Duo in G, K. 423, for violin & viola
October 19, 2008 – Sheryl Staples, violin; Cynthia Phelps, viola
Mozart’s relationship with the Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymus Colloredo, was never a cordial one. The Archbishop regarded court musicians as members of his household staff, obliged to serve at the whim of the master. Mozart, feeling increasingly resentful and constricted, finally submitted his resignation in 1781. Afterwards, he wrote to his father, “I am no longer so unfortunate as to be in Salzburg’s services – today was that happy day for me.” The tense relationship between the composer and the prince ended ingloriously; the archbishop’s chief steward, Count Arco, dismissed the unruly musician with a “kick in the behind,” as Mozart reported to his father.
In the summer of 1783, Mozart returned to Salzburg for the first time since his break with Archbishop Colloredo. It was a nervous visit for Mozart, who was bringing his new wife, Constanze, to meet his father for the first time. In a letter he expressed concern that the archbishop might have him arrested. While in Salzburg, Mozart found the court music director, Michael Haydn (the younger brother of Joseph), suffering from a protracted illness and unable to complete a commission from the Archbishop for six duos for violin and viola. The impatient Archbishop had threatened to cut off Haydn’s salary until the two remaining duos were complete.
As a favor to his old friend, Mozart composed the missing duos and gave them to Hadyn to pass off as his own. The two resulting works, in G and B-flat major, received more praise than the other four. It must have given Mozart an ironic pleasure to know that his old enemy Colleredo was unwittingly enjoying the music of his despised former employee.
Mozart was a skillful player of both instruments, although his preference was for the viola. The Duo in G reflects this preference, as he treats the lower instrument as a full partner in the musical discourse, rather than relegating it to its more familiar role as an accompanying voice. The first movement features a sparkling interchange between the two instruments. The lyrical slow movement is built on an aria-like main idea, reflecting Mozart’s lifelong love of opera and the human voice. The liting Rondo is a movement of great charm and virtuosity. Although composed in a lighter vein, as befit the style of his older musical colleague, Mozart’s effortless mastery shines through at every turn, often bringing to mind the writing in his earlier masterpiece for solo violin and viola, Symphonie Concertante.
By Michael Parloff