The basset clarinet was first heard in public on 20 February 1788, on the stage of the Imperial and Royal National Theatre in Vienna, where Anton Stadler (1753-1812) performed a concert and variations (the exact programme, however, has remained uncertain to the present day).
The appearance of this instrument is due firstly to a fortunate coincidence of historical circumstances of late 18th century musical life, when two clarinet virtuosi of the day, the brothers Anton and Johann Stadler, the Instrument Maker to the Royal and Imperial Court Theodor Lotz (1747-1792) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) all found themselves in the same city – Vienna – at the same time. Secondly, the instrument is a product of an age of experimentation and attempts to improve the technical possibilities of the clarinet. One of these improvements is the extension of the clarinet’s pitch range by a major third down, which was suggested by A. Stadler and achieved by Th. Lotz in the mid-1780´s in Vienna; first diatonically and later, in 1790, also chromatically.
However, it is unlikely that Stadler and Lotz were the inventors of the basset clarinet, since in museum collections in Paris one has discovered clarinets dating from around 1770 that also had their range extended down and whose construction corresponds to the type called basset clarinet. In any event, the basset clarinet´s „career” began auspiciously in Vienna thanks to Stadler, Lotz and Mozart … only to peter out again very quickly. The instrument that Stadler himself called a „bass clarinet“ or an „invention clarinet“, later named basset clarinet or Stadler clarinet, is more closely tied to the biography of this musician than any other. Mozart dedicated two of his brilliant works – the pearls of the clarinet repertoire – to him: the quintet KV 581 and the concerto KV 622. Whether Mozart actually heard his concerto being performed is uncertain; he completed it only three months before his death.
For over one hundred and fifty years the basset clarinet was largely forgotten, the two works of Mozart were rewritten for the normal clarinet by octavating the basset tones and were played that way until the mid-20th century. But with the growing interest in historical performance practice, the two works were „reborn“, thanks to Alan Hacker, who restored the clarinet voices for the basset clarinet.
Today it is possible for us to attempt, on a reconstructed instrument from Mozart´s time, to approach the then-original sound idea which is an inseparable component of his musical work.
It would not be entirely correct to say that playing on historical instruments (or copies of them) makes the so-called „original sound“ possible; too much is lacking for that! From the illustrations, letters, reports and newspaper articles that are available, one can get only a rough idea of what an instrument or an orchestra of 1790 or of 1820 might have sounded like. Moreover, we have received and integrated the entire development of world musical history of the last 200 years, all of which has shaped and influenced our ways of thinking and hearing, which one cannot say a priori about a musician of the early 19th century. However, to attempt to make the music sound as it may have sounded back then, and indeed not only by having a copy of a historical basset clarinet in hand, but rather by attempting to look back 220 years and musically transform the spirit of the time, is the special mission that we in Anima Eterna Brugge have embraced, and it is only possible on historical instruments.
Basset clarinet Theodor Lotz – Soren Green, The Hague, 2013 (Lisa Shklyaver)