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David M. Greene

Exploring Music: Mozart's Elevation of the Violin

Exploring Music: Mozart's Elevation of the Violin

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As I was about to say last time when I was so rudely interrupted by the end of the Review, Mozart was not writing in one of the golden ages of the violin. A century earlier, when it superseded the viol as the leading bowed instrument in Europe, virtuoso composers like Corelli and Locatelli gave it a real virtuoso going-over. A century later, another rash of virtuosi--Paganini, Ole Bull, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, etc.-­would raise it again to a supreme level of solo stardom. To be sure, Mozart''s era was not quite the violinistic desert that his biographers seem to like to paint. The violins and their relatives were by then firmly established as the basis of the relatively new symphony orchestra, and there were some significant virtuosi: Pugnani, for example, was active for all of Mozart's lifetime, and even the great Tartini survived to the end of Mozart's first productive decade. But for the most part, the violin had become, like the flute, a household instrument espoused by would-be gentlemen who played it in a very rudimentary fashion. (Having been subjected once to taking a year of "applied violin," my wonder is that anyone takes up the instrument on a voluntary basis, so awkward is it to play. Or perhaps that was me!)

 

Thus, as I've already mentioned, violin parts played usually a decidedly second fiddle to piano parts, and were often wholly dispensible. (“I’m going to play the hammerklavier, dear. Why don't you amuse yourself with the paper--unless you insist on accompanying me on that wretched fiddle.") Though it may shock some of the more spiritual of my readers, musical composition, for those who adopt it as a career, has a crassly economic aspect to it: to live one must write what can be expected to sell. Or, if that is not to one's taste, one may bypass it for something else that may sell. The last was apparently the route Haydn took apropos the violin sonata, for none exists that is unquestionably his in that form. Mozart, on the other hand, wrote several sets of early piano sonatas "with obbligato violin", as I have pointed out.

 

But in the decade 1778-1788, Mozart's piano sonatas with violin became piano-and-violin sonatas, and even violin-and-piano sonatas. Perhaps he got the notion, as he seems to intimate, from some duos or divertimenti by one Joseph Schuster, in which the fiddle was elevated to at least junior partnership. At any rate, the sonatas that form the normal Mozart canon (included in the MHS set) treat the violinist with respect, and--their intrinsic Mozartean merits aside--mark a significant advance in the conception of the duo­sonata, as Mozart's contemporaries immediately recognized. An 1783 review of K. 376-9 calls them ''unique of their kind," adding that the demands of the writing suffice to keep both partners awake and to ''put equally high demands on the violinist's and the pianist's skill."

 

Of the four sonatas included in these two final volumes of the Shumsky-­Balsam survey, three are uncontested masterpieces. K. 454 was written for Regina Strinasacchi, twenty years old, beautiful, and trained in Vivaldi's Pieta in Venice (but not by Vivaldi, who was unfortunately dead at the time). Mozart accompanied her (before the Emperor) in the Vienna premiere, pretending to read the piano part, which he had not got around to setting down, from a blank page. K. 481 was, according to Einstein, possibly written to keep the wolf from the door, since Hoffmeister published it shortly afterwards. K. 526 came, in point of time, between the Eine kleine Nachtmusik and "Don Giovanni" which should give you some idea of its quality. Mozart's final utterance in the form was the F major "sonatina," K. 547, essentially a teaching piece, which he characterized as "a little piano sonata for beginners, with violin." It is a charmer, though it does not look ahead to Beethoven as the other three so unmistakably do.

 

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