Program Notes

Concerto No. 4 in D major for Violin and Orchestra, K.218

BORN:  January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria
DIED: December 5, 1791. Vienna

COMPOSED/WORLD PREMIERE:  October 1775 for performance in Salzburg, possibly by the violinist Andrä Kolb

US PREMIERE:  January 18, 1873. French-American violinist Camilla Urso was soloist

INSTRUMENTATION:  2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings

DURATION: About 26 mins

Mozart the performer means most of all Mozart the pianist, very likely the greatest pianist of his time. But he was no mean violinist either. On October 4, 1777, for example, he took part in a private concert in Munich, playing not only a couple of piano concertos but also the demanding violin solo in the B-flat Divertimento, K.287(271h), and playing it, as he wrote to his father, "as though I were the greatest violinist in all of Europe. They all opened their eyes." Bragging? Yes, of course. Exaggerating? Almost surely not. He didn't have to; in any case, he had a most sober sense of his own gifts and accomplishments. He was, moreover, writing to the man who was as knowledgeable and exigent a connoisseur of string performance as anyone in Europe, Leopold Mozart, who in 1756 had not only become a father for the second time but also the author of an Essay on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. Like J.J. Quantz's treatise on flute playing (1752) and C.P.E. Bach's on keyboard performance (1753-62), the Essay goes beyond the immediate promise of its title to touch on many points of aesthetics and practice from a broad perspective, and its appearance affirmed Leopold Mozart's standing as one of Europe's premier musical minds. Leopold was not extravagant when it came to praising his son, and he wrote not merely as a proud, let alone indulgent, papa when he told Wolfgang, "You yourself do not know how well you play the violin . . .  when you play with energy and with your whole heart and soul, yes, indeed, just as though you were the first violinist in all of Europe." He also suggested, in connection with a proposed tour, that his son would do well to introduce himself in a violin concerto.

Mozart seems not to have played the violin in public after the 1770s, and his preference in chamber music with friends was to take the viola part; however, all his music for violin and orchestra as well, of course, as the many sonatas, is the work of an active and superb violinist. Mozart was at that time in the musical household of Count Hieronymus Colloredo, Archbishop of Salzburg, a patron of exemplary boorishness. (This unhappy relationship came to a violent end—literally, with Colloredo's Chief Steward kicking Mozart down the stairs of the archiepiscopal palace—in 1781.) We cannot be absolutely sure that Mozart wrote this concerto for himself, but it seems probable. A name often mentioned in this context is that of Colloredo's Neapolitan concertmaster Antonio Brunetti; Brunetti undoubtedly played the Mozart concertos later, and the composer wrote various pieces for him, but since he joined the Salzburg establishment only in March 1776 he cannot have been the first recipient of the concertos. Mozart's biographer Stanley Sadie proposes another possible candidate, Andrä Kolb, an excellent amateur player in Salzburg and a friend of the Mozart family.

The D major Concerto is the fourth of the five that Mozart wrote in Salzburg in 1775. After a first movement in the eighteenth century's most charm‑filled military manner comes an andante that is the very essence of yielding tenderness and grace. The finale is the most varied of the three movements. Among its themes is one—the musette‑like tune with the drone accompaniment—that was common currency at the time. It shows up in a symphony by Dittersdorf, where it is referred to as the Strasbourg dance (Mozart also referred to this as his Strasbourg Concerto), and Mozart himself used it again in a set of contredanses completed in January 1777.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(March 2018)

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