How a priceless instrument was lost to the world after a boozy night out

Nicole van Bruggen owns one of the rarest and most historically significant instruments in Australia, partly invented by Mozart. Yet her basset clarinet is just 20 years old.

“It’s a copy of the exact basset clarinet built by Theodore Lotz in Vienna and played by Anton Stadler, Mozart’s favourite clarinet player,” Sydney-born van Bruggen explains.

Only two pieces were composed specifically for the basset clarinet, both by Mozart: his Clarinet Concerto and Clarinet Quintet in A major.

Nicole van Bruggen holds her basset clarinet, a replica of the instrument commissioned by Mozart. Credit:Flavio Branceleone

Van Bruggen, who is performing a program with the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra that includes the clarinet quintet, likes to quote an 18th-century music critic seeing the basset clarinet for the first time.

“The critic said it has a bulbous section which sticks out sideways, and could be used for a smoking pipe.”

So why didn’t Mozart write more works for the instrument he’d helped create?

Here begins the Mozart magical mystery tour.

There was only a single basset clarinet created by Lotz for Stadler, “but Stadler lost it,” van Bruggen says as if it’s normal to mislay a priceless instrument. “There was no prototype. No other contemporary composers could write any music for it because the instrument didn’t exist.”

For the best part of two centuries, Mozart’s clarinet compositions were never heard the way he intended them to be, despite the efforts of some instrument makers to re-imagine the basset clarinet.

Then in 1991 at a castle in Riga, Latvia, a musicologist stumbled across a rare manuscript containing an illustration of the original Mozart clarinet.

And with that discovery, prestige instrument makers began making Mozart’s missing instrument.

“I gave them 10 years to get it perfected,” van Bruggen says.

Then she commissioned one in time for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthday in 2006, during which she performed with it all over Europe.

But the question remains of how Stadler managed to lose the priceless instrument while performing the two classics Mozart had written for him across Europe.

The reason will be familiar to anyone who has ever arrived home after a big night without an umbrella or bag. Van Bruggen suspects the clarinet was left in an inn somewhere after a drinking session.

“Lotz and Stadler were party animals,” she says.

Mozart Clarinet Quintet, Viennese Vogue, March 16 at The Neilson, Pier 2/3

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