The Kennedy Center

Violin Concerto No. 4, K. 218

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

The name of Mozart brings to mind the breathtaking array of compositions he left to posterity. To his contemporaries, however, he was also known as one of the foremost instrumental performers of the day. His masterful piano playing was lauded in Vienna, London, Paris and elsewhere, and his reputation for tasteful virtuosity persisted for several decades after his death. Less known than Mozart's keyboard ability was his extraordinary talent on the violin. His father, Leopold, was a renowned teacher of the instrument who issued a popular tutor for violin instruction in 1756, the year of Wolfgang's birth. It was therefore probably inevitable that young Mozart learned the violin early and well, and he displayed it as one of his chief accomplishments when he dazzled the listeners on his first tour in 1763. He was seven. On his debut trip to Italy in 1770 (age fourteen), two of the greatest violinist-composers of the day, Giovanni Sammartini and Pietro Nardini, were so impressed with his playing that they wrote special sets of exercises for him. Back home in Salzburg, Mozart was appointed concertmaster of the Court Orchestra on November 27, 1770, a position he held until moving to Vienna in 1781. Leopold had a justifiably high opinion of his son's ability, and told him, "You have no idea how well you play the violin. If you would only do yourself justice, and play with boldness, spirit and fire, you would be the first violinist in Europe." Wolfgang was, however, more interested in the keyboard than in the violin, and he shot back at his father, "When performing is necessary, I decidedly prefer the piano and I probably always shall." Even Leopold's argument that, since the violin was the most popular instrument of the time, he could gain greater financial success as a violinist-composer than as a pianist-composer did not sway Wolfgang. After he left Salzburg in 1781, Mozart never picked up the violin again, preferring to play the viola in his string quartet sessions in Vienna.

Mozart's five authentic violin concertos were all products of a single year, 1775. At nineteen, he was already a veteran of five years experience as concertmaster in the Salzburg archiepiscopal music establishment, for which his duties included not only playing, but also composing, acting as co-conductor with the keyboard performer (modern conducting did not originate for at least two more decades), and soloing in concertos. It was for this last function that he wrote these concertos. He was, of course, a quick study at all that he did, and each of these concertos builds on the knowledge gained from its predecessors. It was with the last three (K. 216, K. 218, K. 219) that something more than simple experience emerged, however, because it is with these compositions that Mozart indisputably entered the age of his mature works. These are his earliest pieces now regularly heard in the concert hall.

The opening movement begins with a mock-military fanfare on the notes of the D major chord, answered immediately by a balancing phrase full of grace and characteristic Mozartian suavity. The orchestral introduction continues with a sweetly lyrical contrasting theme presented by oboe and violins before the soloist enters to embroider the melodic material with tasteful ornamentation. The central section of the movement is less a true development of earlier motives than a free fantasia of pearly scales and flashing arpeggios. The recapitulation begins without fuss as the soloist tosses off an altered version of the main theme. (How Mozart loved to vary, even slightly, repeated material!) The remaining themes are recalled before the soloist is allowed a cadenza, after which a brief coda draws the movement to a lively close.

The second movement is sonatina in form (sonata-allegro without a development section) and moonlight-tender in mood. Like so many slow concerto movements of the late 18th century, it contains music that would not be out of place in an operatic love scene. In contrast, the finale is dance-like and outgoing, an ingenious international blend of open-faced Italian melody, French elegance (Mozart used the French title "Rondeau" for the movement) and German structural sophistication in its blend of rondo and sonata forms.