osti013.gif (14470 bytes)
"A lei Signor Asino"

Chamber masterworks sublime and silly by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Friday, March 19th, 2004, 8:00pm

The Chapel, Victoria University
2nd Floor, 91 Charles Street West, Toronto
(Subway:  Museum)

Admission:  $20 (adult), $15 (student/senior)

Tickets available from Ensemble members, or at the door

Ellen Meyer, fortepiano
Stephen Fox, clarinet/basset clarinet
Gillian Howard, oboe
David Klausner, bassoon
Trevor Wagler, horn
Scott Wevers, horn
Valerie Sylvester, violin
Sheila Smyth, violin
Mary McGeer, viola
Mary-Katherine Finch, cello

Quintet in Eb K. 452 for piano and winds 
     Largo - Allegro moderato

Divertimento in F "Ein Musikalischer Spaß" K. 522 for horns and strings
     Menuetto (Maestoso) - Trio 
     Adagio cantabile 


Quintet in A K. 581 for basset clarinet and strings 
     Tema con Variazioni

The Music

In this concert we present three of the best known and loved chamber works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), ranging in spirit from sublime to silly, performed on instruments of the types prevailing at the time the music was first heard.  In one case, this represents an opportunity never before presented in this country to hear an old favourite in its authentic voice.


“I believe it is the best work I have written in my life” is how Mozart - being refreshingly free from excesses of either self-doubt or ego - described the Quintet in Eb for piano and strings K. 452, in a letter to his father after its premiere performance in 1784.

The Quintet was the fruit of two areas of concentration for Mozart in the early 1780s, piano concerti and serenades and divertimenti for wind ensembles.  It was an experiment never before tried:  piano in combination with winds alone, and moreover with only one (not the expected pairs) of each wind band instrument.

The Harmonie or wind band - a small group consisting of pairs of wind instruments, at first usually oboes, bassoon and horns, to which clarinets were later added - was a specialty of Austro-Bohemian music making from the mid-18th century (exploited extensively by, among others, Haydn in his early years).  Originally connected to military music, the wind band became a courtly institution, providing Tafelmusik and other lightweight music for public functions; the Harmonie of the Viennese court in the 1780s had the additional assignment of presenting arrangements of popular operas of the day.  This ensemble provided Mozart with both a potentially lucrative hunting ground for commissions and a new sound world, which he enthusiastically set out to explore.  The result was a number of serenades and divertimenti for winds, and strikingly adventurous and prominent wind writing in his orchestral works, most especially the piano concerti.

The challenges of writing characteristically for each instrument and of combining five inherently distinct sounds were an unusually difficult test for Mozart (not least because during March 1784, when the Quintet was mostly written, he performed no fewer than 19 concerts!); his satisfaction with the result is thus understandable.  The novelty in instrumentation was such a success that it was closely copied by Beethoven in his Quintet Op. 16, and has henceforth - with the addition or substitution of a flute - become a standard combination, used by numerous other composers to the present day. 


In mid-1787 Mozart produced, along with Don Giovanni, two light divertimenti which - for very different reasons - might have ensured his lasting fame if he had never composed anything else:  K. 525 - known to us as “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”- and K. 522, “Ein musikalischer Spaß”.

The subtitle of K. 522 is invariably rendered in English as “A Musical Joke”, although “Musical Fun” would be a more accurate translation, and probably more to the point (entertainment rather than a joke with a specific target or punchline).  Numerous commentators - apparently unaware of Mozart’s sense of humour - have felt the need to analyze to an excessive extent the naïveté and deliberate melodic and structural awkwardness of the music, written-in glaring wrong notes and moments of ridiculous slapstick humour.  The piece has been interpreted variously as a nasty parody of insipid composers of Mozart’s time whose popularity he resented, or even of Josef Haydn; as a serious exercise in composition based on irreconcilable premises (the piece is technically very well crafted, though Mozart would have been incapable of doing anything else); as a sublimation of Mozart's grief over the recent death of his father (though it seems that the first movement was actually written several years earlier); and even as a tribute to his likewise beloved and recently deceased pet starling (apparently the opening melody is similar to the song of a starling).  It also appears under the epithets “Bauern-Symphonie” (“Peasant Symphony”) and “Die Dorfmusikanten” (“The Village Musicians”), yet another interpretation.  It is probably best seen as Mozart the practical joker at his best - or worst! - and is very much in the spirit of the title of our concert (see the explanation below).

