Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Concerto Guide: Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216

In 1775, while still living in Salzburg and in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg, Mozart wrote five concertos for violin. He was nineteen at the time and had already written quite a number of concertos. I believe that Mozart is unique among composers in being a virtuoso not only on the piano, but also on the violin and viola. In fact, I suspect that he is the only composer to have written concertos for three different instruments for his own use! Other composers have written concertos for a wide variety of solo instruments: but they did not perform them themselves.

Another remarkable thing about the violin concertos is that Mozart wrote not just one, but five, all of them likely in the same year (though there is some manuscript evidence that the first violin concerto might have been written a couple of years before). And apart from the Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra, written four years later, he never wrote another violin concerto. For the rest of his life, he largely focused on providing piano concertos, mostly for his own use. (I might talk about the variety of concertos for wind instruments in a separate post.)

I'm going to just talk about the Concerto No. 3 in G major, letting it stand for all five. As is standard, there are three movements: Allegro, in 4/4, G major, Adagio, also 4/4, D major and a Rondeau finale, allegro, again in G major, 3/8. The wonderful thing about the Classical era is that they could follow a specific set of stylistic conventions, while at the same time creatively using these conventions. We can look at the opening phrase of the first movement for examples:

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This first page contains eleven measures which, luckily, is also the whole first phrase. The phrase starts of with a four-measure section ending with a half-cadence on the dominant. This is how a period would normally begin. Typically, it would continue with the basic idea of the first two measures, then a contrasting idea and close with a full cadence. We do get the full cadence, but it comes on the downbeat of measure eleven. What Mozart does in the consequent of the period is give us entirely new material and then extend what might have been a cadence in measure eight for three more measures. He arrives at an eleven measure period, in other words, by expanding the consequent by three measures. There is another interesting dynamic inflection. In the very first measure there is a syncopated rhythm that would normally be accented (syncopations normally receive accents). But Mozart gives the first note forte and the syncopation piano which gives the opening a graceful charm. So, from the very beginning Mozart does a number of things that are unexpected and lend the music a special atmosphere. Where Haydn would use a minimum of material, Mozart tends to use an abundance. The magic with Haydn is in all the variety he gets out of his material; the magic with Mozart is how he makes all the abundance fit together so inevitably.

Let's look at the beginning phrase of the adagio for comparison. This is laid out as a conventional period, but divided between the orchestra and soloist. The orchestra begins with a four measure antecedent ending with a half cadence on A:

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This takes us to the first measure on the second page. Then the violin enters with the same basic idea as the orchestra had, but an octave higher and ornamented. But at the end of its four measure consequent, there is a perfect authentic cadence (middle of measure 8).

I don't think we need to analyze every measure to get the general idea. So let's listen. Here is a gala performance with Hilary Hahn, violin and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony conducted by Gustavo Dudamel in a birthday concert for Pope Benedict XVI:


Rickard Dahl said...

A question popped into my mind (while listening to Shostakovich's 7th String Quartet, just random info (I read this post earlier today and I guess it popped into my mind as I noticed that some of the motifs seemed to repeat between the various movements (ofc the movement transitions are fluid and it's more like 1 movement with 4 different main sections))). You mention that Haydn tended to use a minimum of materials while Mozart tended to use an abundance. Which of these approaches (minimum of material vs abundance) would you say is the more common approach amongst great composers? What would you say Shostakovich's approach or Schubert's approach was for instance? I suppose it can be an interesting topic for a post.

Bryan Townsend said...

I wrote about the String Quartet No. 7 by Shostakovich in this post:


There are a number of themes that are related in complex ways: various types of anapest rhythmic cells, for example. I should go back and do a more thorough examination of the quartet. But your idea for a post is a great one! I have a general idea about how Shostakovich works. At least in the quartets, he tends to have a particular kind of melodic or rhythmic cell that, transformed in various ways, acts as a kind of link across movements. Schubert I'm not sure of...