Sinfonia concertante, K. 364

Composed by

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart



solo violin, solo viola, 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings

I. Allegro maestoso
II. Andante
III. Presto

Composed 1779.

What is a masterwork? Answers to this question often involve examples, rather than clear definitions. Of Mozart’s works, the Linz Symphony typically makes the list, alongside the Haffner, Prague and Jupiter¬ Symphonies. (If it has a special name and not just a number, then somebody, somewhere probably thinks it’s a masterwork.) Like the Haffner and Prague, the Symphony No. 36 was written at the height of Mozart’s career in Vienna (1782-1786), where he was far happier than in his hometown of Salzburg. Mozart loved Vienna, and Vienna, for the most part, loved him back. So, it is perhaps not surprising that this mutual affinity inspired a period of intense creativity for Mozart, including three symphonies written with astounding speed—the Linz Symphony took only four or five days to complete. In some ways, this seeming haste or capriciousness contradicts our idea of a masterwork. We more readily think of an ailing Mozart laboring over the Requiem, an image fostered in no small degree by the movie “Amadeus”. But that definition of a masterwork, as one sanctified by noble effort and yielding a musical monument that should stand for eternity, leaves out much of the most beautiful, and indeed masterful, music Mozart wrote.

Together, the Divertimento in D K. 136 and the Sinfonia concertante show Mozart’s early mastery over conventional forms and hints of the ingenuity to come. Normally an unassuming work in several brief movements of varying characters, the divertimento was meant to be background music for conversation, dining, or other diversions. At their best, divertimenti are entertaining, but are required only to be pleasant. The concise Divertimento in D, though, is more of a small symphony (three movement symphonies were not unusual at the time) and Mozart handles it with a greater degree of care than other composers would. The singing Allegro of the first movement is utterly galant—elegant in its simplicity—and is a small but perfectly cast sonata form. The Andante fulfills the standard role of minuet and trio, albeit in miniature. Mozart invests this movement with details that reward closer listening, like the moments in which the first violin sustains a single tone, floating free above the rest of the texture as the other voices carry on. The Presto is the simplest of the three movements, as if Mozart knows he has done enough and is content to waive a cheerful farewell to the audience.

As one might expect from its name, the Sinfonia concertante in E-flat, K. 364 is both symphonic in character and has a violin and viola soloists, in the manner of a double concerto. However, concertante also meant to play “in concert” among a mixed group of instruments, and Mozart writes in this more conversational vein as well. Each of the winds has a distinctive voice in addition to the two soloists, sometimes playing along with them colla parte and other times interjecting their own phrases. The range of timbres Mozart creates through these combinations would provide interest enough, even without remarkable passages like the cadenza at the end of the first movement, which requires equal measures of virtuosity and sensitivity. Mozart’s writing in this symphonic concerto was inspired by his travels, first to Munich and Mannheim in 1777, then on to Paris in 1778, where he wrote the Symphony no. 3 (the Paris Symphony). The coup d’archet at the beginning of the Sinfonia recalls the symphonic fashion of Paris, with sudden fortissimo chords for the whole orchestra, a gesture that could be traced back to Lully. Similarly, the prominent solos for winds are crafted to Parisian taste. Having lost his mother to illness in Paris, and with tension growing between him and his father, Mozart dawdled on his way back to Salzburg, returning instead to Mannheim. Making excuses to his father, he vowed:

“I swear to you on my honour that I cannot bear Salzburg or its inhabitants… Please believe me that I have the most aching longing to embrace you and my sister once more. If only it was not in Salzburg.”

He had other reasons to stay in Mannheim, though, both romantic and musical. In the end, Aloysia Weber was rather cool toward young Mozart, so his fascination with the Mannheim orchestra—the “army of generals” as Charles Burney called it—was the more productive. Even though the Divertimento was written after his return to Salzburg, the technical demands placed on both soloists as well as the prominence of the winds are better suited to the orchestras of Paris and Mannheim. In the Sinfonia concertante we can hear Mozart working out the potential in all he had heard on his journey, in perhaps the only genre of the time with enough flexibility to make room for his musings.

After touring the symphonic world, from Paris, to Mannheim, to Vienna, Mozart both understood the formal demands of the symphony and knew how to satisfy concert audiences hungry for novelty. He was fluent in long-standing Germanic traditions of counterpoint and keyboard performance, but also familiar with up-to-the-minute quirks of musical fashion, whether Parisian or Viennese. With the Linz Symphony, he mastered the genre. The Adagio introduction to the first movement had become popular with symphonies of Haydn, but Mozart interprets this convention freely, cramming in three contrasts of emotion in what is normally a single-affect space. The majestic dotted rhythms and the presence of the timpani at the opening might signal a French-style overture—a noble sound—but the triple meter doesn’t fit the type and the bass line wanders through chromatic harmonies. This music is too intemperate for the demands of a staid procession and sounds more like an improvised fantasia—a style by then decades out of date. The violins then enter with a lyric melody over a throbbing background in the low strings. This striking change of mood yields all too quickly to drooping, darkly shaded solos from the oboe and bassoon, while the urgency of the pulsing accompaniment increases, as if something fateful is about to occur. The brisk, straightforward march that follows is a surprise, despite the fact that it should have been predictable. The introduction must always yield to an Allegro, but the character was not what we were led to expect. Mozart continues by playing with the standard sonata form as well. The march persists through the transition to what ought to be a singing second theme, as we keep waiting for the lyrical turn that never arrives. Instead, we receive a gavotte that, with its forte punctuation from the oboes and violins (oboes in the eighteenth century definitely being instruments for the outdoors), matches the energy level of the march. This dance from Brittany, popularized in French courts of the seventeenth century, involves crossing feet, hopping, and jumping—far from the graceful cantabile of most second themes. In this movement, Mozart mixes the esoteric fantasia with more recent trends, like the slow introduction, and overturns the standard sonata form with his puckish gavotte. He knows how a symphony should be written, but he makes free with convention, by turns captivating and surprising his audience.

The oddities continue in the second movement siciliano, which bows to the fashion in Vienna for slow or stately second movements. However, the orchestration for full wind band (oboes, horns, and trumpets) in addition to the strings makes for an unusually heavy Andante. While this might suit the character of the rustic Italian dance, the fateful interjections from horns and timpani are an unexpected touch. The prevailing mood is oddly dark, as it remains mostly in the minor mode, with only fleeting passages in major, like rays of light through shadows. While melancholy is not uncommon in the slow movements of symphonies, this is a strangely somber siciliano. By contrast, the Minuetto is brief and comparatively bland. All is in order as the outer minuet sections mirror each other, equally dignified, while the middle trio passage is lighter in its scoring and more pastoral in character, with woodwinds doubling a simple melody in the strings. Having conditioned us to expect something unconventional, Mozart manages to surprise us with normality.

The fourth movement is a return to type as Mozart vies with Haydn for supremacy in the “country dance” finale. The exuberant Presto, often a contredanse in either composer’s works at this point in time, is as rustic as the siciliano. However, where such finales were often a rondo form, with a catchy repeating refrain, Mozart chooses here to cast the dance as a sonata form. This lends weight to the finale and was a tactic Mozart would repeat in the Prague and Jupiter Symphonies. Yet the movement is still light on its feet, punctuated by rests that form clear phrases, in contrast to the headlong rush of some of Haydn’s contredanses. Mozart did not manifest the heroic artistic struggle that many associate with the ideal of a masterwork. His mastery is of a more casual sort—worn as lightly as the abundant lace of Parisian fashion, and clever enough to be bold without shocking the finely honed senses of his Viennese patrons and audiences.

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