Music at the Museum:
A Night of Clarinet
January 28, 2022
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912) Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor op. 10
Composed for string quartet and clarinet
Born to an English mother and a father from Sierra Leone, Samuel became well-regarded as both a composer and conductor in England as well as America. He is perhaps most well known today for his trio of Hiawatha cantatas (op. 30,) which was first premiered when the composer was only twenty-two years old. Only a few years prior to this, Samuel took up the challenge to write the work you will hear on tonight’s performance.
As a student, Coleridge-Taylor studied violin and composition at the Royal Academy of Music where, after a performance of Brahms’ clarinet quintet, a challenge was issued by his composition teacher, Charles Stanford. Stanford insisted that no composer could write a work for clarinet quintet that could escape the influence of Brahms’ writing. Coleridge-Taylor took up the task and, less than two months later, returned with this work, completed in 1895.
Described as what Dvorak might’ve written if he had written for this ensemble, the work has many familiar traits of the great European composers that came before Coleridge-Taylor while still being decidedly of it’s own time.
Written in a traditional four-movement structure, the first movement is a flowing Allegro energico, followed by what might be the most Dvorak-esque of movements, Larghetto affectuoso. This is followed by Allegro leggiero, a brooding scherzo and then a rhythmic finale, Allegro agitato, which agains reminds of Dvorak’s writing.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) Clarinet Quintet K. 581
Composed for string quartet and clarinet
We have Mozart to thank for much of the clarinet’s inclusion and prevalence in the modern orchestra and chamber music. Perhaps even more specifically, we owe this debt of gratitude to Mozart’s friendship with fellow Freemason and clarinet virtuoso, Anton Stadler for whom Mozart wrote not only this clarinet quintet, but also his beloved Clarinet Concerto (1791) the Kegelstatt Trio (1787) and the Quintet for Piano and Winds, (1784)
By the account of most historians, this is the first work written for this combination of instruments. Completed in the late part of 1789, this quintet had its first performance in December of that same year. After the composer’s death, the original scores for both the quintet and clarinet concerto fell into the clarinetist’s care. Mozart’s widow, Constanze, attempted to retrieve them from Stadler, but it was claimed that the scores were stolen. To this day, Mozart’s original scores for both works remain lost.
One of the notable attributes of this work is Mozart’s sublime ability to combine his writing for the clarinet with the strings. While the timbre of the clarinet is very unlike the string instruments that surround it, Mozart masterfully combines these recipe elements in such ways that the clarinet is able to be prominent, but never overpowering. By this point, Mozart had written all but two his final Prussian string quartets, and the string writing displays his full maturity as a composer.
The first movement, Allegro, is in traditional sonata form and establishes the relationship between the string quartet and the clarinet. The mood is set by a brief, seven-measure statement by the strings before the clarinet is introduced and the dialogue between the instruments begins.
The second movement, Larghetto, draws some comparison to the lustrous slow movement of the Clarinet Concerto and features beautifully delicate colors by having the string quartet mute their instruments. After the clarinet’s initial statement of the aria-like melody, a conversation between the first violin and clarinet develops as the remaining strings join in chorus and comment on the story that unfolds before them.
The third movement, Menuetto, is unique in that Mozart wrote two trios that are to be played with the minuet occurring before, between and after the trios. The first trio tacets the clarinet, letting the strings take center stage. For the second, a bawdy dance emerges, again between the first violin and the clarinet.
The final movement (Allegretto con varizioni) is a theme and set of six variations that explore a wide range of characters. All instruments get their moment to shine in this movement, including the viola, who enjoys a prominent melody in the third variation. We can only imagine Mozart (who performed the viola part for the quintet’s premiere) must have enjoyed writing melodies like this for himself to play.