Notes on Mozart’s Trio for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano

The Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, by Mozart, is one of the few trios involving the clarinet and a string instrument that is played by every clarinetist who can play reasonably well (let us say “very well’) and who can find a violist and a pianist who can finally learn to play all of those notes found within the final movement.

Would you believe that this writer has performed the piece more than a hundred times?

It remains a controversial work, not because of any technical difficulties, (although, certainly they exist), but because of an insoluble problem: that of the tempi, specifically the tempo of the first movement, marked 6/8, allegretto. In almost all cases, the uneven trio (three players) will vote for the wrong tempo, the tempo of a fairly rapid two beats to the measure, at least 72 for the dotted quarter note.

This is a simple tempo; right, the piece goes along and somehow you get to the end of the first movement. For a moment, let us go on and we will find ourselves at the Menuetto which, we will find, will frequently be performed at about (give or take a click) 72 for each measure of 3/4 time. If we consider the final movement, we will most frequently find ourselves performing the piece in a slow two … you guessed it, about 72 for the half-note.

Now, look up and see how many movements will sound to the audience like the same tempo … ALL, every movement sounds the same, at least in tempo. It turns out to be a light and easy piece to play.

But let us go back, because the above is all wrong, not from the standpoint of good taste (always somewhat of an opinion) but from the standpoint of the very notes on the page.

In the first movement the predominant melodic figure is a written-out turn of 64th notes in 6/8 time. At the time of two to the bar (72=dotted quarter) these notes are impossible to play. I have had violists and pianists tell me … “Oh, Mozart meant a turn!” Mozart MEANT a turn? Why, then, is every one written out? There can be only one answer – he wanted what he wrote: 64th notes, where he wrote them, and nothing else.

In order to play what Mozart wrote, (that means all the players, all the time) the movement strongly implies a much slower tempo.

I have fought the good fight over this wonderful piece so many times. I had one violists simply refuse to play the work … it was too much work to play what Mozart wrote, and many “scenes” with players concerning this tempo. They are so used to the tempo of two beats in the bar, unfortunately incorrect for two reasons.: all of the so-called “turns” are written out, and it makes for a silly sounding performance of three movements of exactly the same tempo.

This is a fine work, even a serious work, and we should give the work its due, with correct tempi. The first movement will work at about 112 for the eight note. If this is the first time at that tempo, it will be difficult; the counting is actually difficult. The rewards, however are many: better concentration, more musical phrasing, a longer movement (don’t forget, there is no slow movement in the piece. Mozart did not write one. Why not?), and finally a better introductory movement and a good contrast to the more sprightly menuetto. Now the tempo will actually sound in contrast, one of the basic precepts of the classical period. It will also allow the usual finale tempo, but here, too, a measure of advice: if you don’t want the pianist to murder the two of you, NOT TOO FAST in the last movement. The piano has a very difficult couple of sets of naked and sequential 16th notes, very easy to rush for any pianist … and they all rush., So, not too fast. This is such a gorgeous movement; let it breathe a bit.

The same goes for the piece. After a lifetime of study of the piece, the above ought to be considered. One more thing: there is a string trio by Mozart that uses the same type of material, one in which there is no traditional doubt of the tempo. Find it and you will see.

Bye for now. If anyone would like to talk further about this piece, please write to me. I have fingerings and suggestions, if you have specific questions


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