Monday, September 29, 2014

Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A major: The Gold Standard

I have long admired the music of Mozart. In fact, I wrote as much when I observed the 30th anniversary of the premiere of the movie "Amadeus" a couple of weeks ago.

But his "Clarinet Quintet in A major," which he finished writing 225 years ago today, has always been special to me. I don't really know why except to say, in that somewhat vague way, that it speaks to me. That isn't really an adequate answer, I suppose, but it's the only one I have.

Not everyone knows what a clarinet quintet is so I will briefly explain. A clarinet quintet is an ensemble of a clarinet and a string quartet (two violins, one viola, one cello). Clarinet quintet is also used as a reference to compositions for such a combo.

I am not sure if it is my favorite Mozart composition, but it is certainly one of them. If I ever get into a debate with someone over the greatest Mozart composition (hardly likely but not impossible), his clarinet quintet will be in the conversation.

I love the way the clarinet sets the mood for the piece, and its notes hang in the air for a short time before the other instruments join in. I knew of it before it held a prominent place in the record–shattering series finale of M*A*S*H; I wasn't asked for my input, of course, but I could hardly have picked a better piece to be associated with that episode.

It was a brilliant touch.

In it, Charles encountered some Chinese soldiers who were, at heart, musicians (and, I suspected, peasants in civilian life), and they surrendered to him with no resistance; in fact, they were insistent about it. Their music offended Charles' patrician sensitivities, particularly when he was trying to listen to a recording of Mozart — and then one of the prisoners began playing that very piece. Charles was inspired to teach all of them to play the Mozart piece, which they eventually did admirably.

In spite of their language barrier, they bonded — through the universal language of music.

Mozart wrote the piece for renowned clarinetist Anton Stadler of Austria. It is said that, in Stadler's hands, a clarinet was "so soft, so delicate in tone that no one who has a heart can resist it."

That's a pretty good description of this piece, actually. For a piece from a composer who was known to be as prodigious as Mozart, it holds a unique place in the extensive library of his work. It is the only clarinet quintet he completed.

Although it was completed about two years before Mozart's death, the clarinet quintet was not his last composition. It wasn't even close. He wrote some of his most admired works in those last two years of his life.

Many of his works have been mimicked by others. In some cases, though, the word mimic really isn't appropriate. Maybe it is better to call such pieces homages. Beethoven, who was Mozart's junior by 15 years, is said to have written several pieces in Mozart's style. I'm sure Beethoven believed that what he was doing was a tribute to Mozart.

But I know of no instance in which a composer mimicked Mozart's clarinet quintet. Perhaps it couldn't be done.

Fact is, not many composers have written clarinet quintets. A few tried after Mozart did it, but I guess it was more than a century later, when Johannes Brahms wrote his clarinet quintet, that composers really began to write them. Brahms' clarinet quintet was good — but, along with being virtually the first of its kind, Mozart's composition really set the standard.

More than two centuries later, it is still the standard.