Franz Krommer’s clarinet concerto in E flat, opus 36, is one of over 300 pieces he wrote during a prolific and illustrious career. A late eighteenth century Viennese contemporary of Mozart and Beethoven, Krommer was born in the Czech town of Kamenice in 1759, where he was taught by his uncle Anton, who was choirmaster at Turan.
He came to the Imperial capital in 1785, as a 26-year-old violinist, shortly afterwards picking up musical positions in various aristocratic households. After a string of posts, in 1813, he was appointed court composer to Emperor Francis II of Austria, the last Holy Roman Emperor. He held the post until his death 18 years later, and spent his time mainly writing string quartets – over 60 – and quintets for the court.
At the time, his music was popular. German historian Wilhelm Riehl recounted how Beethoven and Krommer both attended an evening’s entertainment at Count Lichnowsky’s Vienna palace. The opening piece was a quartet by Krommer, during which Beethoven showed “such undisguised contempt for the less gifted but more popular colleague, by talking and sneering, that the host had to take him to task”.
Beethoven’s works have since eclipsed Krommer’s. Only a handful of the latter’s pieces are still played regularly. The most familiar is arguably this concerto for clarinet. It was published in 1803, 12 years after Mozart wrote his ground-breaking A major concerto for Anton Stadler, one of the last pieces that maestro composed.
A conventional classical piece, the concerto can be seen as a bridge to later pieces for clarinet by Carl Maria von Weber and Louis Spohr. Krommer’s work does have passages – particularly in the second movement – of exquisite romanticism, more commonly seen in the later concertos by Weber and Spohr.
Throughout the piece, the clarinet interplays with the orchestra in a continual dialogue rather than having specific cadenzas to showcase its properties. This makes the piece particularly satisfying and explains why it has remained a staple of the clarinetist’s repertoire for over 200 years.