Wolfgang Mozart wrote his five violin concertos at age nineteen, and, with the last one, said good-bye to the violin and to Salzburg – the city he grew up in and which he detested. (Mozart’s first violin, given to him at age six by his father, is on display in Salzburg). Up to this pint he had been as much a virtuoso on the violin as on the piano. Why did he give up his violin career? There are several possible reasons:
1) The piano replaced the harpsichord as the principal keyboard instrument during Mozart’s life, and was a superior instrument for concertos and for using as an aid to composition – Mozart’s main interest since age four.
2) There were no good pianos in Salzburg to inspire him, as there were in Mannheim, Paris, Vienna, and especially London, where Mozart always dreamed of settling. (He learned the English language for that purpose but in the end only visited as a child.)
3) The violins Mozart played were set up in the old, baroque style, with shorter necks at a different angle, and thus could not compete with the brighter sounding pianoforte. A neck extending operation was eventually performed on ninety-nine percent of violins including the Stradivarius played by Mr. Antonello. What happened to the original necks? No one knows, but we can guess: In 1805, during a particularly cold French winter, the Paris Conservatory burned all their harpsichords, just to keep warm.
4) Wolfgang associated the solo violin with his father, Leopold Mozart, the most noted violin pedagogue in Europe. After Wolfgang moved away, Leopold wrote to Wolfgang how he hated to walk home from work now that Wolfgang was gone, because he knew that he would no longer hear the welcoming sound of Wolfgang practicing the violin as he approached his house. Leopold apparently did not feel the same nostalgia for his son’s harpsichord or piano practicing.
5) Wolfgang also associated the solo violin with Salzburg and the Italians. Mozart felt that the Italians got all the good music jobs. His replacement in Slazburg Antonio Brunetti, performed Mozart’s violin concertos after Mozart left, to scathingly nitpicky reviews by Leopold, left behind in Salzburg after Wolfgang moved on. (Leopold noted that in one performance, Brunetti played two notes out of tune. Leopold and Wolfgang also claimed to be scandalized that Brunetti fathered an illegitimate child, forcing him to marry the daughter of Michael Haydn, brother of Joseph Haydn).
Exits and Entrances
The violin concertos, the third and fifth especially, display Mozart’s experience and talent as a comic opera composer. They are all about surprise entrances and exits, like a French farce.
In the fifth concerto, after a long but typical orchestra opening, the violin stops the proceedings and enters in a new tempos with unrelated music, just as musicians in rock bands sometimes appear to be unaware which song the rest of the band is playing.
When the orchestra begins its opening tune again, the violinist invents a counter melody, unheard before, which, peculiarly, is out of sync with the meter of the orchestra; in fact, it is not until maeasure 54 that the orchestra gives in and follows the soloist, without a whimper, as if they had been on the same page all along. And yet Mozart reaches that point with utter ease and innocence daring the listener to remember that anything unusual had happened. It is like a scene in a surrealist play, where the children are being readied for church while eyeing the presents under the Christmas tree, and suddenly the butler enters – not quite during dinner- but from the chimney like Santa Claus, and dusting himself off with great aplomb, proceeds to give the children a lecture on the history of wine. And soon, everyone has forgotten the tree and church and the soot streaks on the butler’s uniform, and are busily arguing over who knows the most sommelier trivia, as if that was what the play was all about from the beginning.
The second concerto’s slow movement has a theme which seems to appear in the middle of the paragraph, and, each time it reappears, it interrupts the closing of the previous section by the orchestra, instead of waiting for its proper time.
The slow movement of the third concerto begins similarly, with the orchestra unable to make up its mind whether it should start each entrance on the downbeat for the third beat. The movement ends conventionally with the orchestra plying the usual perfunctory two measures after the violin cadenza – except that the violin enters yet again, as if unaware the orchestra has finished. But then Mozart changes his mind yet again and stops in the middle of the phrase.
The last movement of the third halts several times, once to introduce a new section in a different meter and slow tempo. When the soloist finishes at the end, the orchestra reiterates the opening, cadences, and then, as if the soloist weren’t standing there, helplessly, with nothing to do, continues to play for another 24 bars. (Fortunately this is not a problem on a CD).
The third movement of the fifth introduces a Turkish section and a hurdy-gurdy section, neither of which belong in the same movement. At the end, the violinist plays quietly the elegant transition music heard before which now proceeds to introduce – nothing: The piece is over. The violinist goes home and the orchestra has gone out for pizza before the audience knows it’s finished.
The magic thing about all these odd entrances, exists, and clashing ideas, is that Mozart maintains an air of innocence and naiveté throughout, as if this is the normal way to proceed with a concerto. The listener is hardly aware of anything except pure elegance and simplicity. Would Mozart be please enough at us for luxuriating in his beautiful, elegant, perfect melodies? Or would he laugh at us for not getting his many little inside jokes? Maybe both. We’ll never know.
Notes by Peter Arnstein