Since its invention c. 1700, the clarinet has undergone a number of mechanical developments. The city of Vienna in the 1780s and 90s provided all the necessary ingredients to ensure the clarinet’s evolution from a quirky novelty instrument to a standard member of the wind section. In particular, several clarinet makers were based in Vienna; they refined and improved the instrument’s overall sound. Vienna was also the home of two of the clarinet’s greatest champions: the gifted clarinetist Anton Stadler, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Stadler’s prodigious abilities as a performer have been well documented. A critic once told him, “Never have I heard such things as you are able to perform on your instrument … Your instrument is so soft, so delicate in tone that no one who has a heart can resist it.” Stadler’s capacity for expressiveness inspired Mozart to compose for an instrument whose sound he had long admired. As a young man, Mozart had written his father, “Oh, if only we had clarinets. You can’t guess the lordly effect of a symphony with … clarinets.” (In 1778, when Mozart wrote this letter, clarinets were not standard in many orchestras, including that of Mozart’s employer, the musically conservative Archbishop of Salzburg.)
Stadler’s instrument, which he helped design, extended the clarinet’s lower range by four half steps (this allowed him to play the lower root of the scale, and added a dark, mysterious quality, known as the chalumeau register, to the clarinet’s range). Known today as a basset clarinet, this instrument no longer exists. However, some contemporary clarinetists have commissioned modern replicas so that they can play Mozart’s concerto as it was originally written.
Mozart begins the Allegro with a deceptively simple theme. The soloist performs ornamented versions of the main theme, tracing graceful arabesques of sound that showcase the clarinet’s round, velvety tone.
The Adagio opens with a melody whose simplicity is a perfect vehicle to display the sensuousness of the clarinet’s long phrases. The plaintive resignation and introverted quality of this theme, and its descending five-note counter-melody, speak of inexpressible longing, especially when the clarinet dips into its lowest register.
The playful Rondo: Allegro features a blithe, sunny melody that sparkles with merriment, interspersed with high-spirited contrasting interludes. Music critic Edward Downes observed, “The Clarinet Concerto gives many listeners the irresistible impression that moments of unusually intense beauty carry with them an inevitable feeling of sadness, as of something too perfect to last.”
At a Glance
- Composer: born January 27, 1756, Salzburg; died December 5, 1791, Vienna
- Work composed: Clarinetist Anton Stadler commissioned the concerto in 1791; Mozart completed it on October 1 of that year, and Stadler premiered it two weeks later, in Prague.
- Instrumentation: solo clarinet, 2 flutes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings
- Estimated duration: 25 minutes
© Elizabeth Schwartz.