Friday 23 February 2018

Mozart's love of the smooth and sensous clarinet


The clarinet is one of the younger instruments of the orchestra, though that still makes it around 300 years old. The early version sounded more like a full-blown trumpet than the smooth and sensuous woodwind that we know.

Mozart was an early champion. There were no clarinets in the orchestra he worked with in Salzburg, which was a source of some regret, for he'd heard them in action. "If only we had clarinets," he wrote to his musician father back home in Austria. "You wouldn't believe how wonderful a symphony can sound with flutes, oboes and clarinets."

Mozart had been in Mannheim, now a thriving German city. This was 1778, when Mannheim was a byword for musical excellence and innovation, boasting one of the finest court orchestras in Europe whose trademark was how they gave greater prominence to the woodwind, including the not-yet commonplace clarinet.

The music that so impressed Mozart was a symphony by Carl Stamitz, whose father Johann was the Mannheim orchestra's conductor. The elder Stamitz would have been one of the leading composers of instrumental music in the period between Bach and Mozart.

Carl had a younger brother, Anton, and both played violin as young men in the orchestra their father had led until his death at the age of 39. They then based themselves in Paris, and toured Europe, but the name Stamitz was forever synonymous with what was known as the Mannheim school.

Johann was the first composer to use the four-movement form for a symphony, and, taking his lead from opera, he developed a kind of crescendo that would involve the whole orchestra. He also composed the first concerto for clarinet. The fresh, new sound of the Mannheimers' music took Europe by storm.

Carrying on the tradition into a second generation, Carl Stamitz created a sizeable body of work for the clarinet. Although both he and his father were trained violinists, there was something that attracted them about the smooth sound of the wind instrument that perfectly matched the deeper pitch of the viola, which was what the younger Stamitz played on tour.

The output of Anton Stamitz was a good deal less prolific. He eventually settled for life as a violin teacher and performer in Paris. Carl had by now moved to Jena in eastern Germany, where he continued to compose. He also conducted the local orchestra. But despite the Stamitz name, his reputation across the continent as a viola virtuoso, and his status as one of the era's most successful composers, Carl Stamitz died heavily in debt.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTE lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

Irish Independent

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