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Instruments of Mass Seduction V

The Clarinet

Significant music for the clarinet really begins with Mozart. He excitedly wrote to his father that introducing the new instrument to the orchestra opened up a wealth of new coloristic possibilities. Around 1770 he began to write clarinet parts for his divertimenti and by 1778 was including the instrument as a standard member of his orchestra. Clarinets accompany voices in Mozart’s nocturnes K436 to 439 and even merited their own composition, the Adagio K411 for two clarinets and three basset horns. For his friend and fellow freemason Anton Stadler, Mozart composed a variety of works including the Gran Partita K361, the Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano K498, known as the “Kegelstatt” or “Skittles” trio (supposedly tossed off while the distracted composer was watching a game of an early variety of billiards), the Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon K452, the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet K581 and the Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra K622 as well as highly developed parts in La Clemenza di Tito, The Magic Flute and the Requiem. Mozart was the first to appreciate the similar sonorities of the viola and the clarinet and exploit this phenomenon in the “Kegelstatt”. The beautiful main theme of the third movement is one of the most famous in all of Mozart and has been used as a theme song for several classical music radio programs. The K581 quintet is the first to feature the clarinet as if it were the solo instrument of a concerto. One of the simplest and most delightful of all of Mozart’s works, this quintet could easily be subtitled the “unbearable lightness of being”. The concerto, the last major work written by the composer, pits the soloist against a relatively large orchestra for the period. The solo instrument remains discreet throughout, however, never even playing a cadenza. The slow movement is transcendentally beautiful and the third movement expresses the personality of the clarinet as wonderfully playful. Mozart was inspired by the many clarinet concerti of Stamitz who had introduced the solo instrument into his Mannheim orchestra in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Beethoven considered the clarinet a standard instrument in his orchestra and wrote several important solo passages (the first contained in the Symphony #3) for this still fledgling instrument. Particularly in the ”Pastorale”, the clarinet is the equal of all of the wind instruments, participating in the birdcalls and other sounds of nature. Schubert wrote a beautiful clarinet accompaniment for the song Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock) in which the obbligato wind instrument expresses the bucolic nature of the shepherd's song while the soprano sings his lonely lament. Carl Maria von Weber was enamored of the clarinet and composed six works for the instrument: a concertino, two concertos, a quintet, the Grand Duo Concertant for Clarinet and Piano, and a set of variations for clarinet and piano on a theme from his opera Silvana. The Concerto #1 begins with a Beethovenian Sturm und Drang movement followed by a brilliant adagio which contrasts the lyrical melody of the clarinet with a somber chorale in the horns (this section was arranged for clarinet and male voices and was performed at a memorial concert for Weber) and ends with a lively and bouyant finale reminiscent of the Mozart concerto. The Concerto #2 is more of a virtuoso piece filled with leaps and trills, arpeggios and demonic runs. A soloist must be nimble indeed to navigate this musical mine field, especially the frantic “alla polacca” finale. The Weber concerti were very popular and helped to establish the instrument as a mainstream classical staple.

Max Bruch occupies a strange place in music history. Although a major composer who produced a respectable body of music in all forms, he is well known today only for his very popular Concerto #1 for Violin and Orchestra, a favorite on records from Heifetz to Midori, and his Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra. Bruch expanded on Mozart’s example of the viola and clarinet combination and produced the profoundly eloquent Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano. These essays range from the lively to the elegiac to the simply lovely and the penultimate piece is one of the most haunting in all of classical music. It is a shame that Bruch’s music is not better known but much of it is available on CD if one searches the catalogue. Perhaps his time has just not yet come. Bruch, like Max Reger and Alexander von Zemlinsky, is a composer who has a tremendous amount to offer his listeners, if only they can be exposed to his great art.

At the very end of his career, Johannes Brahms began to compose for the clarinet. His valedictory pieces are almost exclusively centered on this extremely expressive instrument and include the two Sonatas for Clarinet (or Viola) and Piano, Op. 120, the Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 114 and the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, Op. 115. The mood of these pieces is decidedly autumnal but not melancholy. Rather there is the sense of summing up a highly productive and pleasant life. Brahms experiments with instrumental sonorities, often fooling the ear in the quintet so that, unless the listener is watching a live performance or reading a score, it becomes impossible to tell whether the clarinet or the viola is playing a particular note or passage. His designation of the viola as a substitute for the clarinet in the sonatas shows his sensitivity to this fortuitous coincidence of timbral qualities. The quintet is the crowning achievement in the Brahms chamber music oeuvre and is based on older forms of composition. Brahms, who was an early music scholar (he was fired from the music directorship of the Vienna Philharmonic for programming too much older music), uses this late work to extol the virtues of the Baroque variation suite form. The first three movements are all variations on the thematic material of the finale, and the subtle inner construction and thick harmonic writing anticipate Reger’s brilliant Clarinet Quintet, Op. 146. The Sonata #1 has been orchestrated brilliantly by the contemporary Italian composer Luciano Berio, who has also added his own interludes between the movements.

