Adagio in E major, K. 261
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Length: c. 5 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 horns, strings, and solo violin
First LA Phil performance: May 13, 1977, Sidney Harth, conductor and violinist
In his early years, Mozart performed on the violin as often as on the keyboard. In 1769, when he was 13, he was given the title of Concertmaster of the Salzburg chapel, and though the title carried no salary with it and may have been largely ceremonial, he continued to appear as a violin soloist until he was in his 20s. A number of the serenades he wrote as a teenager in Salzburg contain concerted movements for violin and orchestra, and on his frequent tours throughout Europe in the 1770s he played the violin in his many concerts to impress audiences, including aristocrats who might offer him a suitably lucrative and prestigious job. In 1777, on tour in Munich, he wrote to his father that he had played one of those movements. “Everyone was amazed. I played as if I were the greatest violinist in Europe.”
“It does not surprise me in the least,” Leopold wrote back. “You yourself don‘t know how well you play the violin.” This was high praise indeed, since Leopold considered himself an authority on violin playing, and so did nearly everyone else: his Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing, first published the year Wolfgang was born, was for half a century the most important book on how to play and teach violin.
However, Mozart’s career as a violinist is hard to trace. If he was, in fact, supposed to be the principal violinist in the Salzburg musical establishment, he was gone far too much of the time to fulfill those duties well. When Heironymus Colloredo was elected Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg in 1772, he brought with him an acquired taste for Italian music and style (which in the 1770s was, on the whole, less serious than music in northern parts) and hired a number of Italian musicians, including the violinist Antonio Brunetti.
The Mozarts did not much like Brunetti. Wolfgang thought him boorish and crude, while Leopold, a man much given to moralizing, found Brunetti morally objectionable. Brunetti’s fathering a daughter out of wedlock with Michael Haydn’s sister-in-law was one of the juicier scandals in the Salzburg court.
Both the Adagio in E, K. 261, and the Rondo in C, K. 373, were written for Brunetti. The Adagio was composed in 1776 as a substitute second movement for Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto, because Brunetti, probably confirming Mozart’s worst opinions of Italian taste, found the original slow movement too serious and learned. The Rondo was written for one of the musical evenings that Archbishop Colloredo hosted when he and much of his court, including Mozart and Brunetti, were on an extended visit to Vienna in 1781. The Archbishop used such entertainments to show that his smallish court was not as provincial as the Viennese elite might think. He refused to permit Mozart to give concerts of his own, either out of concern that such exposure would dilute the effect of the Archbishop’s own entertainments, or because he feared that it would allow Mozart to establish himself in the employ of some high-ranking Viennese aristocrat, and leave Salzburg for good. (Colloredo was no fool: Mozart was looking to do precisely that.) As it happened, the Archbishop’s refusal to allow Mozart to pursue outside opportunities was the last straw; Mozart resigned from his service in mid-1781 and made Vienna his home for the rest of his life.
— Howard Posner