Divertimento in F Major, K. 138

            Mozart’s genius surfaced early, not only as a precocious performer, but as a composer, as well.  His father was a successful court musician in their hometown of Salzburg, but he certainly was not above bolstering the family finances by sharing little Wolfgang’s talents with the greater musical world.  As a result Mozart’s life early on was punctuating with a series of grand tours, wherein he met the rich and talented and wowed them with his own gifts.  Several lengthy Italian tours were major events in the young composer’s life, and entertainingly documented in his letters home.  We must remember, notwithstanding the tendency to regard Vienna as an outpost of Germany, Austria’s geographical location has always made Italian art and musical style a fundamental component of its own artistic life. There’s good reason that all of those great operas that we love by Mozart are in Italian!

            In 1772, the sixteen-year old youth and his father had recently returned to Salzburg after their second trip to Italy, and were recuperating, anticipating the advent of a third.  Three divertimentos were composed during this hiatus, and were possibly written with the idea of taking them along on the next trip to be handed out to members of whatever court they were visiting—to entertain and bear witness to the talent of the young Mozart.  And while they are captivating evidence of Mozart’s mastery of instrumental ensemble composition--and his equal command of Italian musical style—the works have always been a bit of a puzzle with regard to what exactly they are.   Mozart called them “divertimenti,” a common genre, denoting a light ensemble work of several movements, intended to entertain at festive, generally outdoor, venues.  However, for various reasons, scholars and others have regarded them as “symphonies,” string quartets, or other things.  Not without good reason, though.  Most divertimentos have more than the three movements we have here.  On the other hand, most early Italian symphonies (young Mozart’s models) included parts for pairs of oboes and horns.  The presence or absence of what later became the requisite minuet movement in symphonies and string quartets comes into the argument, as well.  Were these three divertimenti intended to be played by only four people—one to a part, or by a small orchestra?  Ambiguity abounds for those inclined to focus on historical details.  Ultimately, the truth is somewhat simpler:  These three works, regardless of the number of movements and intended players, and whether called divertimentos, strings quartets, or Italianate symphonies, are just what they are:  marvelous early examples of Mozart’s music.  Youthful though they may be, they are tuneful, delightful, and perfect—as with everything that he wrote.

            The third “divertimento,” like its companions, is in three movements in the usual fast-slow-fast sequence.  Even though this work can easily be thought of as intended for only four players, it certainly sounds “symphonic,” which is why these three divertimentos are sometimes called the “Salzburg Symphonies.”  The cheerfully bustling first movement has a simple theme, played in unison, opening like so many contemporaneous works.  What is of real interest, though, are the intense and creative harmonies that characterize the middle section, as well as the “seams” of the movement.  They bear unmistakable evidence of the harmonic richness and invention of the mature composer, and constitute a large portion of the interest in this movement.   As an aside, it may be pointed out, that even in this early work, Mozart’s impeccable sense of musical architecture is in the fore.  The attentive listener just “senses” where in the movement one is, and how long before the “arch” is complete. In the following Andante the first violins carry the melodic interest, but are sustained with a web of rhythmic activity and interesting dissonances from the other voices that, again, makes this more than just another movement with a winsome melody.  The last movement, like so many light Italian ensemble works of the time, is a jolly rondo, meaning the main tune entertains by returning with comforting familiarity, but surrounded by a succession of diverting and contrasting moods and keys.

            Youthful works by great composers vary in their quality—but, let’s face it, this is Mozart, and it’s worth careful attention.  He may have been only sixteen, but his immortal genius, charm, and skill is all in evidence.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan