Program Notes: Mozart & Brahms

Program Notes: Mozart & Brahms

By James Manishen, Artistic Operations Associate

Concert program notes sponsored by


Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

b. Salzburg/ January 27, 1756
d. Vienna / December 5, 1791

Composed: 1779


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


Composed in 1779 during his final year in Salzburg, Mozart chose the term Sinfonia Concertante rather than “Concerto” for this work because its design is more a large proportioned symphonic work for orchestra featuring soloists rather than a piece primarily to display the skills of violinist and violist. As a performer, Mozart is remembered mostly as a pianist but he was an accomplished violinist who often played the viola in chamber music. The Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola was quite possibly conceived with his own participation in mind and is a real virtuoso work for both the soloists.


The viola part is especially interesting since Mozart was keenly aware of its darker hues and wanted to bring its presence forward. Though the viola part is written in D major, he instructs the viola to be tuned upwards to E-flat by tightening the strings, a technique called scordatura, literally “mistuning.” This gives the instrument more intensity, more closely matching the violin’s natural colour and brightness.


There are many characteristics of a Mozart symphony in the work. A lengthy orchestral introduction gives way to a magical Mozart moment where the two instruments seem to appear out of thin air, playing in octaves as equals. This partnership continues throughout the first movement with many imaginative moments in a musical story beautifully told.


The second movement is serene and lovely, the cadenza at the end not one of display but more of intimate conversation before the orchestra returns. The Presto has the soloists chasing after each other amply spiked with wit and verve to bring this most happy piece to a close.



Serenade No. 2

Johannes Brahms

b. Hamburg/ May 7, 1833
d. Vienna / April 3, 1897

Composed: 1858-1859


Johannes Brahms


The story of Brahms taking 21 years to complete the first of his four symphonies showed how much in awe he was of Beethoven’s symphonic legacy. From sketches for his first Symphony in 1854 through completion in 1876, Brahms realized the serious business involved in writing for orchestra. In the earliest stages of Brahms’s career where he was writing mostly piano works, he knew he would eventually have to tackle this most challenging of large-scale musical forms to realize his ambitions of carrying the symphonic torch forward.


Robert Schumann was the first to predict big things for Brahms. Schumann heard symphonic aspirations in the young man’s piano pieces. “One has come from whom we may expect all kinds of wonders. His name is Johannes Brahms,” was only one of the older composer’s effusive statements in a detailed article he wrote about the gifted youth.


In 1857 Brahms took a job in Detmold where he had his first opportunity to work with an orchestra. It was here that he began to develop orchestral writing skills and rather than biting off a full symphony to start, he chose the form of a serenade.


Brahms was cautious with the first of his two serenades, sketching it as a nonet for winds and strings and later expanding it for chamber orchestra. The second serenade however became his first purely orchestral piece containing the distinctive qualities his music would become known for and marked a turning point for the 25-year-old composer.


Though clearly the work of a young composer gaining experience, Brahms’s serenades may be a look-back to the tradition of Mozart serenades and divertimentos but the second Serenade in particular is a work of real originality which certainly reveals the promise Schumann wrote about. In fact, it was his widow Clara Schumann who first received the new serenade and was especially drawn to the Adagio, though she regularly played her favourite passages of the whole work at the piano.


To ensure that no one would mistake the second Serenade for a symphony, Brahms wrote five movements, adding an extra scherzo before the slow movement. This resembled the multi-movement layout of most serenades of the past. Brahms scored the new Serenade for strings without violins and much of the melodic development is given to the winds, perhaps a nod to the great wind serenades of Mozart’s.


Lilting warmth pervades the second Serenade which is also ripe with dance elements, gracious melody and engaging cross-rhythms. The Rondo finale has a lovely oboe theme, plus all manner of orchestral brilliance augmented by the bright voice of the piccolo for a most happy ending.