Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Clarinet Concerto in A by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
A few common myths:
1. Mozart dyed of poisoning. Alternately, Mozart died from an excess of alcohol and overwork. Reality? Mozart likely died because he had rheumatic fever and the common procedure during his time was to use leaches to let out blood. This further weakened him and he ultimately died. Recent research has also suggested strep throat in the place of rheumatic fever. The reality is really so much more mundane isn't it?
2. Mozart was buried in an unmarked pauper's (or mass) grave. Reality? Well, it's somewhat true. The falsity in this one comes about because people attribute this to Mozart's having been incredibly poor. But this was common practice during the time. Emperor Joseph II had abolished all the pomp and circumstance of funerals.
3. Mozart didn't work at composing and he everything he wrote down was perfect the first time. Reality? Mozart tended to sketch out his ideas and then compose the entire piece. He DID have much of it up in his head, but he liked to sketch it out so he wouldn't forget those ideas and then could go back and fill it all in. There are very few Mozart sketches left; his wife destroyed many of them. This idea of Mozart as writing with 100% inspiration and never having to work his way through a piece came about in the 19th century with a fake letter someone created to back up his story about Mozart.
Mozart WAS eccentric (aren't all the greats after all?) and may have suffered from some sort of bipolar disorder (when he was "up" he was jumping over billiard tables, meowing at the cat, and doing other crazy things; when he was down he was writing some of his most heart-wrenching music). He did have a rather disgusting sense of humor and many of his letters are littered with scatological humor. And seriously...on the latter? Here's an awesome verse from one of his letters to a cousin (the original German even rhymed):
Well, I wish you good night
But first shit into your bed and make it burst.
Sleep soundly, my love
Into your mouth your arse you'll shove.
Did you know that about Mozart?
Anyway, I don't think most of us really know Mozart. He's a fascinating figure, not just for his life and work, but for the myths and legends that have grown up around him.
One of his most famous and most-loved works is his Clarinet Concerto. Now here's the truly interesting thing about this work. Not many of us have ever heard the work as it was originally written. Evidence showed that it was first conceived of as a work for the Basset Horn in G, a lower member of the clarinet family that is no longer in use, but that Anton Stadler (the person the Concerto was written for) was known to be a virtuoso on. However, the final published version was written up in A. With a twist (you knew it couldn't be that easy right?). Some of the clarinet's line goes down to low C, when the Clarinet only goes down to E. So what on earth...? Well, it's likely the piece was written for the Basset Clarinet, an instrument that looks remarkably similar to the A Clarinet but has the capability to go down to the low C. It's long. REALLY long. I couldn't find a picture of it standing next to a regular A clarinet, but here's a photo of Kenneth Grant (of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra) holding one. Just look at the bottom of that instrument!
I remember when I was in high school wanting to play this work and looking at it, thinking "Wow that's easy." My instructor refused to let me touch it. Technically it is not the most demanding work (though it becomes more so when played on the original larger instrument!) but getting the right emotional subtlety takes much more maturity than I had when I was a teenager. It took me many years to realize that.
Here is Martin Fröst performing part of the first movement on the Basset Clarinet.
You can listen to the work here (this recording also features the Basset Clarinet, but is audio only):
I. Allegro (Please note that this particular recording drops out the opening section which features just the orchestra.)