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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major “Turkish”

A. Kori Hill

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major is one of his most performed and recorded concertos. If you’re a classical violinist, you’ve probably learned it or will at some point. Mozart wrote his fifth concerto while working for the Archbishop of Salzburg. He was more than a little frustrated that he couldn’t spread his creative wings in a more illustrious capital like Vienna. Who wants to move back home when they’ve only just begun?  

While we know Mozart as a prodigy keyboardist, he also played violin. His father, Leopold, was a professional musician who wrote a treatise on violin playing that people still refer to today. Mozart was especially interested in the violin between 1773 and 1775, eager to try out techniques and styles heard during his time in Italy and Vienna.  

One of these could have been the “Rondo alla Turca,” the adaptation of meter, harmony, and percussive techniques from Janissary bands, or mehteran by European military bands and classical composers in the early 1700s. Mehteran were the military bands for the Ottoman Empire, which covered southeastern Europe, modern day Turkey, parts of the Arabian Peninsula, and Northern Africa. Vienna sat several hundred miles to the west of the Empire’s border; and from 1521–1791, Austria and the Ottoman Empire were at war (despite the Treaty of Karlowtiz signed in 1699). Such geographical closeness and sustained military conflicts would not go unnoticed by Mozart and his contemporaries. You hear references to the mehteran in the second movement of Haydn’s Military Symphony; Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory; Mozart’s “Rondo alla turca” movement from his K331 piano sonata; and the third movement of his Violin Concerto No. 5.  

The Rondeau: Tempo di Menuetto starts like you’d expect: the main theme–the A section–and new material in between the return of the A section. But then the tonality turns minor; the rhythm shifts from triple to duple, more vertical and sharp; the cellos and double bass hit their strings with the wood of their bows, a technique called col legno. This is the “Alla Turca” style, Mozart channeling the rhythm and martial energy of the mehteran.  

Sometimes we forget that people of the past didn’t create in a vacuum. That they were surrounded by music of different cultures and time periods that inspired them, moved them, and maybe intimidated them. Mozart was no different. Whether you compose, perform, or listen to classical music, there are other traditions that inspire and move you just as much. Just as they moved hundreds of composers past and present.  


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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major “Turkish”