In 1799, the 23-year-old Mozart was under contract to his patron Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg, which the restless young composer viewed as little less than an imprisonment. He longed to break free from the archbishop’s rigid restrictions, and was permitted to embark on a tour of Paris and Mannheim. In the latter city Mozart was enthralled by the sinfonia concertante then in vogue, concertos for multiple soloists rather than one. Back in Salzburg, Mozart composed his own Sinfonia Concertante in emulation of what he heard. The work was a turning point in his career, embodying the distinctive blend of virtuosic display and profound expression emblematic of the composer’s mature style. Not long afterward, Mozart was dismissed from his post in Salzburg and granted freedom to pursue the music he wished.
The work is famous for its timbral sensitivity, the brightness of the violins complemented with the darker hues of the violas. The dividing of the viola section adds to the orchestra’s richness. Even more remarkable is Mozart’s direction to employ scordatura in the solo viola, tuning it a semitone sharper. This produces a more brilliant tone, both through the increased tension on the strings as well as the resonance of the viola’s open strings.
The Sinfonia Concertante is in three movements, adhering to the conventional fast-slow-fast structure of the Classical period. The Allegro maestoso is characterized by its spirited opening theme presented by the orchestra, the dotted rhythm referencing the rhythmic practices of the music Mozart encountered in Mannheim. Also influenced by this tour is the famous Mannheim Crescendo at the end of the introduction, a truly spectacular effect in a musical climate used to the simple terraced dynamics of the Baroque era. The subsequent Andante echoes with the lamenting arias of the opera stage. The plaintive violin and the consoling viola suggest an operatic duet, and the emotional depth of the movement has been interpreted by Maynard Solomon as embodying Mozart’s reaction to the recent death of his mother. The concluding Rondo is a tour de force of energy and exuberance, a joyous theme sparking a lively exchange between the soloists and the orchestra. Mozart’s penchant for melodic invention is evident in the playful themes that unfold, with the violin and viola taking turns to embellish and develop the material. The movement gathers momentum, building to a brilliant finale that showcases the combined talents of soloists and orchestra.