It was early 1779, and Mozart was relatively miserable. At age 23, (middle aged based upon the life expectancy at the time), he was long past being the celebrated child prodigy who had been dragged all over Europe by his father, performing countless concerts for royalty. Faced at age 17 with the reality of having to actually earn a living, he had endured 4 years as a low paid court musician in his hometown of Salzburg. Frustrated with the lack of opportunities there, he had resigned at age 21 and embarked on a journey with his mother, hoping to find higher paying work in another European capital. Extended stays in Augsburg, Paris, Mannheim and Munich had failed to yield a permanent position however, and he soon found himself frustrated and heavily in debt. Just when he thought things could not get any worse, his mother died suddenly, leaving Mozart devastated and with little choice other than to head home to Salzburg. He returned to the same court he had left, this time in a slightly higher paying position, and resumed life in a city and a job where he was bored and depressed.
How extraordinary then that one of the first works he composed after his return was one of the most beautiful and emotionally poignant pieces he had written to that point, one which showcased his love not only for the violin, for which he had already written five concertos, but also for his beloved viola. Mozart’s prowess at the keyboard was well known, and he also played the violin expertly. His preferred string instrument to play however was the viola, and when performing chamber music, he frequently chose this often-overlooked “middle voice” of the string family. The origin of the Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola is unknown. There are no records of Mozart having been commissioned to write it. Most likely is that he composed it to play with his violinist father, which makes this work from the “world-weary” 23-year-old an even more personal musical statement.
As the title suggests, the Sinfonia concertante is a kind of hybrid combination of a symphony and a concerto. This particular form of “double concerto” was extremely popular at the time in the cities that Mozart had visited on his tour, and he was undoubtedly inspired during the trip to try his hand at the genre. In addition to this work, he also wrote a concerto for flute and harp, a concerto for two pianos, and another sinfonia concertante for four wind instruments, all within a two-year period.
The first movement, Allegro maestoso is, as the name suggests, a majestic affair. The orchestral introduction features horns and oboes in prominent roles, adding to the grandeur of the sound. When the two soloists enter, they appear almost magically from within the orchestra’s sound, sneaking in on a long extended Eb to take over the spotlight. It is immediately apparent that Mozart views the violin and viola as equal partners, giving each the opportunity to introduce new melodies first, only to be echoed by the other. Both soloists get ample time as the center of attention, and the cadenza at the end of the movement, written out by Mozart, provides the audience the chance to hear the unique sounds and personalities of the two instruments clearly. In an unusual move, Mozart actually wrote the viola part in D major and asks the violist to tune their strings up one-half step, presumably to brighten the sound of the viola and make it more competitive with that of the violin. Modern day violists generally ignore the instruction to retune their instruments however, preferring instead to spotlight and revel in the darker and richer timbre of their instrument.
The second movement Andante is a darkly expressive, incredibly melancholy movement. Mozart’s biographers have speculated that the wistful, elegiac music may have been influenced by Mozart’s grief at the recent loss of his mother. Here the two soloists share the pathos, feeding off of each other like two friends reflecting on a mutual sadness. The mood brightens considerably in the final Presto which is a good-humored Rondo as peppy and cheerful as the Andante was sad and wistful. The soloists trade moments of great virtuosity and the horns and oboes are back to add some extra sparkle to the party. Mozart may have been at a low point in his personal life, but it’s clear that his capacity for joyous music making was still intact. The violinists, violists and audiences of the past 240 years have been eternally grateful.