Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-flat major, K. 364

The Symphonie Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart originated during a concert tour the composer made in Europe, which included Mannheim and Paris. The history of this work, so popular and favourite with everyone, is widely known. It is also known that Mozart eventually did not get to hear it in his lifetime. In 1779, Mozart’s favourite violinist – Ignaz Fränzl – was soloist of the famous Mannheim Orchestra. Learning that an “Academie des amateurs” was about to be organized in Mannheim and inspired by his friends, Mozart immediately began composing for them two Concert Symphonies (Symphonies concertantes), that is, symphonies featuring groups of solo instruments. The work on the symphonie concertante for violin and viola went especially quickly and with great flair, and this is hardly surprising: it was expected to be performed by amazing musicians and matchless virtuoso soloists! But … the news suddenly arrived of the disbanding of the orchestra and the transference of Elector Maximilian Josef’s court to Munich. The invaluable concert symphony remained useless. This extremely beautiful Mozart work is cast in three movements and scored for solo violin, solo viola, two oboes, two horns, and strings featuring a divided viola section, which accounts for the work’s lush harmony. There also exists an arrangement with the viola part replaced by a cello. The solo viola part is written in D major instead of E-flat, requiring the performing instrument to be tuned a semitone sharper. This technique, which aims to lend a more brilliant sound to the viola, is unusual for modern instruments and therefore, most of the times the Symphonie Concertante is performed, the usage of original instruments is called for.

The Symphonie concertante in E-flat major by Mozart has attracted great interest from various authors who have used it as a base for transcriptions. It has also been used in a number of films, the most significant of which, of course, is Milos Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus. The Symphonie concertante was mentioned in William Styron’s 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, where Sophie, an immigrant to New York, hears the Symphonie concertante on the radio, which unlocks childhood memories from her native Kraków and helps her  out of her depression. Variations on the slow second movement were used for the soundtrack to the 1988 Peter Greenaway film Drowning by Numbers by composer Michael Nyman. American composer and bass player, Edgar Meyer also showed interest in the Symphonie concertante in 1995, when he wrote his Concerto for Cello, Double-Bass and Orchestra. Although quite different in style, this concerto very much resembles the structure of Mozart’s Symphonie concertante.

The Symphonie concertante is one of the few works by Mozart where all cadenzas to the different movements were written out by the author himself.

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