Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581

performed by Sabine Meyer and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields string quartet

So… The first few listens of this piece were almost as boring as the first time I listened to Mozart’s clarinet concerto, which I am kind of eager to get back to listening to after having really come to enjoy this work.

It’s been a glaring weakness in my coverage of classical music that I haven’t really addressed anything before Beethoven’s time, and even his works have been rather sparse here, but we’re fixing that, as per the article two weeks ago about Beethoven’s first piano concerto.

So when I decided that I would be doing this three-part miniseries (sounds like a television show) on the clarinet, I had originally decided on what I felt was the obvious choice, the clarinet concerto. But seriously, it’s boring. That’s a bit too negative, but I at least found it that way at the time. My clarinet friend, my consultant in this series, suggested I give the quintet a try instead. And in the three-part series, we already had a concerto on the program, which we will get to in a few weeks.

For our classical-era piece, I feel this one is a fantastic choice, but only came to feel that way after repeated listenings. It was more an obligatory listen for the first few weeks that I started giving it attention.

While it’s a shocking contrast from, oh, Babbitt’s clarinet quintet (which is, relative to that composer’s other works, quite…. approachable. Our series won’t get that modern), it has its fantastic merits. Listening to the extremely modern and dense works of Schoenberg and beyond can make something like Mozart’s work seem…. dry and boring. If Schoenberg or Webern are like a complex, intense smoky whiskey (Ardbeg, perhaps) that takes time to develop a palate for, then Mozart’s music, and this quintet as an excellent example, is a fine, crisp, chilled, high-quality champagne.

It’s just different. I’ve thought this about classical music for a while, the idea of attaining to the pinnacle of clean beauty. And with that in mind, with that as the goal of the piece, viewing it from that angle, you cannot help but really come to love what’s been done here. It may not challenge modern listeners, or shock or surprise in any modern sense, but it may do in its beauty.

I thoroughly enjoyed this EarSense article (which very sadly seems to be offline now) sharing the virtues of this piece. I hadn’t though so…. technically about the structure and purpose and strategic decisions of the piece. What, after reading the above article and listening again, struck me the most was the amazing versatility shown by such a small ensemble of only five performers. It works, at turns, as a very small-scale clarinet concerto, a string quartet, duets, etc. so that at times it sounds like a full-fledged orchestra, and others like a small, quaint string quartet. It has such diversity in its sounds and the treatment of the instruments individually and in their various combinations. There are times I forget it’s only a quintet, and others when I forget there’s a clarinet. And that is so stinking charming, and keeps the entire piece interesting.

Coming off the heels of an über-modern stretch of pieces I’ve been listening to (and I guess I’m not coming off it, I’ve just been on it lately in preparation for some posts in the next few months), there’s a lot that’s very different about listening to this piece, obviously. It was the same for the two most recent piano concertos. Even listening to something like Rachmaninoff’s third (perhaps the most famous piano concerto ever?) and then Beethoven’s first more than a hundred years before it is a huge contrast. Needless to say something like Babbitt’s baffling 1985 concerto, close to 200 years after Beethoven’s, is practically a different universe. While moving from Beethoven to Rachmaninoff isn’t challenging, Babbitt and Boulez and many others really are, and jumping back to Mozart is a refreshing but almost surprising difference. There’s no challenge. That perplexity isn’t there. I still listened to this piece at least a dozen times recently, but not because I was confused by it.
For the first few times, it was to get an overview of what it was about and how it was organized; the next few were to understand it a little better, and then because I really enjoyed it and wanted to savor it, but then lastly… because one wants to understand what about such a seemingly simple piece makes it so beautiful. There is an underlying complexity to it, strategic decisions that the composer made about the piece that make it so sweetly beautiful, it’s just that they exhibit a ‘strategy’ so different from the methodologies of the more recent composers.

The piece is written for standard string quartet and clarinet, but originally it was basset clarinet, although it is almost always played on A or Bb clarinet nowadays (I’d guess more on the A clarinet, seeing as it’s in A). It was originally written for the same clarinetist as the clarinet concerto, one Anton Stadler. It was apparently finished in September of 1789, and was premiered in Vienna on December 22 of the same year, with Stadler as soloist. Per Wikipedia:

The quintet consists of four movements:

  1. Allegro, 2/2
  2. Larghetto, 3/4 in D major
  3. Menuetto – Trio I – Trio II, 3/4 (Trio I in A minor)
  4. Allegretto con Variazioni, 2/2
There are a number of similarities between the two Mozart clarinet works. This is his only clarinet quintet, but some bits exist that suggest he was working on another for this same ensemble. I suppose we’ll talk about these similarities when we get around to talking about the concerto, but both were written for Stadler, the concerto a few years after this piece.

