Mozart was still a teenager serving the Salzburg court in 1775 when he composed his Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218. He was himself a fairly skilled violinist and there’s a fair bit of evidence that he composed all five of his violin concertos as tests of his own compositional skill and with his own skill as a violinist as the base against which the skill of the soloist was to be measured. But in 1777 Mozart resigned his post in the Salzburg court’s orchestra and his place was taken by a friend Antonio Brunetti who was interested in playing Mozart’s concertos.
Brunetti was a far more skilled violinist than Mozart so Mozart took all five violin concertos (the only ones he was ever to write) and re-worked them revising and updating the solo violin parts and in the case of the fourth and fifth Violin concerti making them far more demanding of the soloist. I think it’s fair to say that this scintillating piece of music with its tricky scoring was a noble gift from the young Mozart to his friend. Its quality is recognised to this day and of all his violin concerti it is this one, above all others, that aspiring concert-level violinists bring to the audition chamber when they want to leave an impression.
Perhaps before going any further I’d better explain why Mozart in common with so many other composers selected D major as the key for this concerto. In D major a properly strung and tuned violin vibrates most freely and the notes ring longest in this key. In K218 whether it’s in the unisons and octaves of the orchestral opening, the way in which the initial entrance of the soloist takes that opening and reworks it two octave higher, or the gloriously rich arpeggios that lead to the recapitulation of the opening Mozart takes this attribute of the instrument and exploits it to the full within the orthodox framework of a fast-slow-fast structure Allegro → Andante cantabile → Rondeau (Andante grazioso – Allegro ma non troppo).
Musicologists often say that it was his third Violin concerto that was the "breakthrough" concerto and when looked at narrowly I can see what they mean but for myself I think I would have to say that it was with this concerto that Mozart effected his true breakthrough. It’s far more extroverted and as I noted above, far more demanding, than its three predecessors. I like the way in which Mozart exploits the attributes of this key on the violin and the playful way in which he refers to the fact that it’s also the traditional key of horns and trumpets by making the opening tutti and the soloist’s first entrance begin with a brass-like fanfare. He never returns to that fanfare choosing instead to recapitulate with the soloist’s secondary melody. The second movement is noted Andante cantabile which translates into English as "Flowing and songlike" which perfectly describes the calmness and simplicity of Mozart’s exposition as it proceeds into the recapitulation. The final movement Rondeau actually consists of two themes we first hear a moderate 2/4 theme which Mozart leaves hanging choosing instead to lead us into a section in a lively 6/8. Half-way through this second section Mozart springs a surprise consisting of a rather stately gavotte which, just to surprise us further, he sets over a drone thereby imitating a musette.1 The concerto concludes with two final iterations of the rondeau’s first theme each of which has a different accompaniment texture fading gently away and leaving wishing for more. Enjoy :-)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Concerto No 4 in D major, K 218
- Andante cantabile
- Rondeau. Andante grazioso – Allegro ma non troppo
- Hilary Hahn – violin. BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis.
- Hilary Hahn – Mozart – Violin Concerto No 4 in D major, K 218 – YouTube. Published on Jul 30, 2013 by Classical Vault 2.
- Musettes were small bagpipes which were popular in France in the 17th and early 18th centuries and spread from there. The versions of the Musette with which Mozart would have been familiar had a second chanter added thereby giving the instrument a range to d”’ – mfi. ↩