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About this Piece

Composed: 1791
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, and solo clarinet
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 7, 1960, Georg Solti conducting, with soloist Kalman Bloch

The Clarinet Concerto was the last of Mozart’s completed compositions: only the torso of the Requiem would follow. Mozart, at age 35, was ancien as far as his audience, what was left of it, was concerned. Fashion had passed him by among the fickle Viennese aristocracy. But there were also other factors in the path of any artist’s well-being at the time, above all a treasury-draining war with Turkey which mired the empire in recession. Then too, the reactionary emperor Leopold II, after concluding an uneasy peace with Turkey, clamped down on civil rights – prominently including freedom of expression – at home and in his territories. A pall settled over the empire, and particularly over once-jolly Vienna. Patronage was fading, concerts were few and far between. Demand was, in a word, low. And what made Mozart a shining star above all his other gifts, his skill as a pianist (in his own concertos), and his fail-safe, teaching the piano to the children of the aristocracy, were no longer in demand.

Which is not to say that he lacked occupation in his final year: far from it. A succession of splendidly original works flowed from his pen, including even a Piano Concerto (uncommissioned), the autumnal beauty in B-flat, K. 595; a number of social works, i.e., dances; his final chamber composition, the String Quintet in E-flat, K. 614 (probably written on speculation); the crushingly lovely choral motet, Ave verum corpus, K. 618 (a gift to the choirmaster of the parish church of Baden, where Mozart’s ailing wife, Constanze, had gone to take the waters); two operas – Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), written for his Masonic lodge brother Emanuel Schikaneder; and La clemenza di Tito, commissioned to celebrate the coronation in Prague of the Austrian emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia, and during the writing of which the composer was suffering with his final illness, probably rheumatic fever. And the present Clarinet Concerto. An astonishing quantity of work, of equally astonishing quality for a supposedly “forgotten” composer in the last year of his life. But he was also a man deeply in debt, and almost fanatical in his desire to erase that debt and provide for his family.

The Concerto was written for another fellow Mason, Anton Stadler, as were the clarinet parts of the Trio for Viola, Clarinet, and Piano, K. 498; the Quintet, K. 581; and the clarinet and basset horn (a lower-pitched relative of the clarinet) obbligati in La clemenza di Tito. Stadler, who had been performing concerts in Vienna as early as 1781 on this relatively new instrument, joined the Vienna court orchestra in 1787. He is, in effect, the man who gained acceptance for the clarinet as an integral member of the woodwind family with the vehicles Mozart created for him.

The Concerto bespeaks the mellowness we also find in the last Piano Concerto, K. 595: music of utter peace and unassuming virtuosity. The orchestra lacks oboes, which the composer clearly regarded as too penetrating for the circumstances. Instead, he uses pairs of flutes and a pair of bassoons in addition to the usual horns, while the bass line is allotted to the cellos, with only rare support from the double basses. The work has no real fast movement, in the usual classical sense (again, in common with K. 595), although the outer movements are marked allegro.

The first movement recalls the A-major limpidity that also characterizes the Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488, and the Clarinet Quintet. The first movement could be regarded as all about the exposition section: there really is no contrasting theme, but this is barely noticeable – and cause for additional wonder – since the basic theme is so richly varied, so as to seem like a chain of related melodies, in terms of mood and its exploitation of the solo instrument’s vast range of color.

The adagio – in simple song form, A-B-A – is music of sublime simplicity and peacefulness, while the rondo finale projects an air of gentle, slightly wistful contentment that is ever so poignantly at odds with the circumstances of the composer’s physical state at the time of its creation.

The first performance of the Clarinet Concerto was given on October 16, 1791 in Prague by Stadler, who had remained there after the September premiere of La clemenza di Tito.

Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.