Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581, was written in 1789 for the clarinetist Anton Stadler. A clarinet quintet is a work for one clarinet and a string quartet (two violins, a viola and a cello). Although originally written for basset clarinet, it is almost always played on a clarinet in A or B-flat. It was Mozart's only completed clarinet quintet, and is one of the earliest and best-known works written especially for the instrument. It remains exceptionally popular today due to its lyrical melodies, with the second movement the best known.
A fragment of score exists for a second (though possibly written first) clarinet quintet in B-flat, of which a complete exposition survives. It is possible that Mozart completed the movement, as the score continues into the development section on the last surviving page. This fragment is unlikely to be a sketch, as it bears no marks of correction. Nevertheless, the A major quintet is Mozart's sole surviving complete work for clarinet quintet.
The composer indicated that the work was finished on 29 September 1789. This quintet is sometimes referred to as the Stadler Quintet; Mozart so described it in a letter of April 1790.
It consists of four movements:
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The first movement sets the mood for the entire piece. It has beautiful moving lines in all of the parts and in the second half there is a virtuoso run that is passed throughout the strings, based on material from the second section of the exposition. (Quarter note=110–140).
The second movement, in sonata form with a six-bar transition in place of a central development section, opposes a first section which is mostly a long-breathed clarinet melody over muted strings, to a second group of themes in which —as in the first movement— several upward runs of scales are given to the first violin, alternating with brief phrases of clarinet melody. These scales are given to the clarinet in the recapitulation, and then in the last few bars of the movement, more chromatic than the rest, the scales turn into triplet arpeggios traded between the strings under the closing clarinet phrases.
The third movement consists of a minuet and, unusually, two trios. The first trio is for the strings alone, with a theme that has a signature acciaccatura every few notes. The second trio is a clarinet solo over the strings, whereas in the minuet the roles are distributed more evenly.
The finale has five variations. The theme is in two repeated halves, with the clarinet joining in but only for a few of its bars. As often with Mozart, phrase structure is generally the same throughout the variations even if other qualities change — the theme consists of four four-bar phrases (Mozart is often more irregular in his phrasing than this), the first going harmonically from A to E, the second back from E to A, etc. and likewise with the variations.
The first of its variations gives the clarinet a new theme, in counterpoint with the theme of the variations divided amongst the quartet. The second alternates phrases for quartet only with phrases for full quintet, the latter answering the former. The third, in A minor, also begins without clarinet, with a viola melody —also with signature acciaccatura— but the clarinet joins in to finish. The major mode returns for the fourth variation, as does the main theme to the accompaniment of semiquaver virtuosity — given to the clarinet only in the first repeated half, first violin and clarinet in the second. There are four bars of dramatic interruption leading to a pause; the next variation is a lyrical Adagio. A transition brings us to an Allegro coda, containing much of a variation itself.
There are a number of similarities between this quintet and Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Both are in the same key of A major and were written for the same soloist, Anton Stadler. Both pieces are written for the basset clarinet which has an extended lower range. Also, the first theme of the first movement of each piece begins with a falling minor third. Both the second movements are in the same key (D major) and have similar characters, although they have different tempo markings. There is a direct quotation of two bars in the clarinet line in the second movement of the Concerto of that in the Quintet.
Mozart also wrote a trio for clarinet, viola and piano for Stadler, the so-called Kegelstatt Trio, in 1786.
Alfred Einstein (Mozart: His Character and Work, page 194) notes that while the clarinet "predominates as primus inter pares" (first amongst equals) this is nonetheless "chamber music work of the finest kind" and the roles are distributed more equally than they would be in a more concertante quintet for wind and strings.
The Quintet was famously used in "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen", the final episode of the television series M*A*S*H. A subplot of the episode has one of the main characters, Major Charles Winchester, teaching the piece to a group of Chinese prisoners of war.