Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791)

Born January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria.
Died December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria.

Concerto for Clarinet, K. 622

Composed October 1791.
Duration: approximately 25:00.
First Performance: October 16th, 1791 in Prague at the Royal Old City Theater with Anton Stadler as soloist.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings.

Anton Stadler (1753 – 1812) was a virtuoso who played second clarinet in the Viennese imperial court orchestra. Playing the second part was due to Stadler’s preference for the clarinet’s resonant low register, which often referred to as the chalumeau register. In the early 1700s the clarinet evolved from the chalumeau by adding the “overblown” clarino register (c above middle c and beyond). Around 1770 a relative of the clarinet was invented called the basset horn. It was larger than a clarinet, had a curved neck like a sax, and was capable of lower pitches  (the earliest horns were sickle shaped). In 1789 Mozart wrote 199 measures of a piece for this instrument before abandoning it. But he did include it in his Requiem, the Magic Flute, and the Masonic Funeral Music.

Stadler was friends with instrument maker Theodor Lotz (1747-1792) who is credited with improving the basset horn. On Feb 20, 1788 Lotz introduced a new instrument that he called a Bass-Klarinette which extended the range downward to d below middle c. Today this instrument is called the “basset clarinet” or “basset horn.” Mozart’s concerto was most likely written for a later version of Lotz’ “basset clarinet.” The Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581 (1789) was also written for Stadler. Mozart composed basset horn music as early as 1783. Stadler first performed Mozart’s basset horn music the following year.

On October 7, 1791, Mozart wrote to Constanze that he had “orchestrated almost the whole of Stadler’s rondo.” Mozart gave Stadler the completed concerto 2 or 3 days later, right before Stadler left for a trip to Prague to perform the concerto in a benefit concert. It is a testament to Stadler’s virtuosity that he was able to prepare this very demanding work in less than a week before the premiere. Unfortunately, Stadler lost the autograph manuscript on this trip. The version we have today is based on the one published a decade after Mozart’s death by his friend, Johann Anton Andre. This edition made the concerto playable without the lower notes which Stadler’s instrument was capable of playing. This remained the “standard” until the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe version published in the late 1970s. A few modern instrument makers produce basset clarinets, but like the sopranino sax used in Ravel’s Bolero, most players substitute a modern clarinet in A. The few who use these instruments do stand out in the musician’s union directory!

The concerto is set in A Major as is the Clarinet Quintet. The instrumentation of the concerto is only slightly expanded over the Quintet. Mozart adds just pairs of flutes, bassoons and horns to the strings. Thus his orchestration avoids the edgy timbre of the oboe, the drama of trumpets and timpani, and competition from other clarinets.

There are three movements:

Allegro 4/4
Adagio 3/4
Rondo: Allegro 6/8

The first movement is constructed in a traditional (sonata) form, yet the opening ritornello (a statement that alternates with the solo material) in this as well as in other concertos by Mozart – presents an abundance of material with a series of short motifs.  Instead of the textbook example of an exposition with two themes, here Mozart lays out no fewer than five distinct melodic elements, all in A Major. . All of these motifs will return later in the movement in differing incarnations. When the soloist appears we hear the initial theme but soon it veers to the parallel minor key with brand new material. The so-called “second subject” appears followed by a brief ritornello with which the development begins, elaborating the main theme. We are treated to a surprise modulation to C# Major and then up to D for a brand new theme. The ritornello returns in F# minor which then slides back to D to prepare for the arrival in the home key. Mozart did not write cadenzas for the soloist, instead he provided three places in the concerto where a dominant chord is sustained (fermatas) which would invite cadenzas. For the first fermata the soloist usually plays a simple flourish rather than a full-blown cadenza, reserving that for the second fermata (at measure 315).  In the recapitulation the A minor clarinet theme returns but then – again surprisingly – moves briefly to C major. The second subject returns in A major to leading into the closing ritornello.

The sublime adagio second movement is a simple song form (ABA) in D major. The movement begins without introduction with the soloist playing a lyrical melody above undulating strings. The strings are mostly relegated to background, but do notice that the ends of the soloist’s phrases are wonderfully dovetailed by a continuation in the strings. The middle section is very lightly scored to allow the soloist to come to the foreground. The section concludes with a fermata, which is an opportunity for the soloist to play a cadenza. The first theme then reappears over a soft string accompaniment  to close the movement.

The rondo finale returns to A major with the soloist introducing a jaunty 6/8 theme. This opening section is itself an ABA form with the statements of the rondo theme sandwiching a middle section where the soloist plays sixteenth notes almost exclusively. There are 3  “episodes”, so the bird’s eye view of the rondo is ABACADA – although Mozart does “subdivide” each section. The sunny and playful chirpiness of the rondo theme is balanced in the episodes by something a bit darker, with visits to E minor and then F# minor. The movement does have a Hollywood ending with soloist playing the rondo theme skipping happily off into the sunset playing the rondo theme. The concerto’s sadness that underlies its outwardly cheerful disposition was noted by H. C. Robbins Landon who writes that “there are times when an unbearable sadness seems to linger in the music, the more profound and tragic because it smilingly emerges from the serenity of a bright major key.’”

One published review of the 1791 premiere stated that “If any fault had to be found in Mozart, it could surely be only this: that such 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 all too great perfection.”

Resources

Public domain score at IMSLP

NMA (Neue Mozart-Ausgabe) online score.

Ranges of the clarinet family.

 

Selected Recordings

Sabine Meyer and Charles Neidich have recorded basset clarinet versions of the Concerto.  10 years before the NMA edition, Robert Marcellus released his famous recording in 1967.

Meyer

Marcellus

Neidich

Stoltzman

There is a recording of the concerto played by Benny Goodman which, although not quite the laff-riot of Al Hirt’s Haydn Trumpet concerto (or Marsalis’ only slightly less risible recording of the same), is really just a curiosity.