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:
Five Great Recordings
- Mozart: Sinfonia concertante in E-Flat Major, K. 364, Iona Brown, Lars Anders Tomter, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra Chandos.net
- Julia Fischer and Gordan Nikolic with Yakov Kreizberg, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra
- Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra
- Maxim Vengerov and Lawrence Power and the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra
- Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yuri Bashmet with the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Featured Image: modern architecture in Mozart’s native Salzburg, “Jewels of Salzburg” (2014) by Hariri & Hariri Architecture