Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, Turkish

Concerto No. 5 in A Major for Violin and Orchestra, K.219, Turkish

Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Theophilus (Gottlieb) Mozart was born January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria, and died December 5, 1791, in Vienna. He often used the Romanized form Amadè or Amadé of the Latin Theophilus, but rarely Amadeus, which he employed almost always in jest. He composed his Violin Concerto in A major in 1775, completing it on December 20 that year in Salzburg. We lack certain information about its early performance history. The first San Francisco Symphony performances, in April 1936, featured violinist Sylvia Lent and were led by Pierre Monteux. In the most recent SFS performances, in December 2010,  Gil Shaham was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. The score calls for two oboes, two horns, and strings, in addition to the solo violin. Performance time: about thirty-one minutes.

We think of Mozart as being a composer first and foremost, but in his day he was also renowned as a musical performer. Although he was acknowledged as one of the finest keyboard virtuosos of his time, he was an accomplished string player as well. He was taught violin by his father, Leopold, whose violin treatise, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing), stands as a monument of eighteenth-century pedagogy. Published in the year of Wolfgang’s birth, it appeared not just in German but also in Dutch and French translations, and it was re-issued in further, adapted editions through the early nineteenth century. Young Wolfgang became adept enough to serve as a court violinist—eventually concertmaster—in his native Salzburg and he never relinquished the ability to demonstrate musical ideas convincingly with violin in hand. 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.

Nonetheless, nearly all the music he wrote for solo string player features the violin, most notably his thirty-three full-scale sonatas and two sets of standalone variations for violin and piano (more than half of these dating from his maturity) and his five concertos for violin and orchestra. His Concertone for Two Violins and Orchestra and his Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, along with three standalone movements for violin and orchestra, round out the list of his extant concerted string works.

Mozart is believed to have composed his concertos principally for his own use, but they were deemed so excellent that other musicians soon mastered them as well. Apparently the first virtuoso to assume them into his repertory was Antonio Brunetti, a Neapolitan who was appointed Court Music Director in Salzburg on March 1, 1776. He succeeded Mozart as concertmaster the following year after one of Mozart’s falling-outs with his boss, Prince-Archbishop Colloredo. 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 his five violin concertos in quick succession from April through December 1775, in accordance with the dates inscribed on his autograph scores. It turns out that, as with many of his coeval symphonies, chronology became confused due to later date-tampering. Musicological consensus now seems to be that the Concerto No. 1 may date from 1773, with the other four following in 1775. That information comes as something of a comfort since the first concerto is a far less mature accomplishment than the last. In fact, the Violin Concertos Nos. 4 and 5, the most frequently performed of the bunch, reach considerably farther than do Nos. 2 and 3.

The fifth and last of the composer’s violin concertos serves as a fine summation of what he achieved in the genre. If the Mozart of 1775 has not attained the emotional profundity that he would within very few years, he does not shortchange on delight, an attitude perfectly suited to the bright key of A major. The opening movement is elegantly balanced between the soloist and the orchestra, combining a sense of spaciousness with a crystalline texture. It sports an unusual tempo marking: Allegro aperto—literally an “open” or “frank” allegro. It’s not a unique marking in the composer’s works, as we also find it used in arias in his early theater piece Ascanio in Alba (K.111) and his oratorio La Betulia liberata (K.118, both from 1771), as well as for the first movements of his Keyboard Concertos in B-flat major (K.238) and C major (K.246, both from 1776) and his Oboe Concerto (from the spring or summer of 1777, and revised in 1778 into his Flute Concerto No. 2, K.314). After that used it again for the “Laudamus te” movement of his C minor Mass (K.427), of 1782-83. The term seems to have been almost exclusive to Mozart, although I have spotted it—again, attached to first movements—in an oboe quartet by Franz Krommer and a clarinet concerto by Antonio Casimir Cartellieri, both of whom were active in Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth century. Maybe they had noticed the marking in Mozart’s scores; or maybe they just liked its implications of candor and forthrightness.

