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Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A major, K. 622 (1791)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

Anton Stadler was a superb musician and friend of Mozart, responsible for showing the composer the musical capabilities of the young clarinet instrument. Though it had been around since 1710, there was not a very large solo repertoire for the clarinet. Despite his musical gifts, however, most biographers of Mozart treat Stadler with derision for his intemperateness; Mozart’s sister-in-law described him as one of the “false friends, secret bloodsuckers, and worthless persons who served only to amuse him at the table and intercourse with whom injured his reputation.” Indeed, Stadler’s personal foibles loom large: he claimed credit for inventing the basset clarinet after the real inventor died prematurely in 1792; he never paid for those same instruments; and he never paid Mozart for the commission for the clarinet concerto (although that claim may have been invented by pro-Mozart supporters).

Despite this profligacy, the music Mozart wrote for Stadler indelibly changed the status of the clarinet. Along with the clarinet quintet, K. 581, the clarinet concerto is the paragon of Mozart’s solo instrument concertos. It was the last instrumental work Mozart wrote, completed l two months before his death. Contrary to the popular, Romantic image of a feverish and pallid Mozart working on the Requiem in his last weeks, the clarinet concerto and his other last works show no evidence of protracted ill health and gloomy thoughts.

Mozart wrote the concerto for Stadler, who premiered it in Prague on October 16, 1791. It was probably originally written for the basset clarinet, a variation on the clarinet which allowed for a deeper range and fuller register. When the concerto was published in 1800, however, it was edited with some changes for the standard clarinet, including a few accommodations for its more limited range. Today it is most often performed on a clarinet in A, although reconstructions of the originally basset clarinet instrument and composition have been made.

The first movement is in concerto sonata form, meaning the orchestra performs the expository material once before the soloist enters. This orchestral opening (called a ritornello) combines several aspects of Mozart’s late style, including seamless transitions between thematic areas and canonic entries in the strings which converge into a beautiful melody. The soloist’s entrance repeats this music with variation and virtuosic flourish, exploring the entire range of the instrument. A minor-key excursion leads to the second theme area in E major, and a brief cadenza leads to the close of the exposition, again with the canonic entries. The development uses the first theme as its launching point and explores several different key areas while incorporating secondary melodic material, and the final recapitulation brings the expository music back, but with different tonal characteristics—this time our second theme group is in A major, and the bright and lyric melodies of the clarinet shine.

The second movement is perhaps the greatest of Mozart’s slow movements; one writer notes that it creates a “suspension of mundane musical reality” which quickly transforms to intensification. Mozart’s melodic gifts are on display here, with balanced phrases and exchanges between soloist and orchestra. The slow triple meter picks up melodic energy in the second section as the highest and lowest registers of the instrument are on full display; a brief cadenza leads into the return to the primary musical material, thus showing a large-scale ternary form (ABA). The hushed quality of this musical return is Mozart at his most sublime, the melody simultaneously existing in tension and release.

The final movement is a rondo with a lighthearted refrain, again featuring the soloist and orchestra in conversation. The episodes move through different key areas and musical ideas but with the same energetic propulsion of the beginning. The middle episode of this movement exhibits the dramatic aptitude of the clarinet, moving from F-sharp minor through several keys; dramatic pauses lead us back to the refrain, and one more excursion to the secondary material precedes the final refrain and coda. The coda develops the rondo theme as the soloist puts his final touches on this display of artistry.

- Harrison Russin, Duke University Music Department