Mozart�s feel for the clarinet�s sonority is a little remarked-on facet of his genius,
yet it remains almost ineffably special. He had an uncanny ability to draw out his
chosen instruments� finest qualities; but it was the clarinet that perhaps benefitted
most of all from his attention.
The attraction for Mozart could well have been the instrument�s affinity for the
human voice, which was possibly his ideal medium; the clarinet has a similar
mellifluous legato and plangent, speaking tone, yet also the advantages of a
bigger range and greater capacity for technical precision. He first encountered the
wind instrument during a visit to Mannheim in his child prodigy days, aged seven,
at which time it had just been invented, and there he conceived an affection for it
that would last his whole life. He went on to include prominent spots for it in
orchestral genres in which it had not formerly been used and it features exquisitely
in his operas Cos� fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro. But more significant still were
the late works in which he transformed it into a solo instrument in its own right.
During the last years of his short life, Mozart enjoyed a rewarding friendship with
the clarinettist Anton Stadler (1753-1812), a fellow Freemason. It was for him that
the composer created his famous Clarinet Concerto and the Clarinet Quintet. As
second clarinet in the Vienna Court Orchestra � first clarinet was played by his
brother, Johann Nepomuk Stadler � this remarkable musician also played the basset
horn, a deeper version with a range four pitches lower than that of the standard
instrument. This too became a favourite of Mozart�s and was to appear prominently
in his final masterpiece, the Requiem.
It is perhaps telling that to Stadler one Viennese critic remarked: �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.�
No-one who has a heart could resist, either, the music that Mozart wrote for him.
The Clarinet Quintet, dating from 1789, just precedes Cos� fan tutte in his output
and flows with the apparent ease and grace of that opera�s finest ensembles. The
clarinet�s sonic colour both blends with the sound of the string quartet and stands
out from it; it functions as less of a soloist than it would in a concerto, but is still
more than just an equal member of the ensemble.
The work falls into the standard four-movement structure of a symphony or quartet:
an opening allegro of suitably mellow quality, a generous and pure-hearted adagio,
a minuet with two contrasted trios and a finale that presents a set of five
variations and a speedy coda on a good-humoured theme that would not have been
out of place as a number for Papageno in Mozart�s opera Die Zauberfl�te. It affords
the clarinettist plenty of chance to display his or her virtuoso abilities as well as
the full range of the instrument, from dizzying arpeggios to a hint of tragedy in
the fifth variation.
Stadler gave the world premiere of the Quintet in Vienna on 22 December 1789
with a string quartet whose players included the composer himself.
Certain parallels exist between Mozart�s path to his Clarinet Quintet and that of
Brahms. The latter�s work postdates the earlier composer�s by 102 years, but it can
claim Mozart�s as a major influence while matching it soundly � indeed, perhaps
exceeding it � in terms of beauty, emotional profundity and technical expertise.
Like Mozart, Brahms turned to the clarinet as a solo instrument only towards the
end of his life; and like Mozart, he was inspired to do so by his personal
acquaintance with a great clarinettist. Brahms�s spur came from Richard M�hlfeld
(1856-1907), a musician who ironically enough had started his career as a violinist
and only moved to the wind instrument three years after joining the Meiningen
By the age of about 58, Brahms felt that his own powers were on the wane. He
planned to retire from composition, declaring: �I have worked enough; now let the
young people take over.� Perhaps he was tempting fate, though, because it was not
long afterwards that he heard M�hlfeld play, in a number of works including
Mozart�s Clarinet Quintet. Fortunately for us, this spurred him to rethink his former
decision; instead of retiring, he produced a clutch of autumnal musical glories that
are often termed his �Indian summer�. Among them were further works for M�hlfeld:
two masterful sonatas and a powerful trio for clarinet, piano and violin.
The Clarinet Quintet�s world premiere took place in a private concert on 24
November 1891 in Meiningen, where M�hlfeld was still based. Brahms had written
to the Baroness of Meiningen to request �a magnificent cellist� to match him for
the occasion, and the ensemble was led by the great violinist Joseph Joachim, a
close friend and long-time collaborator of the composer�s.
Brahms�s clarinet perhaps plays a role more equal with its string quartet than it is
in Mozart�s work, but the part is no less demanding for that. The quintet�s
construction makes much use of a compositional technique that Schoenberg later
termed �developing variation�; the progression and intensification of musical
argument by the constant varying of the themes� recurrences, whether in harmony,
instrumentation, mood or more. Throughout the work the thematic material is
closely integrated, yet never obtrusively so; the impression is of a tightly wrought
and phenomenally inspired masterpiece.
The first two movements occupy most of the work�s space. The first, marked Allegro,
opens with floating, ambiguous, circling thirds which take time to settle into a
deceptive D major. One would be hard-pressed at first to identify whether this
music is chiefly in a major or minor key, so knife-edge is the balance between the
two. Throughout the movement � which unfolds with a second theme of a rhythmic
definition and strength markedly different from the free flow of the first � Brahms
maintains a mood of profound introspection. The clarinet�s timbre adds warmth and
tenderness to what might otherwise have seemed an austere concept.
The second movement, Adagio, is � as in Mozart � the heart of the work. Here the
apparent simplicity of the clarinet�s cantilena is wreathed with a soft, syncopated
accompaniment; the phrasing extends across the barlines in a manner almost as
ambiguous as the first movement�s harmonies are. This gives way to a central
section in which the clarinet enters a series of rhapsodic outbursts, winding up the
emotional tension to a peak that seems to teeter on the edge of an existential
abyss, comparable only to the terrifying slow movement of Schubert�s A major Piano
The third movement, as so often in late Brahms, replaces the (by then) traditional
scherzo with a gentler-paced Andantino, again reflective and songful, yet subtly
brightening the mood after the adagio�s profound meditation. Contrasting sections
appear (Presto non assai), fleet-footed this time but based on the same musical
material as the opening theme; the instrumentation is delicate, the second section
surrounding the solo clarinet with a halo of pizzicato on the strings.
To close, like Mozart, Brahms offers a set of five variations. They develop the two-
sectioned theme through a range of contrasting characters - from the stormy
syncopations of the second variation to a bubbling clarinet and pizzicato off-beat
accompaniment in the third. But instead of a lively coda as in Mozart�s work,
towards the end the first movement�s main theme � with those circling, unsettling
thirds � makes an unexpected reappearance. This is one of the most overtly
�cyclical� moments in all of Brahms�s output. It ushers in last-minute hesitations
and reflections that, far from providing a resolution or any measure of comfort,
appear to leave Brahms�s darker questions forever unanswered.