Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus: K. 581, Clarinet Quintet

A quality of uncanny simplicity pervades WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART‘s Clarinet Quintet, K. 581. Perhaps this feeling arises from the slight hierarchical division between the clarinet and the strings, which simplifies its texture; perhaps it comes from the fleet smoothness of figuration for clarinet; perhaps it comes from a rising Magic Flute aesthetic in the composer; or perhaps it’s the pure pentatonic feel at the opening. The quintet is, in any case, extraordinary for being so much more than simple. The first movement seems to grow from a bare juxtaposition of notes in the strings, which the clarinet unlocks with a filigreed arpeggio. A great deal of the movement comes from this clarinet figure, which flows through the strings throughout the middle section. The second movement is a pure aria for clarinet, with muted strings — again with watery figuration. The third movement seems at first to be a straightforward minuet – and for the most part it is – but the first Trio section, with its rhythmic oddity and beat displacement, can give a listener a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the compositional expertise which makes the quintet tick. By the last movement, it is back to strange simplicity, in a set of variations of the ‘Twinkle, Twinkle little star’ type.

Mozart completed his clarinet quintet in late September, 1789. It was written for the clarinetist Anton Stadler, for whom Mozart also wrote his Clarinet Concerto in 1791. He was probably also working on Così fan tutte at the time, and the ‘Prussian’ string quartets. 

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