Mozart: Divertimento in F Major for Strings, K.138 (125c)

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777 (but never Amadeus except in jest and in the combination "Wolfgangus Amadeus"), was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He almost certainly composed the F major Divertimento in Salzburg early in 1772. No record exists of its first performance in this country. The first San Francisco Symphony performances were given in June 1991 with Roger Norrington conducting. The most recent performances here were given under the direction of Alexander Barantschik in February 2007. Performance time: about eleven minutes.

Not much can be said about the charming Divertimento for Strings, K.138(125c), and not much need be said. Scholars dispute whether the title is Mozart’s own, the doubt coming from the fact that divertimentos usually had more than three movements, but then eighteenth-century composers were remarkably unbothered about distinctions between chaconne and passacaglia or between divertimento, serenade, notturno, cassation, Parthie, and the like.

When he wrote K.138(125c) and its two companion pieces, K.136(125a) and 137(125b), Mozart had just turned sixteen. He was preparing to set out with his father on his third and last journey to Italy. The main purpose was the production in Milan of his opera Lucio Silla, though the most lasting result of that trip was the motet Exsultate, jubilate with its famous “Alleluia,” written in Milan for the celebrated castrato Venanzio Rauzzini. Alfred Einstein and other Mozart scholars have suggested persuasively that Mozart wrote the three divertimentos so as to have something ready should orchestral music be asked of him, Einstein going on to suggest that Mozart “would then have added wind instruments to the outer movements on the spot in Milan, according to need and feasibility.”

There is no record of any such occasion, and the three divertimentos survive as beautifully scored works for strings alone. The F major work is a delight, with sparkling quick movements (the last with a lovely episode in minor) bracketing an Andante in Mozart’s most meltingly Italianate and lyric manner.

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.

More About the Music
Recordings: Ton Koopman with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Apex)  |  Petra Müllejans with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (Harmonia Mundi)

Reading: The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe (Cambridge University Press)  |  Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Peter Gutman (Harcourt)