One pleasant thing I find about this quintet is that, while I mentioned earlier, there are passages where it’s orchestrated so well that it feels (sounds) like a whole orchestra playing behind the clarinet, we aren’t bored by the constant featuring of one soloist with the entire quartet taking a subordinate role behind it. Alfred Einstein (the first time I read this quote I swore it said Albert. Different professionals) is quoted as stating that the clarinet “predominates as primus inter pares” (first amongst equals), and Mozart does give the strings their moments to shine. Everyone plays equally. I somehow feel this is a real outstanding quality of the work instead of listening to the same instrument with the same accompaniment the whole time. Even in this small group of five, there’s a lot of interplay and back and forth. Lately the word ‘texture’ has meant pizzicato and col legno or sul ponticello or sul tasto or whatever in really modern works, but with more ‘traditional’ methods more with the use of orchestration, there’s really never a dull moment in this piece.

The first movement is a brief sonata-form movement, as would be expected. I have read about this, but can’t seem to find a transposition to the dominant key in the score. There are clearly two themes at play, but am I to believe that Mozart kept them both in A major? Anyway, as I’ve said in almost every piece before, the first movement sets the tone for the whole piece. It’s pleasant, sweet, and delightfully light, with the strings carrying their weight and giving the clarinet time to show off.
So that’s that. Let’s talk about the individual movements. But not for long. Just listen to the piece and then I want to talk (somewhat in reverse order) about the background of the piece.
The first movement starts as it should. The strings are classical and sweet and give us a tender opening before the clarinet enters. This is the kind of ‘aural champagne’ I was talking about earlier. I don’t know if it’s just Mrs. Meyer’s superb tone, but the whole thing, especially the vibrance of the first movement, seems so vocal. I’m sure it’s Mozart’s genius writing, but the whole first movement, as a simple, kind of straightforward sonata form, is pleasant and exciting and has its tension and contrasts.
The second movement, larghetto in D major, is much quieter and more lyrical and subdued and quiet. There’s a lot more string texture with the clarinet playing in the upper register,
The third movement is a minuet with two trios. The second movement was the slow movement, and restful. The minuet and trios are so stinking charming. At least one is in a minor key, perhaps both, but it’s this kind of triple-meter string writing for a chamber ensemble that many people think to be so quintessentially Classical era. Something else you might notice as you’re enjoying the trios is that the clarinet has disappeared. Did you notice that? Oh… there it is. It’s back. It’s almost like a slight-of-hand kind of magic trick. The clarinet shows up at the beginning, but the crisp beauty of the strings and the trios and the key change detract attention away from the clarinet and it just goes away for a bit, and to me, that makes its reappearance that much more exciting. When it returns with the melodies from the beginning they are all the more fresh and interesting. Well done, sir.
The final movement is in 2/2, and it’s fast. A theme-and-variations movement is a not-uncommon way to end a string quartet or symphony or sonata. It opens with a bouncy theme to begin the variations, and it’s almost so sweet that I kind of want it to continue the same way. But wait…. the variations are just as good. The strings continue to do similar things, and the clarinet presents its variations over this accompaniment. It’s thoroughly pleasant. Strings have their moments to carry the tunes for a bit, and there are also some satisfying and well-placed contrasting variations in a minor key. Right after that, we jump back to the opening string theme with some seriously fast work from clarinet and violin. This the most technical passage of the piece, to my ear, anyway, and the violin has a chance to participate as well. A slow variation follows, as do some others, and it all makes this movement feel like the most creative or inventive. It covers the most ground, which I guess is kind of inherent to the theme-and-variation structure, but it’s a nice way to close out the whole piece. The previous three movements have been quite…. dedicated to their purpose: an opening allegro sonata-form, and a slow movement, minuet-and-two-trios, so this one is a real showcase of Mozart’s writing and the talent of the performers. Fittingly, it ends on an exciting, pleasant, uptempo variation, and almost abruptly and perhaps even disappointingly just….. ends. I don’t mean that the end is disappointing; I mean to say I could probably go on for another ten minutes or so with the way the movement was going.
I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time analyzing or play-by-play-ing for this piece for a few reasons: for one, just listen to the damn thing. It’s really sweetly, tenderly standardly beautiful. But the other thing about it, something that I guess could be said for much music of this era, is that at least to modern ears, there’s nothing earth-shattering or shocking about it. It’s a pretty standard layout, and if you were a bit lukewarm about it, you might describe it as a pretty standard-issue, run-of-the-mill quintet. What makes it special then? To me, and I suppose many others, it’s just because of its immediately-apparent, easily accessible beauty.
If you’ve already listened to it once, that’s good, but you’re going to have to do it again. I wanted to wait until this point to share some information I was extremely pleased to find after being a bit frustrated that the above-linked EarSense article is down (though I’ll keep the link there in case it ever gets back online). That article focused on the musical aspects of the piece, its layout and what gave it such charm and likability. But one of the things that fascinates me about much of the Classical era (I guess more some of like, Beethoven and Schubert’s works, so not so much the Classical era alone), and certainly here with Mozart, is that while the music seems pleasant and cheerful and light and elegant, life for these men wasn’t always rainbows and unicorns. In fact, at times, it downright sucked. Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert all come to mind as people whose music has a certain ‘spirituality’ (per Mitsuko Uchida’s description), an undercurrent of strength or deep meaning, that I believe comes from the contrast between the composer’s life and the music he wrote.
At first glance, this piece seems delightfully sweet, something a non-music person might have playing at a fancy banquet somewhere with waiters in vests and bowties carrying hors d’oeuvres throughout a fancy ballroom or banquet hall. But let’s take a look at what was really going on in Mozart’s life.
He was 32 or 33 at the time, and his health was… lacking. This article on the LA Philharmonic’s website is really fantastic, and if you’ll be in the area, it’s being performed there on April 7, 2015. Just read the whole article, but I want to quote a few large chunks of it here.
It begins by describing how his reputation among the Viennese had taken a hard hit. Many people wouldn’t think this of Mozart nowadays, but it continues thusly:

