Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major for Violin, Viola and Orchestra

by Andrew Filmer

When one listens to a symphony or a concerto, one listens to a musical legacy stretching back hundreds of years. But there is a difference between listening to those and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante: quite simply, people still compose symphonies and concerti, but the sinfonia concertante is very much a genre of the past, like the concerto grosso of the baroque period, or just perhaps, the boy bands of the ‘90s before the ascent of the American Idol generation.

The sinfonia concertante, also known in French as the symphonie concertant, has its roots in two different areas, the “sinfonia” or symphonic section, as well as the “concertante” of the soloists. In this sense, the orchestra does not act quite as much as an accompaniment as it does as a symphonic ensemble in its own musical right. First, the themes heard in the opening orchestral exposition are their own musical property, with soloists having entirely independent themes and melodies. Before the orchestral exposition comes to a full harmonic close, as would be most Mozart violin concerti, there comes the silky, and almost sly entrance of the soloists often being described as coming “from a dream”. Soon after, the concertante element of the work is firmly asserted, with energetic themes from the violin and viola soloists. And once both symphonic and concerto aspects are audibly defined, Mozart goes on to establish these two musical worlds as being one layered whole, with bright interplays between the soloists combined with the elegant melodies in the orchestra. The first of two cadenzas has two different sections, the second sounding almost reminiscent of the initial solo entries at the beginning of the work, before the orchestra steps in to conclude the movement, almost as if harmonically completing their own initial exposition.

Some scholars propose that the Italian word concerto in the sense of “battle” suggested that the soloist or soloists would dominate the orchestra in that genre, and that distinguishes this sinfonia concertante in its cooperative and symbiotic symphonic element. Nonetheless, contrasted to the first movement, the orchestration seems to take a step back in the second and the third. In the second, even the viola seems to step from the violin, with every entrance given to the latter instrument. Of all three movements, the second seems to have the largest range of performance speeds, from that of a dark encasement to that of steady reflection – in either case, a level of depth unusual for works of the genre in Mozart’s era, which were more generally intended as light music for the aristocracy.

If the operatic nature of Mozart’s writing is not already evident from the previous aria-esque movement, the dramatic general pauses (where total silence prevails for a quick bar) will cement it in the final movement. Mozart chose to leave the brightest technical callisthenics for the very end in sprightly arpeggios and scales upwards the fingerboards, in what seems to be adding pressure to the soloists by taking the orchestra completely out in the toughest of these parts.

A final note of interest is the unique tuning of the viola.  The viola in the way Mozart first performed it was tuned a semitone higher so that the strings are now tighter and brighter. This method is called “scordatura”, quite literally, “mistuning” the viola. Essentially now a transposing instrument, the viola is at times given the option of open strings to add different hues to the music, and the timbre of the instrument better matches the solo violin. In addition, one often overlooked element is that there is one slightly hidden chord in the cadenza of the first movement that can authentically be played only in the scordatura tuning, which either has to be split of altered in the regular tuning of the instrument. Further research by Andrew Filmer has produced an extended scordatura with the lowest string up a further semitone, bring out further resonances at key areas, and matching fingering with the violin at others.

This opus combines an almost epic musical story, laced with Mozart’s classic humour in often sprightly solo lines. One can only imagine what the young Wolfgang could have done if he had lived long enough to complete his other sinfonia concertante for violin, viola, cello and orchestra. Nonetheless, he has indeed gifted music lovers everywhere with his double violin concertone, a recently reconstructed double concerto for violin and piano, the Serenata Notturna with modest solos for two violins and viola, two violin-viola duos, a possible (albeit unauthenticated) concertante for winds, the ever delicious flute and harp concerto, and this, the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major.


3 responses

16 11 2009
Rev. Diane S. Nagorka, Ph.D

Your notes on the “Symphonia Cpncertante for Winds”, are very helpful to me in preparing the pre-concert talk ( April 2010), for the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra. Some of the pieces chosen are seldom played and it is useful to find a good source written by a knowledge individual.

Diane Nagorka

5 02 2012
Jane Postlethwaite

Thank you for these notes. Very interesting. Am preparing to perform the piece with my husband on violin (myself on viola) in a few weeks time. What a wonderful viola part it is too! Wish me luck.

2 05 2014
Mike Zhai

Very well written notes on all aspects of this work. Thanks!

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