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10 tips for the Mozart clarinet concerto
“Always study slowly and trying to produce a beautiful sound”
After a long while of thinking what I should write about the Mozart clarinet concert KV 622, so as not to repeat ideas which have already been said, I thought it could be interesting to present ten tips, based on the different aspects I work with my students, to approach, as clarinetists, a special piece like the Mozart concerto.
1. Historical and musical context
From a performing point of view it is basic to have as much information as possible about the historical and musical context of the piece one is going to approach.
It is also interesting to include curiosities about the piece itself which will help us to understand what makes it special. For example:
1. The concerto for clarinet and orchestra KV 622 written in 1791 by W.A.Mozart was the last concerto he composed, two months before he died.
2. The concerto was given its premiere by Anton Stadler in Prague on 16th October, 1791.
3. Most likely Mozart originally intended the piece to be written for basset horn, as Anton Stadler was also a virtuoso basset horn player, but eventually was convinced the piece would be more effective for clarinet. However, since several notes throughout the piece go beyond the conventional range of the A clarinet, we can presume it was intended to be played on the basset clarinet, a special clarinet championed by Stadler that had a range down to low (written) C, instead of stopping at (written) E as standard clarinets do.
4. Anton Sadler and Mozart grew to become close, and the composer wrote several instrumental pieces involving a clarinet specifically for his virtuoso friend.
5. Mozart’s clarinet concerto is very probably the clarinet repertoire piece that has been played more often.
2. Musical form
In the classical period, structure was a basic factor for cohesion and balance in a musical piece. Understanding the musical form of a piece will help us to articulate correctly the different musical phrases, themes and sections, making them consistent every time they appear. For example a perfect cadence V-I has a meaning and a specific role in a musical piece: it can either introduce a break, a sudden tonality change or a section change. In music, every element is there for a reason.
It consists of the usual three movements, in a fast–slow–fast form:
I would like to enhance the second movement of the concerto. It was popularized by the film Out of Africa. It opens with the soloist playing the movement's primary theme with orchestral repetition. The B section, in which the solo part is always prominent, exploits both the chalumeau and clarion registers. The only true cadenza of the entire work occurs right at the end of the B section, immediately before the return of the A section. There are some passages that exploit the lowest notes of the basset clarinet in the B section.
In reference to sound, I would like to talk about to aspects:
It is very important to guarantee a “correct” sound, meaning a consistent sound. This is achieved by applying all the basic technique: breathing, pressure, relaxation, tong position…
Is it possible to perform Mozart’s music on a modern clarinet? The answer is yes. Although the modern clarinet has a very different sound and technique to the classical one, classical composers did not write their music for specific instruments.
For example, in the case of the piano, although there were certain coincidences, Viennese manufacturers produced different pianos. We know Mozart played a Walter pianoforte, although he thought Stein pianofortes were much better. We also know that Mozart’s instrument had an uncomfortable but powerful in sound English action. In conclusion, musicians just played the instrument they could afford, because music was considered more important than the instrument itself so they just adapted to the instrument.
4. Phrasing and articulation
Articulation is essential in Mozart’s music. We mustn’t forget the classical period is very near the baroque period, where rhythm was a basic element. There are many ways of articulating, but what is most important is to make the different musical motives interesting for the audience and articulation can make this difference. It is very important to study passages slowly to be able to decide where the leaning points are and at the same time offer a neat articulation. Phrasing is basic in all types of articulation and, of course, in legato. Changes need to be smooth. The second movement is a good example to work on legato and phrasing at the same time.
5. Clear rhythm and flexibility throughout the different registers
I think it is very important that rhythm is clear throughout the different passages and registers. In the classical period, the clarinet had already been improved in different aspects so it was quite flexible throughout the different registers and, bearing in mind that the Mozart clarinet concerto was written for basset clarinet, the range was even wider (it went down to the low C).
This concerto requires a total control of the pp in the second movement and of all types of dynamics in the other two movements. Producing progressive and controlled crescendos is a total challenge, never forgetting the shape of sound throughout the different registers and dynamics.
Tuning is another very important aspect. When working with different sound dynamics, it is basic to control the pianissimos to avoid pitch raising.
8. The performer
After studying the composer’s message in a piece, the performer needs to work on it to achieve it. A classical composer never wrote a totally closed piece, so the idea was that the performer had to bring to life the composer’s message, enhancing certain aspects of the piece and making it interesting for the audience to listen to. This is what makes classical music fascinating. It is also known that Mozart was in favour of ornamental repetition consisting in introducing certain variations in order to enhance expression.
9. “Feel like studying”
Further on I will talk about how to focus on study, but in this article I will just give you a couple of ideas:
Enjoy your study;
if you do so, you will improve.
And you will improve if you have:
goals, a good planning and perseverance;
you know what to listen to
and what to change.
10. A reading recommendation
As you already know, books are a great source of knowledge. My last tip is a book I recommend you to read: The clarinet in the classical period by Albert Rice.
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