The movement’s opening phrases are unassuming: a theme consisting merely of quiet, rising arpeggios. The second theme is delivered in a loud forte, with more of a harrumph. In the Classical era, the soloist would have played along with the orchestra in this opening; indeed, the solo part in this section duplicates that of the orchestra’s first violins. That tradition has largely faded, and most concerto soloists today wait to begin playing until their “solo entrance,” which Mozart highlights with a striking surprise: the orchestra concludes a phrase and simply stops, after which the soloist enters adagio, above a gently rustling accompaniment, with a rhapsodic phrase derived from the rising arpeggios of the movement’s opening. This, too, draws to a close and takes a relaxed breath. Now begins the solo exposition per se, with the violin articulating an essentially new theme that rises in a variation of the arpeggios (which we now recognize as an essential part of this movement’s DNA) and then cascades down like the sparkling water of a fountain. The movement charms its way along to a sly sidestep into the relative minor key (F-sharp minor). There the violin voices alarm of a none-too-threatening sort before wending back to A major and the movement’s recapitulation, cadenza, and conclusion, the last being an ascending fillip of an arpeggio, the gesture that has saturated this movement. 

Mozart already introduced the idea of adagio through the short segment at the violin’s entrance in the first movement. Now he gives expanded play to that tempo in his second movement. This E-major Adagio is the largest-scaled slow movement in any of his violin concertos and it maintains its sense of quiet grace and introspection throughout. A touch of pathos enters during the chromatic peregrinations of the development section, and when the recapitulation arrives Mozart presents the principal theme as a fleeting canon articulated successively by second violins, first violins, and the solo violin. Inexplicably, Brunetti seems not to have been satisfied with this movement, so Mozart apparently composed a new one for him, in the same key (E major) and tempo (adagio) as the original. That replacement movement is almost never played in the context of the concerto, but it is sometimes programmed as Mozart’s standalone E major Adagio (K.261).

The finale begins as an amiable rondo. The principal theme, in the meter of a minuet, is unassuming. An episode in a minor key has an exotic flavor to it, but not extraordinarily so; it yields to the return of the rondo theme, which this time has a false ending. The music careens into a long, highly spiced episode that earned this concerto its nickname of Turkish. By Mozart’s time, Ottoman-Habsburg wars—between the Turks and the Austrians—had become a habit. The last two decades of the seventeenth century had been largely given over to the “Great Turkish War.” It led to the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in 1699, but that did not put the matter to rest. A “Russo-Austrian-Turkish” War flared up again in 1735-37, and more hostilities lay ahead in the “Austro-Turkish War” of 1787-91 and on into the nineteenth century. One result of this ongoing cultural collision was that the Austrians came in contact with what they called Turkish music, which to them referred to anything emanating from east of Vienna. In fact, they seem to have enjoyed it, to judge from the number of Viennese pieces that incorporate references to Turkish music, almost always in a parodist style filled with swaggering and foot stomping. Mozart’s Turkish music in this finale even has the cellos and double basses turning their bows upside down to hit the strings with the wood rather than the horsehair, yielding a percussive effect. After a considerable workout, the movement returns to the more orderly minuet.

Mozart has written many passages of highly etched character in this work, but he has also taken care to bind everything together into a logical whole. Nothing has helped him achieve this more than the cheerful, rising arpeggio. It was with us at the concerto’s beginning, and, since Mozart uses the same gesture to conclude his rondo theme, it remains with us even in the last notes of the finale.

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Anne-Sophie Mutter,as leader and soloist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) |  Augustin Dumay, leading the Camerata Academica Salzburg (Deutsche Grammophon) | Christian Tetzlaff, leading the German Chamber Philharmonic Bremen (Virgin Classics) | Arabella Steinbacher with Daniel Dodds conducting the Festival String Lucerne (Pentatone)

Reading: Mozart: The Early Years, 1756-1781, by Stanley Sadie (Norton) | Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küster (Oxford University Press) | Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt) | Mozart: A Documentary Biography, by Otto Erich Deutsch (Oxford) | The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe (Cambridge) | The Cambridge Companion to Mozart, edited by Keefe (Cambridge)