Back in Salzburg the following winter, he produced the Two-Piano Concerto in E-flat (K. 365) and, in the summer of 1779 the present work, the last of his double concertos and possibly the greatest of all his concerted works up to that time.

The selection of solo instruments in this case had a personal significance for him. Mozart was bitter and resentful about his status in Salzburg, and never more so than when he had to return after his extended trip to Mannheim and Paris—a trip that had a measure of personal tragedy when his mother, who accompanied him, died in Paris. This double concerto is viewed as a revolutionary work for him, a dramatic gesture of self-assertion if not an actual declaration of independence. Such a view is supported by no stormy outcry or gesture of defiance in the score, but is suggested by the remarkable and potently displayed advance the work represents in terms of individuality and depth of expression.

While Mozart found his Salzburg duties as violinist distasteful—not because he disliked the violin, but because playing that instrument was one of the specific demands on him in his position as the hated Archbishop Colloredo's musical servant—he discovered a deeper response in himself to the sound of the viola and the spirit it evoked. Possbily, too, the viola represented of softer gesture of independence toward his own father. Leopold Mozart, his son's fellow employee in Salzburg, was renowned in his day as a violinist and pedagogue (his published violin method remained in use well into the twentieth century), and he frequently nagged Wolfgang about what he might achieve with the instrument if he would only apply himself.

In any event, the younger Mozart put the violin away once he left permanently for Vienna, and neither played it himself nor composed any more concertos for it. In the capital he played the viola in the famous quartet evenings with Haydn, Dittersdorf and Vanhal, and he gave the viola a prominent role in the finest chamber works of his maturity. It is assumed that he wrote the demanding solo viola part in the Sinfonia concertante for himself, and he took pains to ensure that it would make a brilliant effect. The part is actually written in D, with instructions to the instrument be tuned up to E-flat “and perhaps a shade sharp” so that it would stand out more effectively against those in the orchestra.

Grand effects here are obtained from what was then Mozart's more or less standard Salzburg orchestra: oboes, horns and strings. The “Mannheim crescendo” makes a rare appearance in his works in the first movement, which is constructed on a very grand scale and rich in the noblest of thematic materials. The succeeding Andante , in C minor, no less abundant in melodic inspiration, is essentially a poignant dialogue between the two soloists, with more than a few astonishing glances forward to the profound slow movement of the sublimely tragic String Quintet in G minor (K. 516), in which the added instrument is a second viola. The Presto finale that follows is in a sense a reminder of the old Greek tradition of following a tragic drama with a comedy or satyr-play: it is in Tempo di contraddanza, filled with mischievous high spirits, in which the winds are used most effectively, with special prominence given to the horns. The cadenzas are Mozart's own.