Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622 (1791)
Since Mozart’s Requiem was left unfinished at the time of his untimely death at the age of thirty-five, the Clarinet Concerto is actually the last major work he completed. For those who imagine from listening to the Requiem that Mozart spent his last few months in darkness, contemplating his own death, this concerto’s light-hearted, bubbly nature does not reflect the contemplations of a man who knows he is about to die in a few weeks. This is a reflection of the man who loved people, loved to party, and enjoyed life up until the last minute.
The work arose from the friendship between Mozart and the unquestioned clarinet virtuoso of the time, Anton Stadler. The fact that Mozart composed so much significant music for the clarinet, a relatively new instrument less than a century old at that time, is almost entirely due to Stadler’s influence. Mozart’s family objected to the gambling, drinking, free-talking Stadler (who borrowed the considerable sum of 500 gulden from the amiable composer, a debt that remained unpaid at Mozart’s death), but his musical skill and ingenuity was prodigious.
Stadler had a fascination with the low register of the clarinet, and even preferred to play the traditionally less prestigious role of second clarinet in the orchestra in order to spend more time developing his lower tone. Eventually he decided to even extend the range downward, and added several keys and additional tubing to do so (bringing the instrument’s lowest note down a major third). This modified clarinet, now referred to as a “basset clarinet” (a sort-of hybrid between the basset horn and clarinet), was not in common use at the time, but Mozart was writing specifically for his friend and composed the concerto for this modified instrument. When the time came to publish the work, editors elected to adjust the music so that it could be performed on the A clarinet, commonly used in orchestras both then and now. Stadler protested, but having lost or pawned the manuscript at some point in his travels, could not provide an authentic version. This has left future generations of clarinettists the opportunity to explore a number of options in performing the concerto, from actually attempting to rebuild the basset clarinet to readjusting the work so that it best fits both the modern instrument and the music. The happy consequence of this is that performances of the concerto vary as widely as the musician.
The concerto itself provides a number of opportunities for the clarinet to show off its capabilities. The second movement has been said to contain some of the most beautiful melodies Mozart ever wrote, and the outer movements are dazzling exhibitions of its piercing high register and the depths of the low register Stadler loved so well. The work actually utilizes the full standard range of the instrument. The large leaps in the solo clarinet part throughout the work manage to showcase the full timbral capabilities of the instrument. That being said, the work lacks a true cadenza, although it has two oportunities in the first movement and one in the second for an Eingang (a short cadenza, typically lasting less than a minute). Some clarinetists elect to play only a few notes, while many write or improvise their own cadenzas (a rareity in today’s concert world!).
The complementary orchestral ensemble is relatively small–two flutes, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. Oboes, competing clarinets, and the more piercing brass have been eliminated in order to highlight, rather than cover, the soloist. Indeed, this is one of the more conversational of Mozart’s concerti, as the orchestra and clarinettist seem to bounce ideas off of one another in lively discourse, much as one could imagine imagine Mozart and Stadler might have done over a beer and a meal. As Bernhard Weber wrote in a review of the premiere in 1791, “Such an abundance of beauty almost tires the soul, and the effect of the whole is sometimes obscured thereby. But happy the artist whose only fault lies in an all too great perfection.”
~program notes by Jessica Davis, copyright 2012
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