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Clarinet Concerto

Mozart wrote for the clarinet as early as 1771 when it was just beginning to be established as a normal part of the orchestra, but his real discovery of its character came about when he met the clarinetist Anton Stadler in Vienna in 1781.

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart—who began calling himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777 (he used “Amadeus” only in jest)—was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. At some point between the end of September and mid-November 1791, Mozart wrote a concerto for the clarinetist Anton Stadler, who presumably gave its first performance in Vienna soon after. However, the concerto does not survive in the form in which Mozart wrote it, and it is generally heard now in an adaptation of unknown authorship dating from about 1800. Mozart made no space for cadenzas in this concerto.

In addition to the solo clarinet, the score of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto calls for an orchestra of just 2 flutes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and basses).

Anton Stadler gets a generally bad press in the Mozart literature. “Dissolute” is an adjective frequently applied, and one of Mozart’s sniffier relatives, his sister-in-law Sophie Haibel, counted him among the composer’s “false friends, secret bloodsuckers and worthless persons who served only to amuse him at the table and intercourse with whom injured his reputation.” Like Mozart, he was a Freemason, though they belonged to different lodges. Mozart liked him, particularly as a companion for those pleasures of the table (including the gambling table) of which Mozart’s widow and her second husband were so disapproving. Mozart even lent Stadler 500 gulden, without security, a debt that went unpaid.

Stadler’s artistry was never in dispute. Here is a rhapsody from the pen of Johann Friedrich Schink, a Prussian-born critic of theater and opera who lived in Austria from 1780: “My thanks to you, noble Virtuoso! Never have I heard the like of what you contrive with your instrument. Never should I have imagined that a clarinet might be capable of imitating the human voice as deceptively-faithfully as it was imitated by you. Verily, your instrument has so soft and so lovely a tone that none can resist it who has a heart, and I have one, dear Virtuoso. Let me thank you!” Still more telling is the testimony of what Mozart wrote for Stadler—the concerto; the quintet, K.581, of all but equal loveliness; perhaps the rich and subtle E-flat trio with viola and piano, K.498; certainly the obbligatos in two of the arias in the opera La clemenza di Tito, Sesto’s “Parto, parto” and Vitellia’s “Non più di fiori.” (Mozart had taken Stadler along for this opera’s premiere in Prague on September 6, 1791, and reported home with delight that the clarinetist had received ovations for his playing.) It may also be that the late addition of clarinet parts to the Symphony No. 40 in G minor was undertaken to please the Stadlers.

Mozart wrote for the clarinet as early as 1771 when it was just beginning to be established as a normal part of the orchestra, but his real discovery of its character came about in the ’80s. The soft edge of its tone, the vocal aspect that Schink noted in Stadler’s playing, its virtuosic potential in matters of range and flexibility all made it an ideal voice for Mozart’s fantasy and musical thought. At that time, the lower register of this relatively new instrument was accounted colorless as well as a bit uncertain in pitch. Stadler was particularly concerned to improve that deficiency, and more, he wanted to extend the range downwards. He therefore built, or had built for him, clarinets that added four semitones at the bottom, the so-called basset clarinet, encompassing the low A on the bass staff for the A-clarinet and the corresponding B-flat for the instrument in that key. It is for one of Stadler’s stretch models that Mozart wrote the quintet, the brilliant obbligato to “Parto, parto,” and the concerto. (Stadler had no special name for the instrument.) The trouble is that Mozart’s autograph manuscripts of the quintet and the concerto do not survive, and for the concerto our earliest sources have shrunk the solo part to accommodate the compass of an ordinary clarinet in A, for it seems that the Stadler extension did not catch on.

The history of Mozart’s concerto is both complicated and clarified by the existence of an autograph fragment, 199 measures long, of a concerto in G for basset horn with an orchestra of flutes, horns, and strings. (The basset horn is a gently mournful relative of the clarinet, with a range down to the F at the bottom of the bass staff. Mozart was fond of it, and it still shows up as late as a number of the scores of Richard Strauss.) This fragment, K.621b, closely corresponds to a little over half the first movement of the Clarinet Concerto as we know it. From it, moreover, we can infer what the clarinet solo part looked like before the arrangers got their hands on it. Just why and when Mozart abandoned his basset horn score and switched to Stadler’s “basset clarinet” is yet another pair of questions to which we have no answer. Trying to sort out the chronology of the concerto, we see that Mozart returned in mid-September to Vienna from Prague, where he had conducted Don Giovanni and introduced La clemenza di Tito, Stadler remaining behind to play more opera performances and to give a concert of his own on October 16. Mozart reported the week before that concert that he was scoring “Stadler’s Rondo,” that is to say, the finale of the concerto. It was the last major work he completed, with only the Little Masonic Cantata, K.623, and the fragments of the Requiem to follow. He conducted the cantata on November 18, went ill to bed two days later, and died on December 5. (Given the vagueness of reports and the peculiarities of 18th-century medical terminology, we cannot tell for sure what Mozart died of.)

There is a recognizable Mozart-in-A-major mood, gently lit, more apt to be serene than impassioned, with the sense of physical energy somewhat muted, the music being likely to start with a theme that descends from E: the first movements of the Clarinet Concerto, the Clarinet Quintet, and of the Piano Concerto No. 23, K.488, exemplify it. In the Clarinet Concerto, Mozart reveals before long that there is more to the first theme than innocence, that it lends itself to closely worked polyphonic elaboration. The clarinet, once it has entered, introduces new ideas that expand the expressive range in the direction of a certain gently unstressed melancholy. The slow movement is an Adagio, and that in Mozart is rare and a sign always of special seriousness. This Adagio, whose beauty is of a truly ineffable sort, begins in calm, but grows to admit Mozart’s tribute to Stadler’s (and his instrument’s) virtuosity and vocality. In the rondo that brings the concerto to its close, Mozart again shows how simple beginnings may lead to unexpected riches. Describing it, the prominent musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon invokes Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, where once it is said that “the heart dances, but not for joy.”

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1976 to 1979, and after that of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. Oxford University Press has published three compilations of his program notes, devoted to symphonies, concertos, and the great works for chorus and orchestra.

The first known American performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was of the first movement only, played by Thomas Ryan in Boston with the Mendelssohn Quintette Club on March 5, 1862, the orchestral part being taken by a string quartet with an additional cello, a flute, and two horns. The first Boston Symphony performances of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto were on March 29 and 30, 1918, with Albert Sand, the orchestra’s principal clarinet, under the direction of Ernst Schmidt.