Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756 – 91) seemed to have an affinity for surrounding himself with colorful people. Even a short list of such friends would have to include the Viennese clarinet and basset horn virtuoso Anton Paul Stadler (1753 – 1812), who played in the first performance of the Trio in E‑flat for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano.
Though Mozart certainly knew about the clarinet from his days in Munich (the orchestra in Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg did not include clarinets), it was Stadler who revealed the instrument’s true beauties and potential to the composer. For this fellow Mason, Mozart composed the Clarinet Quintet, K.581, and the last instrumental work he completed, the great Clarinet Concerto, K.622. Stadler went to Prague to play in the orchestra at the première of Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito, and for him Mozart wrote the prominent clarinet and basset horn obbligatos in the score, later reporting gleefully that Stadler had received many cries of “bravo” for his playing. Stadler’s younger brother, Johann, was also a clarinet player, and for these brothers Mozart added clarinet parts to his Symphony No. 40 in G minor.
Some writers simply dismiss Stadler’s character as “dissolute,” but Marcia Davenport, in her biography of Mozart (first published in 1932), does not stop there: “The most conspicuous of the leeches was Anton Stadler, a wretched lying thief who took every advantage of Wolfgang and yet made it hard for his poor friend to believe that such a superb clarinetist could be a rogue.”
It is true that in 1791 Mozart loaned Stadler 500 Guldin, a large enough sum of money to make one wonder where the composer, who was constantly short of funds, got the money in the first place. (The debt was later listed as “uncollectible” on a totally of Mozart’s assets; presumably it was never repaid.) In all probability Stadler stole some of Mozart’s pawn tickets and sold them, keeping the money for himself. A minor composer, Stadler passed off some of Mozart’s work as his own, but he was hardly the only one of Mozart’s circle to do so. In any event, Mozart did not hold any of his friend’s numerous shortcomings against him. He enjoyed the man’s company thoroughly and esteemed him as an outstanding musician.
Mozart finished this Trio in Vienna on August 5, 1786. Earlier that year he had completed his opera Le nozze di Figaro, two piano concertos (No. 23 in A major and No. 24 in C minor), and numerous other works, among them the Twelve Duos for Two Wind Instruments, K.487. Across the head of the autograph score for the last set of pieces, Mozart scrawled, “Vienna, the 27th of July 1786, while bowling.” No such heading appears on the score of the Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano, written only nine days later, even though it is known as the Kegelstatt (“bowling alley”) Trio. It is entirely possible, of course, that Mozart did write the Trio in the bowling alley, though some writers have suggested that he just thought about the work while relaxing during the game.
The Trio was written for one of Mozart’s favorite piano students, Franziska Gottfried von Jacquin (sister of one of the composer’s best friend, Gottfried von Jacquin), who played the piano in the first performance. In all probability, Mozart himself played the viola on that occasion.
In is an unusual work. The timbres of clarinet and viola give the music an especially intimate and gentle character, as does the fact the first movement is not the typical Allegro, but a slower Andante (and in 6/8 time). Throughout the three instruments are beautifully matched, and the sense of unity arises from the music’s concentration and the way Mozart utilizes each instrument’s strength.
The article originally appeared in the program book of the San Francisco Symphony and is used here with permission.