Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra: A Sublime Hybrid

Listen to the instrumental music of Mozart, and you may hear the unfolding of a virtual opera without words.

Transcending mere vocal virtuosity, Mozart’s greatest operas offer layers of character development and dramatic sophistication. The instrumental lines of the orchestra rise to new prominence and engage with the voices onstage to create a magically enhanced drama. The literal reality of the story meets a deeper poetic reality. Boundaries are blurred and musical lines interweave to create a glorious “whole.”

Mozart had yet to write his most notable operas when he composed the Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat Major, K. 364 in 1779. Yet, this is a piece which is filled with operatic drama. A daring fusion of the symphony and the concerto, it presents the solo violin and viola as equals in a sublime musical conversation. As the soulful viola meets its flashier and more extroverted counterpart, two distinct and endearing personas come into focus. At the time this music was written, the 23-year-old Mozart had fled the confines of Salzburg to embark on a concert tour of Europe which included Mannheim and Paris. Soon after, this burst of artistic freedom cost Mozart his employment in Salzburg, and he relocated permanently to Vienna.

Listening to this music, we are reminded of Mozart’s deep affection for the viola. Although he was an exceptional violinist, Mozart gravitated to the inner voices of the viola when playing string quartets. Throughout the Sinfonia Concertante, the orchestral viola part is frequently divided, as if to celebrate the warmth and richness of these inner lines. In order to achieve more brilliance through higher string tension, Mozart wrote the solo viola part in D major and requested that the strings be tuned a semitone higher. Due to improvements in tonal power, this scordatura  technique is seldom used in modern performances.

In the eighteenth century, Mannheim was famous for a series of musical innovations which included the Mannheim Rocket (a rapidly ascending arpeggio line), the Mannheim Sigh (accentuated weight on the first note of a two-note slur), and the Mannheim Roller (an extended crescendo with a rising melodic line over an ostinato bass). The first movement’s orchestral introduction includes one of the most thrilling examples of the latter ever conceived (1:27), with a breathlessly anticipation-filled upward rising crescendo. While cadenzas at the time were usually improvised by the performers, the cadenzas which close the Sinfonia Concertante’s first and second movements were written out by Mozart. They resemble the kind of vocal cadenza which might close an operatic duet.

The second movement moves to a veiled C minor. It is an intimate conversation filled with tenderness, melancholy, and mystery. We venture deeply into the mystical and indescribable world which exists beyond the most competently drafted opera libretto. The conversation unfolds through a seemingly unending melodic stream.

The concluding Presto brings the joyful celebration of an operatic finale. The solo violin and viola enter into a fun-loving competition of virtuosity and imitation. It’s a game played by equals, in which each seems to be saying, “I can do anything you can do!”

I. Allegro maestoso:

II. Andante:

III. Presto:

Five Great Recordings

Featured Image: modern architecture in Mozart’s native Salzburg, “Jewels of Salzburg” (2014) by Hariri & Hariri Architecture

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

5 thoughts on “Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra: A Sublime Hybrid”

  1. I would like to recommend another superb recording of Mozart’s K364 from EMI in which the father and son David and Igor Iostrakh perform with Berlin PO. It is coupled with Concertone. Their performance is impeccable and judicious and the recorded sound quality is natural with proper presence of all instruments as well as width and dept. This performance was reissued several time in the past.

    • Excellent recommendation, Satid. I’ve also heard the Iona Brown recording that Gramophone magazine is so fond of praising, but I believe the Oistrakh recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is the superior effort.

  2. I’m glad I discovered your blog. I love your writing and I think it will help me find new music and better understand old favorites like Mozart’s Sinfonia. I happened to also attend the University of Rochester for a masters in optics (I took voice lessons for a while from an Eastman grad student). I’ve been a singer-songwriter for many years and recently have expanded into orchestral composition with sample libraries. In retirement, I’m trying to overcome my lack of formal musical training, and blogs like yours can really help. Thank you!

  3. Somehow the remarkable performances of Josef Suk never seem to be appreciated. His performances of the Sinfonia Concertante (as a violinist and as a violist) capture the beauty, the drama, and the sublime. But, he is almost always overlooked.


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