Skip to main content

Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.


BORN: January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria

DIED: December 5, 1791. Vienna

COMPOSED: 1775, in Salzburg. We lack information about its early performance history. In this performance, Christian Tetzlaff plays cadenzas of his own composition

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1947. Jacques Thibaud was soloist and Pierre Monteux led. MOST RECENT—January 2012. Pinchas Zukerman was soloist and leader

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings. Mozart did not provide cadenzas for this work 

DURATION: About 24 mins

THE BACKSTORY We think of Mozart as being a composer first and foremost, but he was also acknowledged as an uncommonly fine keyboard virtuoso. He was an accomplished string player, too, having been tutored in the violin by his father, Leopold, whose violin treatise (published the year of Wolfgang’s birth) stands as a monument of eighteenth century pedagogy. Young Mozart became adept enough to serve as a court violinist—eventually as concertmaster—in his native Salzburg. Once he left Salzburg for Vienna he seems to have preferred playing the violin’s alto cousin, the viola, which he often did in chamber music.

His very first steps as a violinist were fortuitously documented in an account written by Johann Andreas Schachtner, who sent it to Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna (“Nannerl”), on April 24, 1792, a few months after her brother’s death. Schachtner was a close friend of the Mozart family, served as librettist or literary collaborator for several of the composer’s early stage works, and performed as trumpeter, violinist, and cellist in the Salzburg musical establishment. He recalled a read-through of trios at the Mozarts’ home, during which Wenzel Hebelt (who had written them) played first violin, Schachtner played second, and Leopold Mozart viola. (Apologies in advance to our distinguished second violin section.):

Little Wolfgang asked to be allowed to play second violin. As he hadn’t had any lessons yet, your Papa reproved him for his silly begging, thinking he would be unable to make anything of it. Wolfgang said: “You don’t need to have taken lessons to play second violin.” When your Papa insisted that he go away at once and not bother us, he began to cry, and went off in a sulk with his little fiddle. I asked that he be allowed to play alongside of me. At last your Papa said: “Play along with Herr Schachtner, then, but so softly that you can’t be heard, or you’ll have to go.” Soon I noticed to my amazement that I was superfluous. Quietly I laid my violin aside and watched your Papa, who had tears of wonder and pleasure running down his cheeks. Little Wolfgang played through all six trios. He was so elated by our applause that he said he could play the first violin part. We let him do it for a joke, and almost died of laughter. His fingering was incorrect and improvised, but he never got stuck.

Mozart may have composed his five violin concertos for his own use (or his father’s), but other musicians soon mastered them as well. Apparently the first virtuoso outside the family to pick them up was Antonio Brunetti, a Neapolitan who was appointed court music director in Salzburg on March 1, 1776, and succeeded Mozart as concertmaster the following year after one of Mozart’s fallings-out with his employer, the Prince-Archbishop Colloredo. (Colloredo was himself an amateur violinist; it’s not inconceivable that he, too, might have tried his hand at Mozart’s concertos.) On October 9, 1777, Leopold Mozart wrote a letter to his son (on tour in Augsburg) in which a relevant comment appears: “Brunetti now praises you to the skies! And when I was saying the other day that after all you played the violin passibilmente, he burst out: ‘Cosa? Cazzo! Se suonava tutto! Questo era del Principe un puntiglio mal inteso, col suo proprio danno’ (What? Nonsense! Why, he could play anything! That was a mistaken idea the Prince persisted in, to his own loss).”

It was formerly thought that Mozart composed all five of his violin concertos in quick succession from April through December 1775, in accordance with the dates inscribed on his autograph scores; but it turns out that here, as with many of his coeval symphonies, things became confused through later date-tampering on the manuscripts. Musicological consensus now seems to be that his Concerto No. 1 may date from 1773, with the other four following in 1775. That information is comforting since the first concerto sounds to be a much less mature accomplishment than the others.

THE MUSIC The Fourth and Fifth Concertos are the most frequently performed of the bunch, but the Third, in G major (played here), is nonetheless a work of very considerable charm, a fine example of how Mozart was experimenting with adventurous ideas while still adhering to an essentially Rococo-Classical idiom. It reveals common ground between symphonic and operatic music, since the opening theme of the first movement (Allegro) also appears in the aria “Aer tranquillo e dì sereni” in his opera Il rè pastore, which had been premiered in the palace of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg on April 23, 1775—so just four and a half months before this concerto was completed. Indeed, this piece is so operatic that it breaks into a brief recitative for solo violin just before the recapitulation section in this sonata-form movement.

The Adagio is a lyrical aria-for-violin spun out at a leisurely pace. Its orchestration differs from the movements that surround it, with orchestral violins and violas (but not the soloist) installing mutes, and cellos and double basses plucking their strings (pizzicato). This makes the ensemble generally quieter, but it also changes its timbre, rendering the string sound less lustrous. What’s more, the pungent oboes that are prominent in the first and last movements are here replaced by flutes, another alteration that softens the overall timbre. (In the Salzburg orchestra, the same players would have doubled on flutes and oboes.) Mozart also makes a change in the horn section for this movement, having those instruments insert crooks that change their fundamental note from G to the lower D; this modification has no sonic meaning when modern French horns are used, but with the natural horns of Mozart’s time it, too, would have created a darker sound.

The Rondeau (Rondo) finale, which re-establishes the instrumentation of the first movement, is interrupted by tempo and meter changes that give the movement a distinctive character. Although in triple time overall, the music comes to an unexpected halt midway through, the meter turns to duple, the tempo slows down from Allegro to Andante, and the key morphs from major to minor. The orchestral strings play a pizzicato accompaniment as the soloist essays a tip-toeing theme, which sustains a sense of mystery across thirteen measures. Suddenly the atmosphere swings into a slightly quicker Allegretto, with the orchestral strings (now back in the major key) bowing their accompaniment while the soloist plays a lusty tune. This melody is developed at considerable length before the rondo theme returns (and with it the triple meter) and the movement approaches its close. Both of the slower incursions have a folkish ring to them. The first (the minor-key bit) does not correspond to any known folksong, but in the 1950s it was discovered that the second, the lusty Allegretto, corresponds to a Hungarian folksong (or dance, since no words are attached to it) that is written out in a collection assembled in 1813, where it is marked “à la mélodie de Strassbourger.” With this discovery it became clear that this was the piece Mozart referred to in a letter as his “Strassbourg concerto,” though we have no idea what connection it bears—if any—to the city of Strasbourg. —James M. Keller