In 1811 the 25-year old Weber made an extensive tour of various German cities, giving concerts and networking. By March he was in Munich where one of his first concerts included a Concertino for the court clarinettist Heinrich Baermann (or Barmann). It would be prove to be one of the more important collaborations of Weber’s career: he was immediately commissioned to compose two concertos for clarinet, and, in one of his relatively rare forays into chamber music, he began work on this Clarinet Quintet at around the same time.
The clarinet was still a relative newcomer when Mozart had written his great concerto and quintet some twenty years earlier; nevertheless, Weber’s pieces are among its ‘founding documents’, as he worked extensively with Baermann to ensure that they were tailored to the technical capabilities of the instrument. Moreover, the clarinet’s agility, large compass and range of colour suited the emerging language of German Romanticism to which Weber contributed so much.
The overall design of the quintet conforms to classical models: it is in four movements, beginning with an Allegro that explores strikingly contrasting material. The opening is deliberately ambiguous in mood, before the soloist takes things in hand with a sudden gesture. The movement is full of virtuosic feats, with the rapid arpeggios and wide leaps characteristic of Weber and so idiomatic to the instrument. The Fantasia slow movement reminds us of Weber’s skill as an opera composer, with long cantabile lines and sudden shifts in register (not unlike some of Mozart’s writing for the soprano voice) that end in a passionate, though somehow unresolved manner.
The third movement’s marking, Capriccio presto, makes it immediately clear that this is no stately menuetto, but a pyrotechnic display of that liquid agility of which the clarinet is uniquely capable – with a suitably contrasting Trio section at the centre. Again, following the classical models, Weber concludes with a Rondo movement in which the clarinet is called upon to demonstrate a full range of technical prowess; reflecting again his operatic bent, Weber effectively treats this movement, as Roger Covell has noted, as a kind of cabaletta.
Weber only completed the Quintet in 1815 on a return visit to Munich while on leave from his conducting position at the opera in Prague. It was a momentous time: 1815 saw the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, and the peace it ushered in saw Weber’s career burgeon.