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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Mozart's Clarinet Quintet

The clarinet is an instrument which is so universally known these days, it’s hard to imagine a time without it. Yet in western art music, it’s a relatively recent addition to the core woodwind team of the orchestra, only really becoming firmly established right at the end of the 18th century.

In very large measure we have Mozart to thank for this. The clarinet in one rudimentary form or another was known from the early 18th century, and composers like Vivaldi and Handel wrote for it on rare occasions. The Mannheim orchestra, famous for its virtuosity and exciting playing, had clarinets from the late 1750s, and when Mozart heard the orchestra in 1778 he wrote to his father back in Salzburg saying, “If only we had clarinets...”

Mozart made sporadic and often not-very-demanding use of the clarinet in a number of works even before his experience in Mannheim. But it was the meeting with the clarinettist and inventor Anton Stadler which was the real catalyst in convincing Mozart of the expressive possibilities of the clarinet, and which led him to create some of the enduring masterpieces of the repertoire. This is one of them: [listen]

The trio for piano, clarinet and viola K498, is one of the works Mozart created as a result of his association with Anton Stadler. They met around 1783 not long after Mozart had moved from Salzburg to Vienna. Stadler was an excellent clarinettist and also excelled on the clarinet’s cousin, the basset horn. The basset horn is an instrument pitched a little lower than the clarinet, with a slightly darker tone, and Mozart wrote parts for it in chamber works, church works and his last two operas, usually with Stadler in mind.

Silhouette of Anton Stadler

It was for Stadler that Mozart wrote his two most famous works for clarinet - the concerto K622 and quintet for clarinet and strings K581. In this post we’re going to look closely at the quintet, but before we do I need to address the thorny issue of what instrument Mozart actually had in mind for the clarinet part in both of these works.

Without going into too much detail, suffice to say that Stadler was not only a clarinet virtuoso; he was also an inventor. In conjunction with the Viennese instrument maker Theodore Lotz, Stadler invented an instrument we now call the “basset clarinet”. This was a clarinet capable of playing lower notes than the regular clarinet, but which didn’t lose the instrument’s upper register. There seem to have been many short-lived forms of this instrument, and it seems from various pieces of evidence that Mozart wrote both the quintet and the concerto for an instrument which went lower than the regular clarinet.

As Mozart’s original manuscripts of both works are lost, this has involved some detective work, but it’s generally believed these days that the concerto was definitely written for a basset clarinet, and that the quintet was possibly written for the same instrument. The published versions for regular clarinet are now regarded as having been altered from Mozart’s original to make the music playable on the normal instrument (which didn’t have the basset clarinet’s lowest notes).

If you want to follow this up, there’s a wonderful video on YouTube in which the clarinettist Mark van de Viel introduces and demonstrates the basset clarinet. [listen]

There’s also more information in the Wikipedia article here.

There are many recordings of the quintet, and quite a few these days use the basset clarinet. There’s not a lot of difference between the two versions, nut the basset clarinet “reconstruction” makes for some fascinating listening. For the purposes of this post I’ll link to a video of a live performance which uses the regular clarinet, played by the brilliant Sabine Meyer.

Sabine Meyer

The clarinet quintet is scored for clarinet with string quartet - two violins, viola and cello - and is cast in four movements. Mozart composed it in 1789 and entered it into his personal catalogue on September 29 of that year. The work is cast in the key of A major, a key which Mozart used very interestingly. A major is a “bright” key, meaning its important notes correspond to the open strings of the violin and other stringed instruments, resulting in a “bright” sound. But Mozart’s view of A major was clearly more subtle. His music in this key is often gentle; it’s quietly confident, radiant. He also nearly always starts music in A major softly, which only adds to this perception. His most important A major works (in addition to the clarinet quintet and concerto) are the symphony no 29 K201, the violin concerto K 219, the piano concerto K414, the string quartet K464, and the piano concerto K488, which all begin with soft passages.

But going even further, it’s fascinating that three of Mozart’s A major works start with the same two notes in their opening bars. You can clearly hear these notes - E and C sharp - at the start of the piano concerto K488, and the clarinet concerto. And as you’ll hear in a moment, the clarinet quintet’s first movement starts with the same two notes. As you listen to the first movement, which is in sonata form, you’ll hear that Mozart treads a very fine line between featuring the clarinet as a soloist and incorporating it into the ensemble as a team player. The clarinet sometimes accompanies; it doesn’t always have the most important material. He also writes for the strings as wonderfully as he does in the quartets and string quintets, with every part important, and with delicious interplay among the instruments.

