Program Notes

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart

BORN: January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria

DIED: December 5, 1791. Vienna

COMPOSED/PREMIERED: 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. The concerto does not, however, survive its original form and is generally played in an adaptation of unknown authorship dating from about 1800

US PREMIERE: March 5, 1862. Thomas Ryan was soloist with the Mendelssohn Quintette Club at Chickering Hall in Boston

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST— April 1956. Reginald Kell was soloist, with Enrique Jordá conducting. MOST RECENT—April 2008. SFS Principal Clarinet Carey Bell was soloist and Bernard Labadie conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings

DURATION: About 28 mins

THE BACKSTORY Mozart had a love affair with the clarinet and basset horn, with their rich sonorities and almost vocal qualities of expression, and late in his brief career he came to appreciate these instruments through the artistry of Anton Stadler.

Anton Stadler (1753-1812) and his brother Johann (also a clarinetist) performed as soloists in Vienna as early as 1773, and about that time they entered the service of the Russian Ambassador there. They started playing as freelancers at the Viennese Court in 1779, were granted salaried positions in the Imperial Wind Band three years later, and in 1787 were appointed as the regular clarinetists in the Court Orchestra. Anton Stadler belonged to the same Masonic lodge as Mozart and became one of the composer’s closest friends—so close, in fact, that Mozart was known to lend Stadler money when he himself lacked the resources to support his own family adequately. It seems Stadler’s character was somewhat unsavory, and it is true that the final accounting of Mozart’s estate made note of a sizable unpaid debt owed by Stadler. In any case, Mozart seems to have enjoyed him greatly, and for Stadler he created a handful of works: the Kegelstatt Trio (from 1786), the Clarinet Quintet (1789), obbligato parts to arias in La clemenza di Tito (1791), and the Clarinet Concerto.

The concerto was written for what should properly be called the basset clarinet. (Stadler had no special name for the instrument.) This is not to be confused with the basset horn, which is a tenor version of the standard clarinet. The basset clarinet as known to Mozart was essentially a standard clarinet to which Stadler affixed an extension that provided four extra notes in the lowest register. Basset clarinets failed to catch on, and by the time this work first appeared in print, in 1801, the publisher felt it would be wise to effect alterations that would make it entirely playable on clarinets without such an extension. The work is more commonly heard as a vehicle for the standard clarinet, as it is here, with a number of low-lying passages transposed up an octave or otherwise re-worked to bring them within the instrument’s reach.

THE MUSIC A certain chamber-music quality reigns over the entire concerto, in part thanks to the close integration of soloist and orchestra—the clarinet sometimes serves as an accompanist to the violins, and never plays an extended cadenza—and in part to the restrained sound of the orchestra itself. The trumpets and timpani of Mozart’s most brilliant piano concertos are not found here, and even oboes, the most penetrating of the woodwinds, are banished. The string writing is sophisticated, with Mozart making meticulous distinctions in dividing the bass line between cellos and double basses.

The soloist works hard. Mozart gives the clarinet few breaks anywhere in the piece, and not a single measure in which to relax during the Adagio. The clearly plotted design of the opening movement conceals a subtle subtext of dramatic interplay. The principal theme is elegantly balanced, and in the solo exposition Mozart provides music that underscores the clarinet’s unusual ability to meld legato lyricism with warbling passage-work, fleet arpeggios, and wide leaps of register. Even in phrases black with sixteenth notes, the clarinet tends to project a somewhat reserved character, and the listener is hardly surprised when a deep shadow crosses the landscape with the clarinet’s second subject, a slightly ominous tune in A minor. This darkness soon passes as the soloist drifts off into exultant figuration and then transforms the proceedings back into the major as the movement proceeds.

The Adagio is gentle and reflective, a symphonic equivalent to the Recordare movement of the Requiem Mozart was working on at practically the same time. A hushed, prayerful opening sets the tone, with the clarinet delivering its long lines above the quiet murmur of strings (and, in the passage’s repeat, with the full orchestra) before taking up a sort of dialogue with the violins. As elsewhere in the concerto, wide leaps and contrasts of coloration ornament but never disrupt the overriding lyricism. Mozart’s burnished resignation verges here on what later generations might consider Brahmsian. The movement ends with the sort of quiet, seemingly inconsequential coda that was a Mozart specialty. In only six lightly scored measures, it seems to sum up all that has come before. Profound loneliness resides in this languorous elegy.

Taken on its own, the theme of the concluding Rondo looks perfectly merry and carefree, rollicking along in 6/8 time, and that is how it would doubtless come across in a concerto for piano or violin. But on the clarinet it has a way of sounding bittersweet, smiling on the surface but melancholy at heart. Passages in E minor assume importance—including a little duet between first and second violins, then taken up by flute and the solo clarinet—and, after a recurrence of the rondo refrain, the clarinet introduces a deeply expressive interlude in F-sharp minor. As episodes alternate with one another the mood grows as elevated as possible. Just as the piece seems prepared to end, Mozart injects a final few pages of music replete with genial figuration. By the final run-through of the refrain the clarinet has been put through its paces with an impressive array of acrobatic leaps, brilliant arpeggios, and effervescent scales.

This was the last major work Mozart completed. All the other masterpieces of his final year were already behind him. Given that his health declined progressively through his final month, it may not be mere Romantic fantasy to sense that he thought of this music as his swansong when he committed it to paper. In his Clarinet Concerto, Mozart left one of music’s most authentic utterances, a testament to happiness and sadness, to hope and resignation, to the realization that often in life such states represent not distinct polarities, but concurrent aspects of a deeper truth.—James M. Keller

The note appeared originally, in different form, in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and is reprinted with permission, © New York Philharmonic.


More About the Music 

Recordings: Michael Collins, playing basset clarinet, with Mikhail Pletnev conducting the Russian National Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Sabine Meyer, playing basset clarinet, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI Classics)  |  Richard Stoltzman with Alexander Schneider conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (RCA Victor Gold Seal)   

Reading: Mozart: Clarinet Concerto, by Colin Lawson and Julian Rushton (Cambridge Music Handbooks)   |  1791: Mozart’s Last Year, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer Books)  |  Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küster (Oxford University Press)  |  Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt)   

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