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Clarinet Trio in E flat, K. 498 (“Kegelstatt”)

November 4, 2018: Pascual Martinez-Fortese, clarinet; Cynthia Phelps, viola; Alessio Bax, piano

Let’s dispense with the nickname right away. Mozart composed this richly imaginative Trio for clarinet, viola, and piano for Franziska von Jacquin, one of his best piano pupils, as we learn from the 1844 memoirs of historical novelist Caroline Pichler, who herself took lessons from Mozart as a young girl. He no doubt wrote the clarinet part for his good friend Anton Stadler— for whom he also wrote his Clarinet Quintet, Clarinet Concerto, and prominent parts in La clemenza di Tito—and the viola part with himself in mind. Mozart dated the work August 5, 1786, in his own catalog, calling it simply: “A Trio for Piano, Clarinet, and Viola.” So what does this have to do with a Kegelstatt (skittles/bowling alley)?

Mozart did love to play skittles, a game in which one threw or rolled (accounts vary) a wooden ball or disk to knock down nine pins. He also loved bocce, which he learned in Rome. However, the only inscription about skittles on one of his manuscripts appears not on the Trio but on the Duets for Two Horns, K. 496a (K. 487), completed only nine days earlier. It reads—not in his own hand—“Wien den 27.t Julius 1786 untern Kegelscheiben” (Vienna, 27th July 1786 while playing skittles).

Somehow the nickname got transferred to the Trio in the nineteenth century, likely through a misappropriation from the Horn Duets. Köchel’s pioneering 1862 catalog transmitted the “Kegelstatt” nickname with the Trio, but at the time Köchel himself had no access to the manuscript, so he was unaware that it bore no inscription. Further, he had not seen the Horn Duets and had assigned K. 487 as Violin Duets—no inscription—and gave the date February 27, 1786. He often had to rely on information from collectors Aloys Fuchs, Josef Hauer, and Leopold von Sonnleithner, who may or may not have been responsible for the misinformation. Various writers perpetuated the “Kegelstatt” nickname for the Trio, as did later editions of the Köchel catalog (revised by others), even as they included the Horn Duets with the “untern Kegelscheiben” inscription.

The Trio will probably always carry the spurious nickname, but does it help or hinder? Nicknames tend to save works from obscurity or promote more performances, and in this case it has led numerous writers to marvel that Mozart could have written such a poetic work amid the clatter of a skittles alley. Even without a nickname, however, clarinetists and violists would always have been happy to keep this unique work in the repertoire.

Presumably the Trio was first performed shortly after its completion by Franziska von Jacquin, Anton Stadler, and Mozart himself at one of the “convivial” Wednesday soirees at the Jacquin home described by Caroline Pichler. When the Trio appeared in print in September 1788, Mozart’s publisher wanted to assure its commercial success by advertising it as “a trio for harpsichord or pianoforte with violin and viola accompaniment,” adding that the violin part could be performed by clarinet. With violinists more plentiful than clarinetists at the time, it made business sense, but Mozart clearly loved the mid and low range of the clarinet—Stadler’s specialties—paired with the warm sound of the viola. The piano’s top billing also reflected the custom of the day, but Mozart treats all three instruments with remarkable equality.

The lovely first movement flows at a gentle Andante pace, perhaps dispensing with the need for a slow second movement. It seems perfectly suited for Mozart’s reveling in the mid-range sonorities of two of his favorite instruments. Throughout his entire sonata form he engages the ear with the imaginative settings and permutations of the five-note ornamental turn that occurs at the outset. Also striking is Mozart’s interest in chromaticism in the form of rising half-step flourishes at the ends of many of his phrases. Chromaticism takes on a more astonishing aspect in the trio section of the minuet.

This is an intimate, serious Menuetto of expansive proportions, far removed from the courtly dance tradition. The outer minuet sections feature emphatic contrasts between loud and soft, the former emphasized by the piano’s distinctive bass figure doubled in octaves and the latter concentrated in the treble register. Chromaticism takes on a special yearning quality toward the end of the second section. It is the Trio, however, that brings chromaticism spectacularly to the fore: Mozart focuses pointedly on a four-note motive that circles in on itself in half steps, alternating this idea with spates of running triplets—a truly novel idea.

The finale with its sunny, lyrical refrain unfolds as a seven-section rondo—A-B-A-C-A-D-A, in which Mozart ingeniously varies each return of the main theme. The mood darkens suddenly for the middle episode with the viola’s stormy outburst in the minor mode. This movement features some especially brilliant passages for all the instruments—the piano in particular, which would have shown off Franziska von Jacquin’s fleet fingers to great advantage.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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