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), combined with a general smoothness of figuration (nice for the clarinet, fig. A); perhaps it comes from a rising Magic Flute aesthetic in the composer. It is, in any case, extraordinary for being so much more than simple. The first movement seems to grow from a simple juxtaposition of notes in the strings, which the clarinet unlocks with an 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 flowing figuration (shown in the violin, fig. B). 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 glimpse in retrospect of the compositional expertise which made the quintet so successful up to that point. By the last movement, it is back to strange simplicity, in a set of variations of the ‘Twinkle, Twinkle little star’ type. (By the way, he didn’t write that tune, only variations on it.)
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 (shortly before the composer’s death). He was probably also working on Così fan tutte at the time, and the ‘Prussian’ string quartets.