History credits Johann Christian Denner with the invention in 1700 of the precursor of the modern clarinet, but it did not become well-accepted until 80 years later when Mozart fell in love with it. Denner was Europe’s foremost maker of woodwind instruments. He specialized in recorders and oboes, and he was searching for a sound that would fit neatly into the unoccupied sonic space between the sweet pastoral tones of the Baroque recorder and the sharper more penetrating sound of the oboe. He found it in the velvety voice of the clarinet. In a letter to Anton Stadler, the leading clarinet virtuoso for whom he wrote this concerto, Mozart aptly describes what Denner discovered, “Never would I have thought that a clarinet could be capable of imitating the human voice as deceptively as it is imitated by you. Truly your instrument has so soft and lovely a tone that nobody with a heart could resist it.”
The clarinet benefits from a diverse palette of tones and a wide range of notes that give the instrument its vocal qualities. The tone colors it can produce are virtually unlimited. Mozart recognized this potential when he heard Stadler play it in 1781, and he began immediately to use it in many of his compositions. In his opera La Clemenza di Tito, for example, he wrote famous duets for the clarinet and singers, using its versatile vocal qualities to full potential.
In October of 1791, Mozart wrote his lustrous Concerto in A Major for his friend Anton. Seven weeks later, Mozart died. This piece was his last instrumental work. Unfortunately, his autographed manuscript disappeared, and the surviving version we’ll hear tonight was assembled by his publisher after Mozart’s death and calibrated to accommodate the modern instrument. Essentially, the score is the same with the exception of a few notes which could be played only on Stadler’s pioneer instrument. But musicologists love a mystery. What happened to the original? Did Stadler steal and sell it? Mozart’s wife, Costanza, thought so. They are still hoping it might show up.
This piece is a standard three-movement concerto, but there the prototype ends. The entire work is a splendid instrumental opera with no words but a full spectrum of emotion. Mozart’s clarinet sings every note. The second movement, an adagio, is a moving aria straight from the heart. The third movement is a brilliant rondo mostly in a major mode. Almost imperceptively, however, Mozart slides occasionally into a minor key. He always inserted a few dark clouds into his Elysium.
Before Mozart, the clarinet had not been fully accepted as a worthy orchestral instrument. After people heard what he had done with it, that dam broke. One can only wonder what marvels he would have bequeathed us had he lived beyond thirty-five years of age.