skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Dan Zhu, violin, plays Mozart Jan. 24 - 26, 2013
© Thomas May

The strained relationship between Wolfgang Amadé Mozart and his father Leopold has come to play a significant role in contemporary assessments of the composer, whether in Peter Shaffer's fictionalized portrayal in Amadeus or in Maynard Solomon's psychologically astute biography. Setting out to correct the distorted image of Mozart as "the eternal child" from earlier eras, Solomon finds in the clash of wills between father and son an ongoing source of creative tension that informed major choices the young Wolfgang made in his life and art alike. "[T]hroughout his life," writes Solomon, "Mozart struggled against the demands of his past, the survival of archaic patterns of behavior, and the incessant invocation of his childhood image...."

A particularly fascinating choice Mozart made, after resettling in Vienna, to emphasize his self-determination was to cultivate his image as a virtuoso keyboard player. In a sense, he was replacing the instrument that must have been closely associated in his mind not only with his father but with his ties to the Salzburg he hated. His first professional post had been as concertmaster in the Archbishop's court orchestra. One of the most touching anecdotes about Mozart's awakening musical instincts as a prodigy involves the youngster teaching himself to play the custom-built miniature violin given him by Leopold (an internationally recognized master teacher of the instrument who had published a widely circulated violin textbook in the year of his son's birth). Young Wolfgang was desperate to join in music-making during sessions at the family home with his father's friends.

Yet however much he came to reject of his past, Mozart composed numerous works of heartfelt beauty showcasing the violin during his Salzburg years-most likely for his own performance, although we remain uncertain as to the exact circumstances that occasioned the five canonical violin concertos. Mozart's "year of the violin" was 1775, when he produced four of these works in quick succession. (The First Violin Concerto, once dated to 1775 as well, is now believed to have been composed a few years earlier.) Solomon groups these works with the larger creative effort of Mozart's Salzburg serenades, which often contain concerto-like movements featuring the solo violin. This "serenade style," writes Solomon, represents "a youthful music of yearning but not of grief, imbued with an innocent utopianism, a faith in perfectibility, beauty, and sensual fulfillment" and shows "the first cresting of Mozart's own creative powers."

The Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major brims over with this sense of imaginative possibility. The first movement, for which Mozart calls for the unusual tempo marking "Allegro aperto" (literally, "open Allegro"), brings forth one novelty after another despite the innocuous ascending-arpeggio gesture that figures in the opening orchestral section. In fact, the violin enters on an altogether different plane as Mozart shifts to a kind of slow motion sequence in a dream-like Adagio passage, resuming the normal tempo only to give the soloist brand-new thematic ideas alongside the material originally introduced by the orchestra. Mozart left no cadenzas, but his writing for the soloist blends the festive and the lyrical.

The Adagio-also a rare tempo indication for a Mozartean slow movement- retrieves the idyll hinted by the soloist's first appearance in the opening movement and explores its implications at rapturous length. Turning to the key of E major, Mozart uses his modest orchestra (pairs of oboes and horns as well as strings) to paint with subtly varied shades as the solo violin sings high above with amorous eloquence.

The finale is especially inventive, combining two kinds of music that present the violin in utterly distinctive guises. The main rondo refrain proceeds as a decorously behaved minuet, ornamented with grace notes and elegant turns of phrase. But one of the central "episodes" turns out to be an extended adventure. Turning to the minor and with "exotic" accents, the music becomes earthy and wild, let loose from its polite cage. Referring to this passage, the catch-all tag "Turkish" (used at the time for any vaguely Eastern sounding music) gave the Concerto its nickname-though Mozart actually drew on

Hungarian sources as well as a ballet tune from one of his own early operas. In this context, the return of the minuet refrain plays up the dramatic confrontation between these two styles-a drama of dances, in which the violin figures equally as the charismatic protagonist. And, as a final surprise, Mozart ends with a subdued farewell bow.