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The Clarinet Quintet was completed in September of 1789, by which time Mozart’s esteem in the Viennese public’s consciousness had hit rock-bottom. He was now chiefly engaged in producing arias for operas by lesser composers who were ranked far higher than he among the Viennese social elite – Cimarosa, Paisiello, Soler – for which he received some payment but no acknowledgment of authorship, and substitute arias for a revival of his own three-year-old Le nozze di Figaro, to accommodate the talents of singers new to the cast.
1789 was, in all, a surpassingly rotten year for Mozart. The teaching jobs and commissions had dried up and his “academies” (self-sponsored subscription concerts) had become a financial impossibility. His health was hardly robust, while his chronically ailing wife, Constanze, was experiencing yet another difficult pregnancy: the couple’s fifth child, Anna Maria, would die on November 16, an hour after her birth. (Note, however, that Constanze would outlive Wolfgang by some 50 years.)
On July 17 of that year, Wolfgang wrote the following, one in a series of despairing letters to his friend and frequent benefactor, the textile merchant and a fellow freemason Michael Puchberg:
“The bad is temporary, but the good is surely lasting, if this momentary evil can be removed… 1. I would not need such a large sum were it not for the appalling costs in connection with the cure of my wife… 2. Since in a short while I shall be in better circumstances, the amount I must repay is a matter of indifference to me, but for the moment it would be better and more certain if it were large… 3. I must entreat you if it is quite impossible for you to spare such a sum at present to show your friendship and brotherly love for me by supporting me with whatever funds you can spare at once…” (Puchberg, generous in the past, but now hard hit by the inflation rampant in Austria, sent Mozart a third of the requested sum.)
How much of the unhappy circumstances in which Mozart found himself is reflected in the sublime Clarinet Quintet is difficult to say, in view of the emotional complexity/paradoxes that inhabit all of his greatest works. H.C. Robbins Landon, in his Mozart: The Golden Years (Schirmer Books, 1989) describes the situation with characteristic finesse:
“If there is any one work that sums up this unhappy year, this [K. 581] must be it – parts of it seem to reflect a state of aching despair, but the whole is clothed not in some violent minor key, but in radiant A major. The music smiles through the tears… ”
For what occasion the Quintet was written is not known. What is certain is that it was given its first performance by the Tonkünstler Society on December 22, 1789, at a concert for the benefit of musicians’ widows and orphans. In what today is regarded as a barbaric ancient custom, its movements were played between sections of an unrelated work, Il natale d’Apollo, a cantata by one Vincenzo Righini (whom Mozart had referred to as a “monstrous thief” some years earlier, for purported acts of musical plagiarism). Anton Stadler was the clarinetist and Mozart himself probably played the viola part.
It was Stadler’s playing that inspired Mozart to create his great works for the instrument, the Trio, K. 498, with piano and viola, the Concerto, K. 622, and the present Quintet, K. 581, as well as the spectacular obbligatos for clarinet and basset-horn (a related instrument) in arias from La clemenza di Tito, K. 621.
Stadler was already a celebrated performer when he joined the Imperial Court Orchestra in 1787, and after Mozart’s death became the first touring virtuoso on his instrument – or at any rate the first who was able to support himself without full-time employment in an orchestra. Stadler had been associated with Mozart as early as 1784, when he took the first clarinet part (his brother Johann played second) in the premiere of the great Wind Serenade, K. 361. He was also a Masonic lodge brother of the composer’s, and, it must be added, a legendary sponger who took advantage of Mozart’s susceptibility to a hard-luck story. During the period in question Stadler earned a good deal more than Mozart, yet it was the latter who was in fact the creditor vis-à-vis Stadler, who rarely repaid what he had borrowed. Somehow, the friendship endured. One wonders how much of Puchberg’s money wound up in Stadler’s pocket.
— Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.