Mozart’s Coda: The Clarient Concerto

Most musical histories leave Mozart with his Requiem (Mozart’s last words were reported to be “I was composing this for myself”), but that I think is a mistake. In fact, Mozart’s final complete composition was his Clarinet Concerto. I tend to ascribe much importance to final works, but I don’t think Mozart really had cause to believe he was dying when he wrote this. He was very sick, true, but was receiving medical care. In fact, it was the medical care that probably killed him—leeches, and too much of them.

The Clarinet Concerto is pure Mozart and as much a guide as to where he was going musically than anything else. Mozart was not going to abandon his Golden Mean, but his music was growing in complexity, both in terms of his ever lengthening melodic lines and novel harmonics. There is a deeper emotional urgency here than in his earlier concertos and I think that is the best guide as to what Mozart was planning to do next.

In the attached video, clarinettist Michael Collins performs on a modern version of the Basset clarinet, an instrument that until quite recently had completely disappeared. It is, however, the instrument for which Mozart scored his concerto. Anton Stadler, a close friend of Mozart’s and fellow Freemason, had commissioned the concerto for his Basset clarinet. In fact, Stadler’s love of the instrument likely also influenced the orchestration of his later operas Cosi fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte, which are also scored for a Basset clarinet.

Wofgang Amadeus Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito: “Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio”

Why does this matter? As you can see from the video below, the Basset clarinet is a much longer instrument than its modern counterpart and was capable of playing in the lower registers that Stadler loved. When the concerto was adapted for the modern clarinet on its first publication in 1802, those lower parts had to be transposed an octave higher. And this produces an interesting effect, much to the detriment of Mozart’s composition. In contrapuntal music theory, there are four types of motion, that is four ways that two lines of music can move in relation to each other. First is parallel motion where the two lines move in the same direction (that is progressively higher or progressively lower) in parallel to each other. This sort of composition was common in the early forms of chant where boys’ voices were added to a male chorus singing exactly one octavie above the mens’ voices. Second is similar motion, where the two lines move in the same direction, but at different intervals (e.g., one line moves up by a third and another by a fifth). Third is oblique motion, where one line is held at a contstant pitch while the other moves up or down. Oblique motion was common in the early music with which this blog began and which featured a drone. Finally, there is contrary motion, in which the two lines move in opposite directions.

Contrary motion produces the most satisfying and interesting music and therefore is the dominant form of motion in nearly all compositions. Yet because modern clarinets cannot reach the lower registers in Mozart’s original score, by transposing the music up an octave, the new score also transforms the contrary motion in Mozart’s score into similar motion. The clarinet, playing with, rather than against, the orchestra’s line, gets lost–despite Mozart’s careful orchestration that omits other woodwind instruments that could compete with the soloist. The end result is decidedly less satsifying.

Restored to the original, the Clarinet Concerto takes flight and justifies Mozart’s observation that it is “the instrument best capable of imitating the human voice.” I especially love the second movement Adagio, which might be the closest Mozart ever came to uniting operatic composition with instrumental composition. In it, the clarinet seems to sing about loss and anticipates the songs without words that would become popular in the next century.

Of Stadler, Mozart remarked that “your instrument has so soft and lovely a tune that no one can resist it.” His music prowess notwithstanding, Stadler proved to be quite the rogue. While he claimed to have invented the Basset clarinet (or Basset horn as it was known then), this does not appear to be the case–certainly Stadler’s own instrument was made by Theodor Lotz and does not appear to have been made according to any instructions from Stadler. Stadler also claimed to have lost the autograph score in a robbery; Costanze Mozart never believed a word of it and insisted that Stadler had pawned the manuscript. He certainly needed the money–Stadler owed Mozart 500 florins (roughly $75,000 today) at the time of his death. Regardless, all of the original individual parts survived so the music we hear is all pure Mozart, especially where period instruments are used.

The concerto was premiered by Stadler in October 1791. Mozart died seven weeks later. My heart breaks for the music that we will never have.

W.A. Mozart, Clarinet Concerto in A:

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