Anton Stadler was born in 1753 in Bruck an der Leitha, 40 km southeast of Vienna. In 1756 his family moved to Vienna where his brother Johann was born. The pair were to become two of the finest clarinetists in the city.
In his day, Anton Stadler enjoyed a reputation far beyond the confines of Vienna as an excellent clarinetist and player of the basset horn. It is uncertain just when his friendship with Mozart began, but the two men were probably already acquainted by 1784, when Stadler performed “a large wind piece” by Mozart (perhaps the Gran Partita, K. 361) at an academy in Vienna. Whatever the case, the first time they are known to have played music together was on 20 October 1785, at a benefit concert for Vienna’s Masonic lodges. Stadler also experimented with the construction of the clarinet, adding to the length of the instrument which extended the range of the instrument downward by four semitones, creating what is called a basset clarinet.
At the peak of his compositional abilities and just weeks before his death, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed the Clarinet Concerto in A major. He wrote it specifically for his friend and fellow freemason, Anton Stadler and for the basset clarinet which Stadler had created. This was hardly the first time Mozart wrote for Stadler. He was the intended player for numerous orchestral parts and several chamber works, including the “Kegelstatt Trio” K. 498 and the Clarinet Quintet K. 581.
Mozart gave Stadler the completed concerto on October 9th or 10th along with traveling money (about $3,000 today) to travel to Prague, and told the clarinetist to make use of the concerto at the benefit concert the artist had arranged in that city. Stadler arrived in Prague on October 13th or 14th and according to Prague city records, Stadler’s concert took place at the Royal Old City Theater on October 16th, 1791.
Like the original basset clarinet, the autograph of Mozart’s clarinet concerto was lost, or perhaps even pawned by Stadler on the European tour that followed the Prague benefit concert. The concerto we hear these days is a version edited by modern day publishers so it can be played on today’s instruments. Ms. Katz performs the Henle Edition edited by Henrick Wiese.
For this concerto, Mozart chose an orchestra with flutes instead of oboes, bassoons, no brass instruments except for two horns, and a full complement of strings, to make it possible for the soloist to be heard distinctly above the ensemble.
The first movement begins with flowing melodies that exploit the clarinet’s rich tone in an atmosphere of gracious lyricism.
The Adagio second movement is undoubtedly one of Mozart’s most sublime slow movements. This movement displays the exquisite singing quality of the clarinet and the musicality of the clarinetist. A reviewer wrote Stadler in 1784,
“Never should I have thought that a clarinet could be so capable of imitating a human voice so closely as it was imitated by thee. Verily, thy instrument has so soft and lovely a tone that nobody who has a heart can resist it.”
The finale is a capricious rondo that captures the lighthearted, comical quality of the clarinet. Mozart contrasts the rondo theme with other melodies that are harmonically adventurous and unexpectedly moving.