Violin Concerto No. 3, K. 216
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 8, 1935, Alfred Hertz conducting, with soloist Yehudi Menuhin
All of Mozart’s five authentic violin concertos belong to the same year, 1775, and they precede all but one of the piano concertos. In his maturity – if we except the wonderful Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, K. 364 – Mozart showed no interest in string concertos and was always curiously negligent of the cello as a solo instrument. We have to be grateful that these five violin concertos exist at all, the G-major Concerto being the third of the set. The last three, at least, are early testimony to the greatness of which no one at that date could have yet been aware.
Mozart, then 19 years old, was Konzertmeister at the Salzburg court. He wrote the concertos for his fellow-violinist Gaetano Brunetti, doubtless for performance at court. The scoring is light and the solo writing gracefully ornate. The three-movement form is standard, although in this work and the A-major Concerto, K. 219 (the last of the set), like the Piano Concerto in E-flat, K. 271, Mozart fills out the finale with enchanting diversions.
The first theme of the opening movement is borrowed from an aria in Mozart’s most recent opera, Il ré pastore, seen in Salzburg a few months earlier. It is hard to suppose he might ever have been short of ideas, since his melodies are prodigally lavished on every movement; more likely that he was struck by the violinistic idiom of the phrase and wished to give it a better setting.
The second movement’s opening holds back accompaniment until the most expressive note of the phrase, a stroke of perfect judgment. Muted inner strings emphasize the serenity of the solo line. A cadenza marks the close, as in the previous movement.
The finale is a lively dance in triple meter, much of it reduced to the simplest textures as though the bass part was missing. Two interpolations intrude: the first is an elegant gavotte of briefest span in the minor key; sustained oboes, as always in Mozart, provide a certificate of high quality. There follows a folksy section, like a glimpse of Papageno, with some prominent inner drones, before the rondo theme returns. The tune is itself of Alsatian origin, so when, two years later, Mozart wrote to his father describing an informal concert he had given in the Heiligkreuz Monastery near Augsburg he could say: “In the evening at supper I played my Strasbourg Concerto, which went very smoothly. Everyone praised my beautiful pure tone.” This does not explain his reasons for including the tune in the Concerto, but it does remind us that Mozart was a fine violinist as well as being a peerless keyboard player. In keeping with its unpredictable character the movement ends not with the usual orchestral flourish but with the acknowledgement that the winds have by now earned the right to close the work on their own.