Many works for the clarinet are found in the twentieth century repertoire. Ferruccio Busoni was the son of a clarinet virtuoso and composed the Concertino for Clarinet and Small Orchestra in memory of his father, Fernando. Both Berg and Stravinsky wrote chamber pieces for the clarinet, Berg’s with piano accompaniment and Stravinsky’s for clarinet solo. The clarinet portrays the cat in Prokofieff’s delightful Peter and the Wolf. Gerald Finzi composed the ravishing Bagatelles for Clarinet and the Concerto for Clarinet and Strings, and Arnold Bax the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Francis Poulenc chose the clarinet to eulogize his friend Arthur Honegger and wrote the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano as a memorial to him. Ironically the first performance of the piece was actually a memorial to Poulenc, as he died soon after its completion. The sonata is very similar in mood to his Elegie in Memory of Dennis Brain for Horn and Piano and chronicles the progression of grief from anger and frustration to eventual placid acceptance. Bartok wrote a very unusual piece for clarinet, violin and piano called Contrasts which is filled with bizarre rhythmic stops and starts and extremely jarring harmonic dissonances. This music is an ultramodern expression of primitive ritual dance which Bartok collected as an ethnomusicologist in the remote regions of Romania and Hungary. The prevalence of the clarinet as a jazz instrument inspired works by Stravinsky (Ebony Concerto), Copland (Concerto for Clarinet, Strings, Harp and Piano), and Morton Gould (Derivations for Clarinet and Band). The clarinet is also extremely important in the Kleine Kammermusik #2 of Paul Hindemith and the wind quintets of Schoenberg and Nielsen, in the latter of which it must imitate animal noises.

Perhaps the most unusual work for the clarinet is the concerto of Carl Nielsen. This is Nielsen’s last composition and it has no close musical relative except perhaps the surrealistic Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion of Bartok. The harmonic utterances of this concerto, written in 1928, do not seem to be even remotely related to anything before or since. To increase the strangeness of the piece, the clarinet is never a part of the orchestra. Rather it is the orchestra’s adversary, doing fierce battle with the side drum which never allows it entrance to the musical fraternity. The middle slow section is very moving as the clarinet cries out over a sustained dotted rhythm in the strings. The Nielsen concerto is one of most truly original works ever created and it is interesting to speculate on the direction that the composer would have taken had he lived a longer life.

The clarinet is a wooden wind instrument with a single reed set-up (mouthpiece assembly), a cylindrical bore and a flared bell. It was invented in 1690 by J.C. Denner who added two keys to the more primitive chalumeau. The modern clarinet was actually born in 1843 when Hyacinthe Klose adapted the Boehm flute key system for its use. Theobald Boehm had invented a “ring key” system for the flute which consisted of 15 holes with 23 keys and levers, and the adaptation of this system to the clarinet allowed much greater tonal versatility for the instrument. The standard clarinet is tuned in either B Flat or A, the A being used for most of the Mozart and Brahms works. The Mozart concerto presents a series of problems for modern performers. It was originally conceived as a concerto for basset horn, a relative of the clarinet which included two low notes not found on a modern instrument. Mozart abandoned the basset horn idea in favor of the clarinet, however the clarinet which was owned by Stadler, for whom the concerto was written, was a special one which included these lower tones. The inclusion of these two notes requires some sort of musical compromise to be worked out between a modern clarinetist and a conductor. To further complicate matters, Stadler’s clarinet had a different “break” than a modern clarinet. The break is the space between the note produced when all of the holes are open and the lowest overblown note, produced by closing all of the holes except the register key. There is a great difference in the quality of the sound between these two notes and all composers for the clarinet are sensitive to this disparity. However, since the instrument that Mozart wrote for had a different break, the concerto appears to be unresponsive to this sonorous condition and some of the transitions from one note to another can seem awkward. Some performers of the Mozart concerto use period instruments to avoid these difficulties. Other members of the clarinet family include instruments tuned in B Natural and C, smaller versions tuned in D or E Flat, the Bass Clarinet and the extremely rare pedal clarinet, a contrabass instrument used by Schoenberg in his Five Pieces for Orchestra and ”Seraphita” Songs.

