Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mozart & the Clarinet: A Quintet for February

Despite Valentine's Day, the Lunar New Year, Mardi Gras and the beginning of Lent in addition to Groundhog Day and Presidents' Day all in February, the weather still often leaves us wishing for something to warm us up, inside and out.

The Linden String Quartet
Well, this weekend, the Linden Quartet arrives in Harrisburg for a performance with clarinetist Christopher Grymes in a program that could do just that, featuring a string quartet by a teen-aged Felix Mendelssohn and some short works by two living composers: “Dark Energy” by Canadian composer Kelly-Marie Murphy and two miniatures by John Corigliano entitled “Snapshot: Circa 1909” (inspired by a photograph of his father as a child playing the violin) and something that sounds much more delightful than its title may imply, “A Black November Turkey.”

And – as one would expect from the fifth player on the program – one of the great clarinet quintets in the repertoire.

Not that there are many to choose from: Mozart or Brahms would be the most likely suspects and the one by Carl Maria von Weber has been making more appearances in recent years than previously.

In this case – on Saturday evening at 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg, Market Square Concerts presents a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet – usually regarded as one of the great works in the chamber music repertoire, period.

Here is a performance recorded live in Vienna with Sabine Meyer joining the Hagen Quartet: it begins at 1:10 into this clip and continues to 33:19.
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(As a bonus, this clip also includes the Clarinet Concerto in a performance with Michael Collins and the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra in a not very good video that's probably pirated, anyway...)

I suppose it would be easy to point out that the great piano quintets were for the most part written by pianists: Schumann, even though by then he could no longer play, wrote it for his wife Clara, one of the greatest pianists of the century); Brahms and Shostakovich were fine concert pianists. Other than John Adams, I can't think of any major composer who was a clarinetist. Instead, Mozart, Weber, Brahms (and more recently, Elliott Carter) found their inspiration in the playing of great clarinetists.

When Mozart wrote his quintet, the clarinet was only a recent addition to the orchestra. Before that, it was primarily found in “dance bands” and hadn't yet evolved into what we know as the clarinet today. There was an early 17th Century Baroque instrument called the “chalumeau” which had basically just the lower register of a modern clarinet. By expanding its middle and upper registers around 1700, and the sound was so bright, it was called “the little trumpet,” the word 'Clarino' the Italian word for trumpet. Even though the instrument makers soon tamed this hybrid into the mellower sound we're familiar with, it still kept its trumpet-like name.

Though it was used in the opera pit, the clarinet was not standard in the orchestra until around 1790. Mozart used it occasionally in his last piano concertos and symphonies. In fact, because Vienna had such fine wind players, the wind writing in these concertos was a remarkable addition to the Mozart Sound. One of those wonderful wind players was a clarinetist named Anton Stadler, one of Mozart's Masonic brothers and a close friend who had arrived in the Imperial capital of Vienna around the same time Mozart did.

In the mid-1780s, Mozart was writing music to be played in the home of one of his more affluent friends, the botanist Nicholas Joseph von Jacquin, several pieces involving clarinet and the alto-member of the family, the basset-horn (which is neither a horn nor a dog with big brown eyes). In 1786, not long after he completed “The Marriage of Figaro,” he composed the so-called “Kegelstatt Trio” for clarinet, viola and piano – written to be played at the Jacquins. The piano was played by daughter Frantziska Jacquin (one of Mozart's piano students). Mozart played the viola and Anton Stadler, the clarinet.

A few months later, in January of 1787, the Mozarts went to Prague for the triumphant performances there of “The Marriage of Figaro,” traveling with an entourage that included Anton Stadler.

The next year, after a fairly fallow six-month period that involved an extended trip to Berlin in the hopes of finding work – or at least some remunerative performances and commissions – Mozart completed the Clarinet Quintet with Stadler in mind, entering it into his thematic catalogue on September 19th, 1789. Earlier that summer, for no reason whatsoever, apparently, he composed his last three symphonies in the space of about six weeks. And soon he would begin a new opera, “Cosi fan tutte.”

It was during these last years of his life that Mozart, dealing with frequent money problems – he was a genius as a composer, but like many, had issues with reality – was borrowing from his masonic brothers, especially the banker Puchberg. But when he had a little money himself, he would help out his friends, if possible, and we know he loaned money to Stadler around the time he was writing the Clarinet Concerto for him in 1791. Stadler, a struggling musician, had borrowed money from Puchberg before and the banker had to sue him for repayment in the mid-1780s.

In 1791, there was another trip to Prague, this time for the coronation opera, “La Clemenza di Tito.” Stadler went along as a kind of musical secretary but primarily as a ringer for the orchestra, playing the difficult clarinet part Mozart had envisaged for the opera. The main reason he chose not to stay in Prague professionally had to deal with the lack of a high level of talent there: Prague was, after all, a provincial capital without the international resources and fine players that were available in Vienna. Besides, most of the aristocracy who'd support the arts in Prague spent much of their year living in Vienna, anyway.

And so, when Mozart returned from the not quite so satisfying experience with “La Clemenza di Tito” (which the new empress called a “porchería tedesca” or “German swinery”), Mozart composed his Clarinet Concerto for Stadler who then premiered it in Prague on October 16th to great acclaim.

Seven weeks later, after the premiere of “The Magic Flute,” Mozart was dead.

But Stadler favored his own hybrid version of the not-yet-standardized clarinet, extending the lower end of the range, something now called a Basset-Clarinet. The problem is, this instrument never caught on and when the concerto was eventually published after Mozart's death, someone arranged the part so the lowest notes could be played on the now-standard instrument. Ever the free-lance musician dealing with financial concerns, Stadler eventually pawned the manuscript score he owned, and so without Mozart's original copy, reconstructing it has always been conjecture.

But even in the Quintet, listen to how Mozart uses this lower range of the instrument. Stadler was actually the second clarinetist in the imperial court orchestra – his brother Johann played first clarinet – so his position gave him more opportunity to work on the lower register. Was Johann Stadler a better musician because he played 'first'?

A contemporary critic wrote of Anton Stadler's playing: “I would not have thought that a clarinet could imitate the human voice so deceptively as you imitate it. Your instrument is so soft, so delicate in tone that no-one who has a heart can resist it."

And since it was Anton who became good friends with Mozart, it was probably the friendship that had a great deal to do with the music he composed for him – not just “who's the best player around.”

We can listen to this music as a work of art to inspire us with its beauty or as something to simply entertain us – but it's also interesting to think of the music as the product of a life, the result of friendships and the relationships that develop between real people, not just notes on a page.

It's the performers' responsibility to bring these notes “to life” – and it's ours to receive them and make them part of ours.

- Dick Strawser

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Photo credit: The Linden String Quartet - by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

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