If I were to summon spring without Harry Potter’s wand, I would rely on a clarinet as did Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He might have had something like that in mind when, a few months before his death, in October 1791, he wrote his incredibly elegant Clarinet Concerto in A Major, KV. 622. Or was it a last mischievous greeting to the world? Was he saying: I am leaving, but I am leaving in style so you will be unable to forget my genius!
Anticipating the end
In 1791, Mozart was in dire straits. His financial situation was alarming, as usual. Expenses, related to his style of life, were again spiralling out of control, and it certainly did not help that his patron, Emperor Joseph II, had died a year before. Leopold II., the successor to Joseph II., had less interest in arts, he was of conservative taste and opposed the liberal policies of his brother. The crackdown on free-thinkers did not spare one of Mozart’s closest supporters and allies at the imperial court, Gottfried van Swieten. At the same time, Mozart’s health deteriorated. Snafu.
But Mozart was not shy of a challenge when it came to music. He took the draft of an allegro out of the drawer, changed the key from G major to A major, reworked the part originally intended for a horn to be played by a basset clarinet, invented and built by his friend, the clarinetist Anton Stadler, and wrote the two missing movements. The concerto was dedicated to Stadler and was supposed to be performed for the first time at a venue in Prague by Stadler. It remains however unclear whether the score reached Prague in time for Stadler’s concert.
Death and transcendence
Was he composing despite these horrible circumstances or because of them? Hard to say, and in the end it does not matter. The clarinet concerto is so full of joy and hope and expectations that I consider it a lasting message from Mozart to us: Whatever bad luck you may have at a specific moment in life, do not despair! There is great music to be listened to, great music to encourage us, to keep our spirits high, to renew the will of life. Mozart – he will be there for us, forever, hundreds of years after his death. He still has something to tell us. He still wants to surprise us like in the last movement of the clarinet concerto: Mozart switches from A major to A minor expressing his anticipation of death… and transcendence!
Three amazing recordings
I find the clarinet concerto so amazing that I bought three different recordings:
- Bernhard Röthlisberger (clarinet) and the Camerata St. Petersburg led by Andreas Spörri
- Martin Fröst (clarinet) and German Chamber Philharmonic
- Concentus Musicus Wien led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt
And don’t ask me, which one is better! I have no idea, I love them all and I do not dare judge on other people’s performing talent.
The Vienna based Italian writer Sabine Gruber has published in 2005 an interesting essay on the clarinet concerto (in German).
© Charles Thibo