Taking advantage of the new expressive possibilities opened up by improvements in the design of the clarinet, Mozart created a concerto of exquisite beauty – one of the last works he would ever write.
In 1791, in the last year of his life, Mozart began one of the most extraordinary creative outpourings of all art, writing The Magic Flute, the final Piano Concerto, the Requiem, the motet Ave verum Corpus, and his beloved Clarinet Concerto.
The clarinet was a new arrival in the orchestra of Mozart’s day. Instrument-makers had made some improvements to the design, which gave the clarinet a more attractive sound across its whole register, from the lowest notes to the highest, and also made the fingering easier. Mozart loved the mellow sound of the instrument — for him, it was the closest to the sound of the human voice — and he had among his friends one of the greatest clarinetists of the age, Anton Stadler. This inspired him to feature the clarinet in some of his most sublime creations, culminating in the Clarinet Concerto, which Stadler premiered in October 1791, just two months before Mozart’s untimely death at the age of just 35.
Mozart was also friends with the acclaimed horn player Joseph Leutgeb, and wrote four concertos to show off his dazzling technique. The horn as Mozart knew it was not like the modern horn: the natural frequencies of the instrument gave it only a limited range of notes. In order to play all the notes of the scale, the player had to put one hand inside the flared bell of the horn, subtly adjusting its position to completely or partially block the flow of air and thereby lower the pitch by varying amounts. In this way, a skilled player like Leutgeb could transform the horn from a background instrument, used only to fill in chords and add colour to the orchestral sound, into a tuneful soloist and a nimble virtuoso.
In his mid-twenties, Mozart became fascinated by the music of Bach, in particular by the way in which Bach was able to knit together multiple lines of music into a harmonic whole (a technique known as ‘counterpoint’). He was particularly enchanted by Bach’s fugues: a type of counterpoint in which one short tune shapes the whole piece. The tune is first heard on its own, then passed around from one instrument to another, each time adding a new layer to the musical texture until all the instruments are playing at once — as many as six or eight independent parts in the more complicated fugues. Mozart quickly became very skilled at writing fugues, as we hear in his Adagio and Fugue in C minor.
Eine kleine Nachtmusik shows a different side of Mozart’s genius: the ability to write music for pure pleasure. It is a suite of pieces written as evening entertainment (the title literally means ‘a little night music’), perhaps during a banquet or some other festive occasion.