Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Clarinet Quintet in A major

Mvt. I / K. 581
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On 3 December 1788, while still in Mannheim, Mozart included the following comment in a letter to his father: ‘Ah, if only we had clarinets too. You cannot imagine the glorious effects of a symphony with flutes, oboes and clarinets.’ This was not the first time Mozart had heard clarinets, but his interest in the instrument was now intensified. Mozart adored the impassioned sound of the clarinet, and described the instrument as having a ‘soft, sweet breath’.

In Vienna, Mozart befriended the clarinetist Anton Stadler, famous for his lyrical tone. As one Viennese critic noted: ‘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.’

Scored in the key of A major, one that Mozart associated with ‘sweetness and lyrical expression’, this work was written during a largely troubled time for him, yet the music projects an optimistic outlook. H.C. Robbins Landon writes in Mozart: The Golden Years: ‘Parts of [the Quintet] 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...’

The Allegro first movement commences with an elegant and graceful statement from the strings before the entry of the clarinet, which ascends. A dialogue between the string quartet and the clarinet soon ensues, and melodic lines and harmony thread through each other. The movement is cast in sonata form; its two themes are heard throughout the development and return in the recapitulation, with Mozart creating textural shading and nuance from the distinctive colours of the string instruments and the clarinet.

The Larghetto sees the clarinet present as the solo instrument, gliding and floating on top of the strings (marked con sordino, ‘muted’). The ethereal, almost blurred sound of the strings highlights the tender and lyrical tone of the clarinet. Cast in the bright key of D major, this movement is a song, and the clarinet the voice. The strings largely take a supportive role throughout and it is only in the middle of the movement that a dialogue takes place between the second violin and the clarinet.

The third movement is in the form of a Menuetto and Trio, but with two trios – rather unusual for Classical form, as generally only one trio was composed. The Minuet opens in A major and is followed by the first Trio, set in A minor, for strings alone. After a return of the Minuet comes the second Trio, in which the clarinet plays a Ländler (a popular folk dance). The movement concludes with the bright Minuet.

The final movement, Allegretto con variazioni, is a set of five variations and a coda, beginning with a lilting and cheerful theme in the strings. In the second variation the clarinet floats above the strings with an elegant and lyrical reworking of the central exposition. Particularly poignant in the third variation is the mournful viola solo (it is likely that Mozart played the viola in the first performance of the work as well) while the clarinet takes a supportive role. Variation four is lively in spirit and displays the virtuosity of the clarinetist playing arpeggios right across its range. Variation five commences

with an Adagio before a final statement marked Allegro (the coda) reunites all of the instruments to conclude the work.

Samuel Cottell © 2016 


David Rowden (basset clarinet), Rebecca Chan (violin), Claire Herrick (violin), James Wannan (viola), Paul Stender (cello)

Video Credits

Audio recording by Fine Music
Omega Ensemble gratefully acknowledges their support
Greg Simmons - Sound Engineer
Bruce Terry - Videographer