First movement, start at 0’00 [listen]

The second movement of the quintet is one of those “time stands still” movements that only Mozart could write. It very much features the clarinet as a soloist, and its poignancy and bittersweetness reminds me of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. The whole air of this movement is of dignity tinged with sadness. It also has a connection with the slow movement of the clarinet concerto: the opening notes of the clarinet part are identical in pitch in both, and the little written-out cadenza in both the concerto and the quintet right before the recapitulation are identical.

Mozart also marks that the violins - but not the viola and cello - are to be muted. String instruments are muted by attaching a mute - a small clamp-like device - to the bridge, which restricts the instrument’s resonance and creates a more muffled sound (the usual adjective is “veiled”). This enhances the intimacy of the sound, which when combined with Mozart’s melodies and harmonies, make this music very special indeed.

Second movement, start at 9’03 [listen]

Belotto: View of Vienna from the Belvedere (c. 1760)

The quintet’s third movement rouses us from our introspection and brings us back into the “here and now” with an amiable minuet. It was usual in the late 18th century for a minuet to have a contrasting middle section (called the trio) before the minuet was repeated. In this movement, Mozart extends this by having two trios, with the minuet heard between them as well as before and after, making five sections instead of three. In the minuet, the clarinet is treated very much as one of the team, rather than as a soloist.

The first trio moves in the minor mode, giving a tinge of sadness to the music. In this section the clarinet is silent, leaving the string quartet on its own. This is the most extended part of the entire quintet without any clarinet sound in the aural mix, and Mozart judges the balance perfectly. The return of the minuet not only heralds the return of the major key but also the return of the clarinet. As usual, he gets it right on so many levels for the listener, but it’s so natural we might not even notice it.

The second trio then balances the first. We are in the major key, not the minor, and the clarinet - which was silent in the first trio - is here given complete prominence over the strings. The effect is of a Ländler, a popular folk dance of the time which is regarded as a precursor to the waltz. This is suggested very much by the “oom-pah-pah” accompaniment in the strings. After this second trio the movement is rounded off my the final reprise of the minuet.

Third movement, start at 14’50 [listen]

The last movement of Mozart’s clarinet quintet is cast in theme and variation form. In theme and variation form, the theme is stated at the outset and then followed by a sequence of variations which use the theme as the basis for further inventive development.

In this movement there are five “official” variations which follow the theme, and a concluding section which could be called a sixth variation and coda. In short, the movement runs as follows:

The theme is in two halves, each of which is repeated. Each half contains two phrases. In the first half, both phrases comprise detached notes. In the second half there is a phrase made up of smooth, non-detached notes followed but a phrase of detached notes.

The first variation gives the theme to the strings while the clarinet embellishes this with a wide-ranging new melody over the top.

In the second variation the theme disappears, or rather, it is not quoted literally, although the music is clearly based on its harmonies. The strings take the floor, with the inner parts providing a bustling triplet accompaniment. The clarinet is restricted to a more secondary role.

The third variation moves into the minor mode, and the viola is given a plaintive, repeated little figure. The melody again is not quoted literally, but as usual in variations, its spirit (as it were) hovers over the music. The theme returns with a vengeance in the fourth variation, in the strings, while the clarinet sets up some virtuosic arpeggios which scamper all over the place. These are later taken up by the strings.

In the fifth variation the tempo slows considerably. The mood is wistful and improvisatory, and the theme is only hinted at rather than stated. All the music is based on the theme’s harmonic structure, though.

The tempo picks up again for the conclusion of the movement. Mozart doesn’t mark this as “variation 6” but it has that effect: more vigorous embellishment of the theme coupled with a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the whole work.

Fourth movement, start at 21’41 [listen]

Mozart’s clarinet quintet is a perfect example of this composer’s clarity of thought and almost infinite creativity. It’s one of the works for which we have to be grateful for Mozart’s friendship with Anton Stadler because it’s also one of the two outstanding clarinet quintets in the repertoire, the other being that of Brahms, written just a little over a century later. (See an earlier post in this blog devoted to that marvellous work.)

Della Croce: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (c. 1780)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2005.

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