Historical figures inspired much of the early clarinet repertoire. Joseph Beer was considered the first great clarinetist, establishing the German clarinet style which consisted of a soft and full tone in contrast to the shriller French version. Beer was the inspiration for the Stamitz concerti. Stadler was responsible for his friend Mozart’s large output, while Heinrich Baermann, of the Munich orchestra, was the virtuoso who inspired Weber. Brahms had already determined to retire and not compose any more music when he first met and heard Richard Muehlfeld of the Meiningen Orchestra. He was so overwhelmed with the beauty of Muehlfeld’s playing that he christened the virtuoso “Fraulein Clarinet” and began to compose for him. It is pure conjecture as to the quality of the play of these famous clarinetists as they were born too early for their sound to be preserved on record. Actually Brahms and Muehlfeld only missed the recording era by a brief moment (there is an ancient Edison cylinder of Brahms) and it is tantalizing to think of these two masters’ performances being preserved for posterity if only they had lived a bit longer. Muehlfeld was praised by Liszt, Wagner and Clara Schumann but he himself wrote that the English clarinetist Charles Draper was a much more subtle interpreter of the Brahms’ pieces and Draper lived long enough for his later performances to be preserved.

Clarinet cognoscenti agree that the most marvelous tone of the twentieth century belonged to the Russian Simeon Bellison. Bellison was educated in Moscow and led his own chamber group, called the Tzimro. He toured extensively with Serge Koussevitsky and was employed as his personnel manager aboard a ship which sailed up and down the Volga bringing classical music to many cities and towns. Bellison became the principal clarinet of the New York Philhamonic in the 1920’s and remained there until the mid-40’s. He played a wonderful old Oehler clarinet and produced a uniquely light, breathy sound, particularly effective in the Mozart quintet. Bellison appeared and recorded with the Budapest String Quartet. Reginald Kell was a student of Draper who had a long career as principal of various British orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony. His playing was marked by a generous use of vibrato coupled with an inbred English restraint. He recorded the Brahms quintet with the Busch Quartet in 1937. Adolf Busch, the leader of the ensemble, had studied violin with Joseph Joachim, Brahms’ close friend and confidante. With Draper and Joachim as mentors, this version may be the most closely related to a performance that Brahms might have enjoyed. Harold Wright was principal in Boston for many years and his lightness of tone was especially suited to the Mozart works.

Among current clarinetists, special praise should go to David Shifrin whose musicianship is flawless. James Campbell and Gervase de Peyer are also fine exponents of the clarinet player’s art. Richard Stoltzman has achieved success both as a classical and as a jazz clarinetist, but often he seems to put his own interests above those of the composer. Janet Hilton recorded a very intelligent version of the Nielsen concerto and Karl Leister, principal of the Berlin Philharmonic, is a sensitive Brahms performer. Stanley Drucker, longtime principal at the New York Philharmonic, is simply magnificent.

The most famous clarinetist of the twentieth century is undoubtedly Benny Goodman. Goodman and his brother, Israel (a string bassist), were equally at home in the jazz and classical repertoires. Goodman was the most popular exponent of swing music and became wildly successful. The “King of Swing” was internationally famous and even had a Hollywood movie made based on his life. He was the first jazz musician to appear at Carnegie Hall, and did so with an integrated orchestra of both black and white sidemen. He never allowed his celebrity to compromise his classical music standards and appeared with the New York Philharmonic in 1940 as soloist in the Mozart concerto. He recorded much of the standard repertoire including the Mozart quintet, the Beethoven Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano and the Weber quintet. His recording of the two Weber concerti with the Chicago Symphony under the direction of Jean Martinon is by far the best ever. No one brings out the elan of these pieces like Goodman. He inspired much of the significant repertoire of the twentieth century and was the dedicatee of Contrasts, premiering it at Carnegie and recording it with the composer himself at the piano and the Hungarian Joseph Szigeti playing the wickedly difficult violin part. Goodman was the inspiration for Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto as well as works by Copland, Bernstein and Gould. Far from being a crossover or novelty act, Goodman would have been an excellent classical clarinetist even if he had never played any jazz.

Herbert von Karajan, no stranger to publicity, created a tremendous controversy when he dared to appoint a woman, Sabine Meyer, to become the principal clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic. This was an unheard of idea in a culture totally dominated by males (the Vienna Philharmonic is just beginning to audition females for the first time). Rumor and innuendo swirled around the appointment and Ms. Meyer’s tenure in Berlin was a brief and storm-tossed one. It was a pleasant surprise to listeners, however, when her recordings revealed a fine artist capable of playing at a high intellectual level. Her recording of the Brahms quintet with members of the Vienna Sextet is particularly satisfying.

In its relatively brief history the clarinet has become one of the most expressive instruments of the orchestra and an integral part of some the most sublime chamber music in the repertoire. There are heroic moments of intensely fragile beauty and power, such as when the clarinets stand alone against the tempest that is the first movement of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony or that gorgeous point in the second movement of the Piano Concerto #2 of Rachmaninoff when the melody changes almost imperceptibly from flute to clarinet, where only the richly resonant sound of this instrument will do. Mozart’s instincts about the clarinet were right. It adds tremendous color to the orchestral palette.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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