We trust that the audience will not leave the concert with the permanent impression that period instruments always play wrong notes and in the wrong keys.


By 1789 Mozart had collaborated many times with his favourite clarinettist/basset hornist and Masonic lodge brother Anton Stadler (1753-1812).  At that time Stadler, along with the instrument maker Theodor Lotz, was experimenting with adding the extended lower range of the basset horn (down to written C) to the clarinets in A and Bb, producing what is today termed (rather confusingly) the “basset clarinet”.  Being temperamentally drawn to mellow-sounding instruments, Mozart took immediately to the extended clarinet, writing for it in his late operas and ultimately producing the monumental Concerto K. 622.  The first gift to the new instrument, though, was the Quintet in A for basset clarinet and strings K. 581.

A pioneer of the subsequently standard scoring of wind instrument plus string quartet, the Quintet is appropriately pitched in A major, the tonality reserved by Mozart for profound, lyrical music.  It encapsulates the range of expression found in Mozart’s mature music, from tranquil and gravely reflective through angst-ridden to (for a couple of brief moments) downright silly.  In common with the great clarinet quintets of later composers - Brahms, Reger, Bliss - it casts the clarinet as a partner with the strings, not as a concertante soloist.  The Quintet stands as a supreme masterpiece without musicological explanation, but the extended range notes - while not used as extensively and structurally as in the Concerto - add logic as well as variety to many passages, compared with the traditional adaptation for the conventional clarinet.

The Instruments

Until the last decade, the shape and constructional details of Anton Stadler’s extended range clarinets had long since been forgotten, with only an imprecise description in a contemporary journal as evidence, and regrettably we still have no originals of this exact type.  The recent discovery in Riga of a programme for a concert performed there by Stadler in 1794, which features a rough but nonetheless informative drawing of his clarinet, has at last shown us what it looked like (below).  Reassessment of known museum specimens has provided extra evidence, making it possible to fill in the gaps in our knowledge with some confidence.  The basset clarinet performed on here, a reproduction researched and built by Stephen Fox, thus represents the current state of thought.  It is based on two original instruments:  a five key clarinet of ca. 1780-90 by the Viennese maker Kaspar Tauber; and for the extended range, a basset horn in F by Johann Georg Braun of Mannheim, dating from somewhat later - ca. 1820-30 - but with a shape visually identical to the clarinet in the Riga drawing.  Of note is the globular bell set at a right angle to the body and pointing backwards (not forwards as has been mistakenly assumed).  (Also remarkable is that the Braun basset horn, as with a couple of other surviving examples, has a range further extended to bottom B natural, a note not found in any known basset horn music; this confirms the plausibility of the recent suggestion that the Mozart Concerto requires low B.)  Period basset clarinets in any form are not standard equipment even among historical clarinet specialists, and this concert marks the first use of an authoritative historical basset clarinet for performance of the Mozart Quintet in Canada.


Woodwind instruments of the Classical period were built according the dictum that keys and pads were a regrettable necessity to be avoided if at all possible, being unreliable and detrimental to the tone, and consequently were equipped with a minimum of keys.  The poor or idiosyncratic notes which inevitably resulted were either carefully avoided by composers, or regarded as part of the character of the instrument.  To provide the flexibility to deal with unevenness of the scale, a much lighter, more subtle playing approach was employed compared with the present day.  As with keyboard and string instruments, playing style emphasized articulation rather than long legato lines.  (The rapidity of the mechanical revolution in woodwinds which occurred after 1800 can be judged from the fact that the saxophone was patented only 55 years after Mozart’s death!) 

