The Eybler Quartet came together in late 2004 to explore the works of the first century of the string quartet, with a healthy attention to lesser known composers such as their namesake, Joseph Leopold [...]
Backofen & Mozart: Themes & Variations
They spoke about it
Johann Georg Heinrich Backofen (1768-1839) emerged as an influential performer, composer, theorist and instrument maker around the turn of the nineteenth century. Originally from Durlach, he moved to Nuremberg in 1780 to study music, in particular clarinet with H. Birckman and composition with Kapellmeister G.W. Gruber. He subsequently toured Europe (1789 to 1794) as a virtuoso clarinettist, spending time in Spain, France and Italy before moving to Darmstadt to take up positions at court. Later he became a chamber musician. Backofen also played the basset- horn, flute and harp, and his writings include rewarding and informative tutors for the harp (first edition 1801), clarinet and basset horn (first edition 1803). He founded a wind instrument workshop in Darmstadt in 1815.
Johann Georg Heinrich Backofen’s clarinet and basset horn tutor offers wide-ranging practical advice aimed at enabling the player to use his instrument and technique to maximum effect in capturing the appropriate character of the music, and treating the score as a startingpoint for creative engagement rather than a definitive piece of writing. In his section on the basset horn, Backofen identifies Viennese instruments as the best of his day. Pitched lower than the clarinet, the basset horn is typically angled or curved in the middle, and at the far end from the player is a box or ‘book’ (cunningly hiding a maze of tubing bent back on itself several times, thus giving the necessary downwards extension to the instrument’s range). Fixed to the end is a flared metal bell. The basset horn used on this recording is a copy by Daniel Bangham (1989) of a Viennese instrument in F by Griesbacher, c.1800.
Let’s now move on to Backofen’s two quintets. The first, Op. 9 (c.1803), is for basset
horn and string quartet. His mastery of the basset horn is exhibited in the flexible handling of its contrasting registers. The opening Allegro begins with a striking figure cascading down a full two octaves to the bottom note, concert F, and subsequently makes frequent idiomatic use of the subdued colours of the low register.
The basset horn’s plaintive side is revealed in the delicate chromatics of the Adagio and in the finale (a theme and five variations). Backofen playfully explores its capabilities as a virtuoso solo instrument.
His two-movement Quintet, Op. 15 (ca.1805), for clarinet and strings (violin, two violas and cello) contains a sonata form Allegro moderato and a set of variations. In their song-like idiom, both main ideas in the Allegro moderato are reminiscent of John Field’s piano nocturnes, although the middle section is more durchkomponiert, revising and recombining exposition themes while exploring new tonal regions. Both movements feature sensitivity to texture, and the dialogue interplay between the clarinet and strings comes to the fore in the variations. The violin and cello gradually emerge as equal partners with the solo clarinet, while in variation 4, the viola in its high register is entrusted with perhaps the most graceful solo. The clarinet used on this recording is a copy by Daniel Bangham (1991) of a 10-keyed German instrument by Grenser, c.1810.
Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 (1789), like the ever-popular Clarinet Concerto, K. 622, was inspired by his close acquaintance with perhaps the most distinguished clarinettist of the age, Anton Stadler (1753-1812). It seems that Stadler played on a rather unusual instrument (now called the ‘basset clarinet’) whose range extended downwards to written C, allowing Mozart to exploit two extra tones below what we
have come to regard as the bottom of the clarinet’s range. Programmes surviving from a concert tour Stadler made in the Baltics during 1793-4 include a curious drawing of the special clarinet he used for Mozart’s concerto. A modern reconstruction of Stadler’s clarinet based on these drawings is used in the recording of the clarinet quintet on this disc ; it was made in 2007-8 by Peter van der Poel.
From the very start of the Quintet, Mozart situates the clarinet somewhat apart from the strings, fully exploiting dialogic possibilities. This continues through the development and it is only at the recapitulation that the whole ensemble plays this glorious theme together in the tonic key, A major. Mozart’s deliberate withholding of such an obvious texture until this point quite late in the movement is a masterstroke, for it adds a colouristic dimension to this moment of tonal and thematic recapitulation, after which the succession of themes familiar to us from the exposition never seems quite the same as it previously did.
The Larghetto’s flowing soloistic lines perfectly exploit the contrasting registers of the basset instrument, emphasizing subtle differences of colour and precise tuning found between adjacent scale-steps, which were characteristic features of the instrument in its early stage of development. If the Larghetto reveals the composer in an introspective vein, then a lighter, earthy tone reappears in the Minuet and its two Trios, the first of which is for strings alone and set in the tonic minor. In Trio II
Mozart progressively caricatures a perfectly respectable one-in-a-bar swing by exaggerating its upbeat so much as to threaten a derailment. The cello repeatedly attempts to ground things with its strong downbeats and pedal points but is eventually forced to intervene spectacularly with a rhapsodic solo in order to quell the unruly behaviour of its fellows.
In the variation-finale, Mozart allows the basset clarinet to show off its more idiosyncratic tonal qualities (including the dark, chalumeau register) and agility across the extended range, though the strings are allowed to shine too, notably in the ‘minore’ variation 3. In the final variation Mozart forgets altogether about the original second half of his theme, reverting instead to the techniques of thematic and harmonic development more often associated with the sonata form, and in the course of some fast and furious question-and-answer phrases between strings and clarinet (the questions flowing in both directions), the seemingly innocuous opening theme is transformed out of all recognition, eventually turning into an emphatic cadence with which this glorious work ends in the highest of spirits.