1789 was, in all, a surpassingly rotten year for Mozart. The teaching jobs and commissions had dried up and his “academies” (self-sponsored subscription concerts) had become a financial impossibility. His health was hardly robust, while his chronically ailing wife, Constanze, was experiencing yet another difficult pregnancy: the couple’s fifth child, Anna Maria, would die on November 16, an hour after her birth. (Note, however, that Constanze would outlive Wolfgang by some 50 years.)

This sounds, in some ways, like the kind of tragic life that Mahler lived, and look at the stormy, dramatic music he produced. Consider this man’s current lot in life. A mere thirty-something years old, an age that nowadays is kind of…. the best time of one’s adulthood, but he was already reaching the end of his, dying children, ill wife, failing career… how could you not be overwhelmed with tragedy and sorrow at a time like this?
In a letter to his friend and frequent benefactor, though, it seemed as if…. the composer was either trying to be as positive as possible about his lot, or just ignoring reality and awaiting what he knew to be inevitable. He says:

“The bad is temporary, but the good is surely lasting, if this momentary evil can be removed… 1. I would not need such a large sum were it not for the appalling costs in connection with the cure of my wife… 2. Since in a short while I shall be in better circumstances, the amount I must repay is a matter of indifference to me, but for the moment it would be better and more certain if it were large… 3. I must entreat you if it is quite impossible for you to spare such a sum at present to show your friendship and brotherly love for me by supporting me with whatever funds you can spare at once…”

This is heartbreakingly sad, to me. What despair… And it is in this state of mind, yet with such (apparent) hope that “in a short while, [he] will be in better circumstances” that he writes this tenderly beautiful quintet. Does it not then take on an entirely different tone? It is, to me, no longer a plain-Jane pretty chamber piece, but now… every beautiful moment is a glimmer of hope, just a little bittersweet, the larghetto perhaps a sigh of desperation but not giving up, the lighter minuets and trios an attempt to be positive… it all amazes me that something like this can be the product of such desperation, and it is in that vein that the above article from the LA Phil also asks the question about how much of his situation at the time was reflected in this work. This piece is the first in a series of works about the clarinet, but it seems we’ve taken a tangent to talk more about the composer than the instrument. I’ll close with the LA Phil’s quote of one H.C. Robbins Landon in a book he wrote called Mozart: The Golden Years (Schirmer Books, 1989). It beautifully states this apparent contradiction:

“If there is any one work that sums up this unhappy year, this must be it – parts of it seem to reflect a state of aching despair, but the whole is clothed not in some violent minor key, but in radiant A major. The music smiles through the tears… ”

Smile through the tears.

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