Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219 (“Turkish”)

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            Visitors to the small, sparse museum located in the putative home of the Mozarts in Salzburg will see a glass display case containing the little violin of the young Wolfgang.   And it reminds us of the centrality of the violin in Mozart’s younger days.  His father, Leopold, was the author of the most celebrated tutor for the violin in the eighteenth century .   Little Wolfgang was his prize pupil, and his performances on the violin were a mainstay of his celebrity during all those barnstorming tours as a child.  A little older, and back home in Salzburg, Mozart led the little court orchestra as a virtuoso concertmaster.  In 1775, at the age of nineteen, Mozart composed all five of his violin concertos, for own use, of course.  Though composed rather quickly in succession, each concerto shows growing mastery of the genre, culminating in the important A Major concerto.  In many respects it is his swansong for the violin, for after leaving Salzburg for Vienna a few years later, he never again played the violin in any significant situations, preferring to play the viola in private music making with his friends.

            The A Major concerto is perhaps the best violin concerto of the latter half of the eighteen century, and probably the most frequently played violin concerto.  It certainly merits the attention, for this is a work that marks Mozart’s emerging mature style in every way.  In the first movement Mozart’s imagination comes to the fore immediately, for  upon the entrance of the soloist, the whole atmosphere of the movement changes for a bit, as the bustling tempo of the orchestra is replaced by a brief slow passage of considerable gravitas for the soloist.  The faster tempo resumes, but in the middle of the movement, we encounter darkly colored excursions in minor keys and somber emotion.  This is rather typical of music from this period in Mozart’s life, and some listeners may remember similar passages in his so-called “Little G Minor” symphony from the same period.  The middle movement is predictably a lyrical one, simply of exquisite beauty.

            It is the last movement that gives the concerto its moniker, and starts out as a fairly conventional dance (it’s a minuet) in a form in which the main idea alternates with other contrasting ideas.   But, it is in the contrasting section that occurs just before the last statement of our familiar main theme that Mozart “drops the bomb.”  For this surprise he recycles a kind of “Turkish” march from an earlier opera, “The Jealous Harem Women.”  It’s different in every way:  tempo, meter, mood, culture—you name it.  So-called “Turkish” music was all the rage, then, in Vienna, owing to the threat to the city by the Turks for centuries (museums in the city, today, are full of artifacts from the wars).  All of the major composers wrote pieces with what the Viennese thought of as Turkish qualities:  cymbals, drums, triangles, piccolo, thumping bass lines, etc.  You will remember Beethoven’s use of the conceit in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony.  Well, it comes as a complete surprise, here, rather like an uninvited drunken guest at the party, and it’s all great fun.  The basses enhance the effect of tomfoolery by striking the strings with the wooden part of their bows.  Just when things seem out of control, the graceful minuet returns and all’s put right.   Surprising, the movement ends quietly, almost with a sigh, not apologetically, but definitely rather like conciliatory relief.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan