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Chamber Works for Clarinet

Chamber Works for Clarinet

Beethoven • Brahms • Berg • Mendelssohn

A Short History of the Clarinet

The clarinet is one of the youngest instruments in the history of music. While its sisters, the oboe and the flute, flourished in the baroque period, the clarinet was taking only the first steps towards that technical and musical development that would later ensure it a glittering career. Rameau and Johann Christian Bach were the first significant composers to include the clarinet in their scores in the middle of the eighteenth century. The instrument was first introduced into orchestras in Vienna in 1767 and Gluck made use of it from 1774.

The subsequent prima donna of the woodwind family has its roots in the Near East, derived from the ancient Egyptian arghúl and the Arabic zĂ°mmarah. The original form of the clarinet was the medieval chalumeau, a primitive cylindrical reed instrument without a bell and with an integrated mouthpiece. The term comes, like schalmei, from the Greek kalamos, a reed. The chalumeau, that is still used in Gluck’s operas Orfeo and Alceste, has now virtually disappeared and is only found in reconstructions. Nevertheless the lower register of the clarinet shows its respect for the ancestry of the instrument and is known as the chalumeau register.

About 1690, shortly after the birth of J.S.Bach, the Nuremberg instrument-maker Johann Christoph Denner paved the way for a modest development of the chalumeau towards the form of the clarinet through extending its range. About the middle of the eighteenth century the clarinetto, developed from the chalumeau, began to win through. There arose virtuosi who made exceptional contributions to the development and repertoire of the instrument. The Stadler brothers in Vienna, for instance, sometimes unjustly disparaged in the literature for the cheese business they ran, initiated not only technical improvements but also inspired Mozart to write the first masterpieces of the clarinet repertoire. Nevertheless, when we admire his Clarinet Concerto (Naxos 8.550345) and Clarinet Quintet (Naxos 8.550390), we are often not aware that Mozart was never able to hear these works performed as they can be today, with the technical possibilities of the modern instrument. This still leads to lively controversy between those who favour the ‘original sound’ and the advocates of the romantic orchestral sound. Until the time of Beethoven the instrument was known as the clarinetto, a word taken from the Italian with some justification, meaning ‘little trumpet’. The sound was hard and inflexible, so that Mozart in Così fan tutte had two trumpets as support for the clarinets, a request that, with the weaker sound of the modern clarinet, can only be carried out if the trumpets are actually muted. The second movement of the Clarinet Concerto, however, in which Mozart virtually created musical romanticism, is neither hard nor inflexible. I mean that Mozart was ahead of his time. Everything he wrote suggested a new aesthetic dimension. Why then should we play him, the composer of the future, on the instruments of the past? As Tristan und Isolde was at first reckoned to be unperformable, since Wagner forced the history of music to come up to his own standards (and it never turned back), in the case of Mozart the time for authentic performance had not yet come.

It was the clarinettist Iwan Müller at the beginning of the nineteenth century who initiated the revolution. He essentially constructed the modern clarinet with thirteen keys. Before that a different clarinet had to be used for each key, and now the versatile, characteristic instrument was available, taking an equal place in the orchestra with the oboe and the flute. In chamber music it soon became more important than either of them.

After the Vienna classical period of Mozart and Beethoven, of which more will be said in the paragraph on the latter’s Clarinet Trio, Op.11, the clarinet, in its modern form, saw an incomparable rise in importance in German high romanticism. Once again there were virtuosi who advanced their instrument, together with certain composers, in a quantum leap forward. Richard Mühlfeld, more of whom in the notes on Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, Op.114, inspired Brahms to the last golden age of his life. The Baermanns, father and son, of whom more in the notes on Mendelssohn’s pieces for clarinet and basset-horn, inspired Weber and the young Mendelssohn.

In the twentieth century the clarinet remained a key instrument in modern music. Richard Strauss’s operas Salome and Elektra are explicitly works for clarinet. Alban Berg, on whom further information is given in the notes on the Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op.5, Stravinsky and Karlheinz Stockhausen have written important works for this eternally young prima donna of the woodwind. Thanks to Benny Goodman, also one of the most eminent clarinettists of the twentieth century, the instrument became an essential element in jazz.

What kinds of clarinet are there?

Normal Clarinets

The B flat clarinet. The standard instrument, with a range from d to b flat’’’’. Character: bright, full, brilliant.

The A clarinet. Similar to the B flat clarinet, but gentler and more transparent in tone, with a range from c sharp to a’’’’.

The C clarinet. Less often used, with a rustic, shrill sound, used by Smetana in The Bartered Bride and by Richard Strauss in Der Rosenkavalier, but often played on the B flat clarinet. The range is from e to c’’’’.


High Clarinets

The small E flat and D clarinets. Character: joking, standing out. Used by Richard Strauss in Till Eulenspiegel and Salome.

Low Clarinets

The bass clarinet. Important in Wagner, Liszt, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich to show the sinister or dangerous.

The basset-horn. Now rare, with a mysteriously heavy colour, this instrument was developed in Germany in the middle of the eighteenth century. Its range is from C to c’’’. It naturally has no connection with the horn and owes its name to the same family of instrument-makers. With a length of over a metre it needs a support when it is played. It was more important in the classical period (Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Requiem) than in the romantic, when the stronger toned alto clarinet came into use. Richard Strauss used the basset-horn in Elektra and Capriccio.

The less often used contrabass clarinet and saxophone belong to the same family.

How does the clarinet work?

The exceptional range of the clarinet, compared with other woodwind instruments, is achieved not by overblowing (blowing more strongly) by an octave but by twelve notes. The reed of a normal clarinet has, including the bell and the mouthpiece, an overall length of 67 centimetres (B flat clarinet) and of 71 centimetres (A clarinet). It is now made of African blackwood. The mouthpiece is today generally made of rubber or a manufactured material (ebonite).

The clarinet is made up of five parts: The mouthpiece. The reed, which is attached to the mouthpiece, is made from the plant Arundo donax L., native to the Mediterranean. The barrel is a short, wider section below the mouthpiece. The voicing of the instrument can be corrected by the insertion of barrels of different length. The left-hand or upper joint (section) is cylindrical, as is the right-hand or lower joint. The clarinet differs from other woodwind instruments which are concave in structure. The bell gives out the sound.

The Character of the Clarinet

There is first a purely physical reason for the fact that the clarinet has the effect on us of a human voice. Since, unlike the other woodwind instruments, it has a cylindrical rather than a concave bore, the various overtones are virtually filtered out. Acoustically this gives the sound of the clarinet a particular purity. The mouthpiece too has only a single reed and not two, like the oboe, the characteristically shriller tone of which is produced by the beat of one reed against the other. The single reed on the other hand vibrates quickly and oscillates freely. The sound is made by the lips and mouth of the player, making possible the production of a soft and smooth quality.

The clarinet is more expressive than any other wind instrument. It is possible to weep, to laugh, to be noisy, to charm and to sing with it. It has a large range and unusual effects can be achieved, from a whispered pianissimo to a fortissimo, throughout. The horn has similar possibilities, but it is less flexible, with its embouchure. The clarinet, on the other hand, is not so difficult to learn and poses the player no insurmountable technical difficulties. It is possible, therefore, to concentrate completely on the instrument’s expressive features and its almost endless nuances of colouring, from lyrical animation to high drama. In order to draw such sounds from a violin at least seven years of basic training are needed. With the clarinet from four to six years of regular application should provide a good enough command of the instrument.

The functions of the clarinet have always been extensive. It is an important instrument in military bands and formative in Bohemian and Jewish folk-music. It left its mark on Mozart’s years of maturity and reached its height in the romantic period, the emotionality and allusiveness of which it was particularly suited to meet.

The expression of emotion is an element in clarinet solos in opera. They never embody the modest, the noble or the sublime. Their field ranges from the outburst of feeling to the instrumentally erotic. The clarinet grieves over the pains of love of the young huntsman Max in Der Freischütz and of Violetta in La traviata. The clarinet accompanies Cavaradossi on his way to the firing-squad and Alvaro in Verdi’s The Force of Destiny, to the knowledge that his life lies in ruins.

The CD: Works by Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Alban Berg.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Trio in B flat major, Op.11, ‘Gassenhauer Trio’ for piano, clarinet and cello

Beethoven was no conformist to contemporary fashions. He had his own diabolical method of dealing with leading figures of the time and their one-day wonders that have now become mere historical curiosities, and humiliated them through his variations. When the great publisher Diabelli compelled the musical elite of his time to write piano variations on a theme of his, fifty composers dutifully made their minute-long contribution to the affair, among them Schubert and the eleven-year-old Liszt. Beethoven, however, who despised the theme, wrote him the greatest set of variations since Bach’s Goldberg Variations. With the terzetto for three basses, Pria ch’io l’impegno, from the comic opera Der Korsar oder Die Liebe unter Seeleuten (The Corsair or Love among the Sailors) by Joseph Weigl, Beethoven seems to have acted with a certain malice. How the 27-year-old Beethoven took the then unimaginably popular and often varied theme for his Trio in B flat major, Op.11, must remain an object of speculation. The fact is that Beethoven took the theme as the basis of the third movement, Tema con variazioni, Allegretto. This is the reason for the common nickname of the work, the Gassenhauer Trio (Popular Song Trio).

