I’m not usually a fan of cross-genre comparisons. I remember a few years back there was a GeekList aiming to associate boardgame designers with their classical composer analogues. I’m willing to play the game, if somewhat half-heartedly, when we’re talking Teuber or Knizia (I remember arguing without particular conviction for Knizia being kind of like Mozart), but when people start putting Martin Wallace and Franz Schubert into the same sentence, I rapidly lose interest.
Anyway, as some of you may be aware, I was at one point in my life – rather longer ago now than I like to admit – a clarinet player. In the last year or so, I’ve been practicing again, trying to get back in shape. I started out with the Concertino, by Carl Maria von Weber, primarily for nostalgic purposes; that was the piece with which I transitioned from being an average high school wind musician to being pretty good. Then the whole start-up thing kicked in, and I lost momentum. But I’ve recently been re-energized by Jasper Rees’ wonderful book A Devil to Play: One Man’s Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra’s Most Difficult Instrument (or “I Found my Horn: One Man’s Struggle With The Orchestra’s Most Difficult Instrument” for our UK friends; I always find these sorts of subtle title changes between the US and UK fascinating). The book helped me realize that if you’re really going to do this sort of thing when you’re 40, you don’t want to screw around with second-tier pieces. You want to go with the best. And for the clarinet, that would be Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K.622 (Meyer) (Kam) (Stoltzman) (Marcellus), one of the greatest concertos ever written, for clarinet or any other instrument for that matter. After all, unlike Rees, I was able to competently perform the Adagio of that concerto 20 years ago, so surely the whole thing would be a worthy, and doable, goal.
So I picked up a CD with an orchestral accompaniment of the piece. I was reading the included two-page notes when I ran across this passage that I could swear that if I haven’t written, I should have:
“Here Mozart displays that most deceptive and difficult artistic feat, one that most lesser artists endlessly fail to achieve: that “less is more”. A lasting work of art does not entail showing off one’s talents, but rather capturing a subject’s psychological essence – it’s honesty – in as clear and simple a statement as possible. Mozart provides this again and again in so many of his compositions, and we are eternally surprised at his straightforwardness and lack of embellishment. And it is in this, his last concerto [the Clarinet Concerto, K.622], that Mozart’s “art of simplicity” possibly finds its finest expression.” – Douglas Scharmann, notes on the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, KV622, for Music Minus One
You swap out Mozart and replace it with Knizia, and replace Clarinet Concerto with Beowulf or Modern Art or Lost Cities, and this could almost be re-used word for word. I make no claim that Knizia’s genius is in the same league as Mozart’s – I’d give up my entire game collection before I gave up Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto alone – but still, that one could use almost identical language to describe their particular talents when compared to the artists that surround(ed) them, well, it’s rather striking.
My amazement can perhaps be understood a little better with some context. Although the notes never mention anything specific, when Scharmann says the Clarinet Concerto “lack[s] embellishment” this was probably written with later pieces, perhaps Carl Maria von Weber’s two challenging clarinet concertos (Meyer), in mind. Later composers would latch on to the clarinet’s agility as its most distinguishing feature, and write extremely technical pieces for it. The Nielsen concerto (Meyer) is legendary for having 5 fingerings that have to be hacked just on the first page. Many modern clarinet concertos are unplayable by any but elite professionals. Many concertos – including all of Mozart’s magnificent clarinet and horn concertos – are written with a specific performer in mind, and performers like to show off their technique, and for the clarinet, that often seems to mean the ability to play the notes fast. Performances of even the very musical Weber Concertino (Kam) evolved such that performers competed to play it faster and faster, past all reasonable bounds. Fortunately this is far less true today, but even so Charles Neidich, one of today’s finest clarinet players, plays it at a tempo fast enough to needlessly compromise the piece’s musical virtue (in my opinion) in his recording with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Mozart, on the other hand, understands all the things that make the clarinet such a wonderful and versatile instrument: not only its agility, but its large range, its purity of sound, its expressiveness, its timbre that changes in each register, and its incredible dynamic range that allow it to play comfortably with any other instrument in the orchestra and has made it a staple soloist and performer in virtually any musical group, including orchestras, symphonic winds, chamber music, band, jazz, folk, klezmer, film soundtracks, and even popular music until everything had to be amped … once you start listening, you can start hearing the clarinet almost everywhere.
The topic of Mozart and his famous Clarinet Concerto is too vast to tackle in a blog. But for me, once considered, the parallels are so remarkable I feel little need to elaborate any further, and leave it up to you to explore.