Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and the Fate of the Basset Clarinet

‘You have euphonium lips,’ said my grade 9 high school music teacher. But after a few brassy sessions I developed visions of submersion in Sousa, and, guided by my father’s devotion to Benny Goodman, switched to the clarinet. Which is how I came to Mozart’s and Weber’s clarinet concerti, which, in due course, I learned to play

In the Mozart concerto, the three bars at 311 in the rondo always gave me trouble with their fifteen successive figurations across the fingering break of the instrument, as the sixteenth notes alternate between the chalumeau and clarion registers. I recall sitting a few feet from Richard Stoltzman as he played those bars, and was amazed. And I still am.

B♭ Clarinet

B♭ Clarinet

Basset Clarinet

Basset Clarinet, Note additional key next to the bell.

The concerto was written for the virtuoso Anton Stadler, who premiered it in Prague in October, 1791, and shortly thereafter, being in pecuniary straits, pawned the autograph in the same city; thus, setting in motion two centuries of musicological scholarship.

Much has been written that the concerto was intended for a basset clarinet, which has a range a third lower than the soprano clarinet in A. This extended range makes the playing of several passages, now typically transcribed into a higher register, easier both technically and aesthetically—at least in the context of melodic flow. Thea King recorded the concerto playing a basset clarinet, and there is no doubt that the conjectural playing  of several passages in a lower register by using the lowest third of the basset clarinet is indisputably right. King’s performance is very fine; yet, the basset clarinet does not quite have the beauty of tone, even in the chalumeau register, that the soprano clarinet does; so it is equally indisputable that the concerto sounds better overall on the now conventional clarinet, which established its predominance within even a few years of Mozart’s composing his concerto in 1791, in the last year of his life.

My first recording of the concerto that I added to my collection was that by Reginald Kell and the Zimbler Sinfonietta. It remains my particular touchstone, and I still have the pressing. The recording by Robert Marcellus with George Szell and the Cleveland Symphony is frequently cited as the ne plus ultra of its species; and it is indeed a very fine rendition, in particular of the rondo.

Anton Stadler - The reason we have the concerto but have lost the autograph.

Anton Stadler – The reason we have the concerto but have lost the autograph.

A thorough examination of Marcellus’s interpretation has been written by David Etheridge. In this is included commentary on bar 333 of the first movement, which has much signalled to clarinettists that the concerto’s transcription for soprano clarinet, with its unvaried four-fold repetition of an arpeggio at bars 332 and 333, implies in bar 333 a descent to the lowest notes of the basset clarinet, to be followed, in the subsequent bar 334, with an ascent from those depths.

But, I am one of those who can delight in the Goldberg Variations being played on a modern piano, and who savours the Soler Fandango on a Sperrhake harpsichord. Csezław Miłosz, in his poem What I Learned from Jeanne Hersch, wrote “[t]hat time excludes and sentences to oblivion only those works of our hands and minds which prove worthless in raising up, century after century, the huge edifice of civilization.” Harsh, but there is a relentless truth in it.

So it is, and has been, that I keep with me, played on the instrument that is my civilized heart, the adagio of the concerto; Mozart, through his art, reaching me beyond place and through time. And, I like to think, I reaching him.

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3 thoughts on “Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and the Fate of the Basset Clarinet

  1. Thank you. I’ve been recaptured by the piano concerti lately, especially the andantino of K. 449, which is perfection of feeling. My mother, who was a pianist, kept K. 595 close to her till the end. Andras Schiff is coming to Vancouver in February and will be playing K. 570 and 576; also Haydn 61 and 62, Beethoven Op. 110 and 111, and Schubert D. 959 and 960. I can hardly believe my good fortune in my being able to hear him in concert. It will be at the same venue where I had the incredible good luck to hear the Borodin Quartet play all the string quartets of Shostakovich on their anniversary tour in February last year. As to Mozart’s symphonies, I continue to look to the finale of K. 551 when I need to find some spiritual strength that is threatening to be leached away.

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  2. Excellent article, and I would like to thank Herr Mozart also, I’ve been listening to his 39th symphony a lot recently. In the 3rd movement the contrast between the minuet, and the gorgeous trio, featuring of course exquisite writing for the clarinet- terrific! And what about the adagio introduction of the first movement, talk about racking up the tension eh! Sublime 2nd movement too, and I love the finale as well. The man simply had a limitless musical imagination. Like Schubert, you have to ask yourself where would he have gone if allowed more time on this earth.

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  3. Pingback: Mozart’s Horn Concerti and the “Hornbone” | CulturalRites

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