The clarinet of this time was made of boxwood, with normally five simple brass keys with flat, square leather pads; the mouthpiece was also of wood, and it and the reed were considerably smaller than their modern counterparts.  The oboe was also made of boxwood, with usually only two keys; a larger reed compared with the modern style, some differences in bore shape, and (as with all woodwinds) fewer, smaller tone holes, produce a subtle, mellow tone, more similar to the modern Viennese oboe than to the familiar French type.  The bassoon of Mozart’s era had a minimum of four keys, frequently more (the one used tonight has nine); again a larger reed and significant bore differences from modern bassoons account for the veiled sound quality, more akin to the modern French bassoon than to the elsewhere ubiquitous Heckel type.


The natural horn, or hand horn, or Waldhorn, was the horn used in orchestras and chamber ensembles through the Classical period.  It achieved a full chromatic scale by means of interchangeable crooks and the complex, difficult technique of hand stopping, which gave it a tone quality which frequently varied dramatically from note to note; in general the sound was more veiled and less brassy than with a modern horn.  The invention of valves in the early 19th century was controversial; while some players and composers welcomed the much easier technique, greater freedom of modulation, greater power and more homogeneous tone of the new valve horn, others decried the loss of the distinctive sound and character of the natural horn.


The fundamental design of the bodies of stringed instruments had reached its current state by the late 17th century; subsequent development took place in the areas of the neck and fingerboard, the strings and the bow.  The Classical period and the early 19th century were a time of transition, during which instruments were fitted with longer and more angled necks, longer and more tapered fingerboards, more arched bridges, and heavier soundposts and bass bars.  At the same time, the short, highly arched Baroque bow gave way first to a “transitional” bow and then to the modern style, Tourte pattern bow, with its longer, stronger, concave stick and wider, tighter, more readily adjusted bowhair.  The holding position of the bow changed correspondingly.  All of this led to an evolution in the idioms of bowing, articulation and musical expression, the emphasis switching from delicate articulation to smooth legato, and more power and projection.  Strings until into the 20th century remained a combination (with many regional differences) of plain gut, twisted gut or - for the larger strings - gut core with silver or copper winding.  The cello endpin did not come into general use until the mid 19th century.


The fortepiano of Mozart’s time, as built by numerous makers in Vienna and South Germany, had a small range of normally five octaves (FF to f’’’), and either knee levers or hand stops instead of pedals to raise the dampers and to apply muting.  A lightweight wooden frame with consequent low string tension, leather covered hammers, and light, simple, direct action combined to produce an incisive, percussive sound with little volume or sustaining power, and a touch that encouraged subtle articulation.  Here for the Quintet K. 452 we use a modern reproduction by Thomas and Barbara Wolfe of a Viennese fortepiano by the Schanz brothers from ca. 1790.  The development of this instrument into pianos of a recognizably modern type, which began shortly before 1800, was paralleled by a fundamental change in the way it was played, with the earlier, mostly separated, harpsichord-influenced approach being replaced by a dominantly legato style.  (Only a couple of decades after Mozart’s heyday, Beethoven asserted that Mozart “used a technique entirely unsuited to the piano”.)

We thank the Faculty of Music of the University of Toronto for the use of the fortepiano.

“A lei Signor Asino” – “To you, Mr. Ass” – sums up the joker in Mozart, so well known to us if only from the movie Amadeus, albeit only one aspect of a multidimensional character.  The salutation appears, along with many other epithets and instructions (many of them unprintable!), in the manuscript score to the Horn Concerto No. 4, written as was all of Mozart’s horn music for Ignaz Leutgeb, cheese merchant and refugee from the disbanded Mannheim court orchestra. 

We respectfully dedicate this to the here-unnamed author of the infamous condemnation of period instrument performance:
"...asinine stuff... a complete and absolute farce... nobody wants to hear that stuff."


The background picture for this page is the frontispiece from the original edition of the libretto for Die Zauberflöte, published in 1791.  The extensive Masonic symbolism led to the illustration being suppressed in later editions.

We thank the sponsors of this concert for their generous support:


Gary Armstrong Woodwinds Ltd.

The Frog & Firkin

Michael Sossin