An instrument maker of Nuremberg is credited with producing, in the early 18th century, the first viable clarinet. Handel, Vivaldi and others wrote for this fledgling instrument.
Mozart showed an affinity for the clarinet, which had by his time been much improved. He made use of it in his operatic music, Serenades, and German Dances, but it only features in four of his last eleven symphonies. Then of course came the three important clarinet works: the Trio K498, the exquisite Quintet K581 which dates from September 1789, then finally the Concerto.
At this time the Austrian clarinettist Anton Stadler was employed at the Imperial Court in Vienna, and it was for this virtuoso and fellow-Mason that Mozart wrote his concerto. There may be some confusion over which instrument Mozart was actually writing for at the time. Stadler had ‘adapted’ the soprano or ‘C’ clarinet by extending its length, thus lowering its pitch. By so doing, he produced the basset-clarinet (not to be confused with the basset-horn). The basset-clarinet proved to be wayward in tone and difficult to tune. It is usual these days for the concerto to be played on the conventional ‘A’ clarinet, although occasionally a basset-horn rendering may be encountered.This concerto dates from September/October 1791, and is one of Mozart’s last three major works – he died on 5th December of that year.
1ST MOVEMENT – ALLEGRO
The first movement is in classical sonata form. The first subject (or theme) is stated by the full orchestra in its lengthy introduction. The solo clarinet is invited to join them, playing the theme a fifth higher. This gives harmonic support to the orchestra, which consists of two each of flutes, bassoon, french horn and strings.At the soloist’s entry, the first theme is now firmly centred on A major. Mozart spins out his lyrical melody over the solo clarinet’s middle and upper registers. It remains legato, with touches of staccato and syncopation, both for soloist and for orchestra as they play their discreet accompaniment.
The second subject moves to the minor, and is less fleeting. Triplet passages from the soloist add to the rhythmic variety. In the development section both subjects are interplayed. This gives the soloist a chance to display the clarinet’s tonal colouring, from the lower or ‘Chalameau’ register, rising through to the upper or ‘Clarino’ tones, but wisely not to the instrument’s extremes. The development proceeds to a restatement of the second subject. This leads in turn to that familiar Mozartian device, the half cadence bar with pauses. At this point one may expect a cadenza from the soloist, but Mozart failed to write one out. What follows is a restatement of the first subject, which heralds the movement’s coda.
2ND MOVEMENT – ADAGIO
This lyrical slow movement is in “Ternary” form. This means that it has three distinct sections: A – B – A. The two outer sections have a richly sounding simplicity about them The middle section requires the soloist to be more fluid. A regular, and at times syncopated, accompaniment gives the music a little more urgency. A short coda is characterized by a variant of the movement’s opening theme, now falling rather than rising.
Mozart has set this movement in D major which is normally a ‘bright’ key, but here he has written music which hints at reflectiveness, with even a hint of poignancy.
3RD MOVEMENT – RONDO – ALLEGRO
The soloist opens this movement with minimal string accompaniment. The jaunty 6/8 theme jollies along with semi-quaver passages, yet still with minimal accompaniment. This allows the soloist to show off the full range of the instrument’s tonal colour.A second theme appears (in bar 57). This is a simplification of the first, and leads to an interesting moment when the soloist accompanies the orchestral flute, who has taken responsibility for a variation of this second theme. In fact, the flute has other dialogues with the clarinet throughout the Rondo. As the movement proceeds, interspersed with tutti passages from the orchestra, the solo clarinet finds more variants of the first theme. Finally, a full restatement of this initial theme heralds a short coda to be played out by the full orchestra, ending the concerto boldly and succinctly.