Advocacy Paper

In a music history class, the final assignment was to argue for a certain piece that was not studied in the course to be added to the course materials for future semesters. This is my paper advocating for the second movement of the Mozart “Clarinet Concerto”.

December 2021

When looking at the syllabus for Music History I: Genre and Form, I became very excited to see the Mozart Clarinet Concerto on the course materials.  Once we reached the discussion, I found myself disappointed, as we only looked at the first movement.  I encourage and promote adding the second movement of this concerto to the class.  The first movement is effective for the study and discussion of form/organizational structure of a classical concerto, which is what we used it for in this class.  This discussion is a good starting point, as it is a standard example of a concerto which follows the typical structure of the genre.  However, the second movement is also worth our time and provides a useful means of discussion of musical aspects beyond form.  I propose that we add a study of the second movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, in addition to looking at the first movement with the purpose of studying form.

Mozart wrote his famous Clarinet Concerto in 1791 for Anton Stadler to perform.  The original version of this piece was composed for Stadler’s basset clarinet, which he had designed with two extra pitches in the lower range of the instrument.  Considering his friend’s love of the lower register, Mozart wrote the music specifically for that instrument to show off its technical and musical range.  The composer died not long after the piece’s premiere, and the original score was lost.  Modern publications have since been edited to accommodate clarinets without Stadler’s lower extension.

There are a few different ways in which the Adagio movement of this concerto could be studied in this class.  We can choose from a variety of commentary made on this work over the years and use the observations of other musicians as a base for discussions.  Some of the potential topics fit into discussions which are already included in the class whereas others take on a slightly different angle. 

In week 11 of this course, we had a discussion titled “What is it about?”.  During this conversation, we debated whether music is about anything.  If so, who dictates the story?  Can it be about more than one thing?  This was one of the more active discussions.  It seemed to get all the students reflecting upon the point of music, which is something that we, as musicians, should take time to do occasionally.  The second movement of this concerto is a perfect fit for this discussion.

Because he was nearing the end of his life while composing it, there is a great deal of speculation that Mozart wrote the Adagio movement as an emotional response to death and a dramatic farewell to music.  Can we prove that this is true?  Could this work be about something else?  Does the meaning change for each performer and listener?  All these questions would provide students with an opportunity to engage in an important, interesting debate which also takes place outside the classroom in professional music settings. 

Discussing the meaning of music is accompanied by our topic for week 10, in which we talked about what Quantz referred to as “those who know” and “those who love it”.  Mozart’s Adagio movement is widely known and admired for its pure beauty.  Many who hear it do not think beyond the lovely melody, but musicians who study it for performance or analysis focus on all the details.  Because this is such a famous work, it could be used as an example of a piece commonly viewed differently by “those who know” and “those who love it”.

Another common theme in criticism of this movement is that it is casually considered the “easy” movement, or the easiest for amateur clarinetists.  Having played the clarinet most of my life and learned this movement in detail, I disagree with this claim.  I have learned the first and second movements in full, and only touched on the third.  Comparing the first two, then, I find that the second is far more challenging to play well.

The first eight measures introduce the main theme of the movement (see Figure 1).  It looks simple enough, but these few bars were what I spent much of my time working on when learning to play this piece.

Figure 1

While there is flexibility in the tempo, it is adagio, and I learned it at the written marking of 54 bpm.  Because of the slow tempo and simple notes and rhythms, it is incredibly hard to play this phrase well.  It cannot be rushed but must keep some sense of time; yet it can also be played with the sensation that it is beyond time.  Other musical aspects such as dynamics and articulation also need to be considered to play this line effectively. 

Two other recurring themes are particularly difficult to accomplish well in this work.  Mozart includes sextuplets throughout the movement which are tempting to play too quickly, even though they are still within the guideline of the slow tempo (see Figure 2). 

Figure 2

Every musician has been told that intimidating rhythms such as sextuplets are not inherently fast.  Mozart uses more complicated rhythms in a very slow piece, which goes against our inclination that they ought to be played quickly, making the music that much harder to play well.  Sometimes it is easier to play more technical music at a fast tempo rather than slow, when the audience is more likely to notice mistakes.

Lastly, Mozart utilizes a trill to end a couple phrases in the music (see Figure 3).  While an epic trill at the end of a passage is common in concertos, the trill in this movement provides further grounds for discussing musical complexity in this class.  When learning this piece, I was given two different bits of advice on playing the recurring trill.  One was that I take my time with it, stretching the tempo slightly, almost as if I decided when the first beat of the next measure would begin instead of following to the metronome.  Another suggestion recommended that I play the trill however I wanted to during the three beats that it lasted, but then end right on the downbeat with no additional time or ritardando. 

Figure 3

These specific details combined with the claim that this movement is, overall, the easiest of the three creates the possibility for a new discussion with which any musician can relate.

One approach would be to consider these details and talk about them in the scope of performance techniques, both in this work and others.  For this concerto specifically, there are academic resources which have studied this very topic (see works cited).  Another approach involves the question of whether the second movement of this concerto is underrated as a difficult piece.  Why do experts say that it is easier than the others?  Is there an overall standard for what is “hard” and “easy” to perform in a piece of music?  Perhaps it depends on the strengths of individual musicians.  One might excel at finger technique but runs out of breath too quickly, while another may have phenomenal breath control but struggles with fast motions in the hands.  How can we speak more accurately about music being “hard” or “easy” to play?  Both options for discussions would be beneficial to students, especially because they would enable them to bring their own experiences with performance and music of varying levels of complexity to the conversation.  It may even help increase participation in the discussion, as connecting what we learn in the classroom to our own lives and experiences is an important part of our education.

Mozart’s Adagio movement of his Clarinet Concerto provides a base for examining many aspects of music history.  It could fit in perfectly with our discussion of what music is about as well as spark a new conversation about performance technique or the unwritten standard for difficult music.  All these options include an aspect of inviting students to share their own experiences with which to connect to the topics.  There are several possibilities for incorporating this movement in course material, and I would argue that any (or all) of them would be beneficial to students who take this class in the future.

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