In his Kegelstatt Trio, the Trio in E flat major for piano, clarinet and viola, K.498, (Naxos 8.550439) Mozart had already shown the democratic way for future chamber music with wind instruments in which three equal partners join together in conversation. With his Gassenhauer Trio Beethoven afterwards created a successful genre, the piano trio with clarinet and cello. As often in clarinet repertoire, the composition can probably be attributed to the composer’s meeting with a virtuoso, Joseph Beer, not to be confused with a leading clarinettist of the time of the same name, who was employed in the musical establishment of Prince Liechtenstein in Vienna.

That the work is today almost always played in the version for piano, violin and cello, possibly arranged by the publisher Mollo, is a misfortune that the present recording aims to rectify. What, that is to say, could appear banal in the violin version and not well suited to the possibilities of the instrument proves in the clarinet version to be a convincing and seminal example of the genre.

The first movement, Allegro con brio, is a little masterpiece, teasing the listeners of the time and intriguing them with its virtuosity. The following Adagio con espressivo, so much simpler in its three-part song form leads, in its emotional profundity, into the world of romantic feeling and thought. The highlight, however, is the already mentioned third movement, in which Beethoven treats Weigl’s banal theme with great imagination, clashing irony, aggressive wit and finally open derision.

The present recording should help to restore to its rightful place a work that has enjoyed unbroken popularity for more than two hundred years, but that has not always been well received by musicologists.



Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Trio in A minor for piano, clarinet and cello, Op.114

Brahms had virtually finished with composition, when, at the beginning of 1891, six years before his death, he travelled to the dukedom of Meiningen to attend the first performance of the tragedy Oenone by his friend Joseph Viktor Widmann. The colourless classical-style play about the love of a nymph for the unfortunate Paris has been forgotten, but in Meiningen Brahms had the last decisive meeting of his life. Richard Mühlfeld, clarinettist in the court orchestra conducted by Hans von Bülow, played Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet and initiated Brahms into the secrets of the now developed instrument. Brahms had found his last important friendship.

A week later, disturbed by the troubles of Clara Schumann, he was again in Austria. From Vienna he travelled to Bad Ischl, where the four last masterpieces of his life were written, the Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op.114, the Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115, and the Clarinet Sonatas in F minor and E flat major, Op.120.

The Clarinet Trio, therefore, following the earlier instrumentation of Beethoven for piano, clarinet and cello, marks the start of the final period of Brahms’s creative life, a work also arranged for viola, for easier dissemination. In the imperial capital of operetta an unusually Austrian work was composed, full of autumnal sadness and tenderness, with Schubertian smiles amid the tears.

The clarinet and the cello are the instruments nearest to the human voice. Elegiac, singing, skilfully wrought, and yet completely unspectacular, the instruments unite with the piano in a wonderfully smooth and organic way. Three instruments, equal in importance as already established up to the time of Brahms, seem to have entered upon a loving relationship.

The Trio was first performed in Meiningen by Brahms, Mühlfeld and Robert Hausmann, the cellist of the Joachim Quartet. At the first performance in Vienna, even the critic and champion of Brahms, Eduard Hanslick, failed in his judgement, when he thought he saw in the trio more a work of artistic collaboration than of happy creativity. This was not the only faulty verdict of a critic who was a strong opponent of Wagner and Bruckner.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847): Konzertstücke for clarinet, basset-horn and piano in F major, Op.113, and in D minor, Op.114

About both the two Concert Pieces there is a silly anecdote, that nevertheless is authenticated, that Mendelssohn too did not escape the fate of all great composers in his encounter with the clarinet. As Mozart by Stadler and Brahms by Mühlfeld, he too was inspired by a virtuoso player. Heinrich Baermann, the friend of Carl Maria von Weber and dedicatee of a number of compositions by that composer, met Weber’s 23-year-old admirer Mendelssohn in Berlin in 1832. In Baermann’s company was his son Carl, a virtuoso on the basset-horn, an instrument falling out of use at the time. The Baermanns were also well known for their cooking, and even the royal house of Saxony delighted in their steamed dumplings, a speciality cooked in a wine sauce made from flour, yeast, sugar, butter and egg, and their cream strudel. The second Concert Piece was composed in return for these delicacies. While the Baermanns worked in the kitchen, Mendelssohn completed his composition in the next room.

Both three-movement pieces recall Rossini in their strongly operatic virtuoso brilliance, a composer who seems to have inspired the early symphonies of Schubert. Sometimes they sound like terzettos for soprano, tenor and basso buffo. Mendelssohn set much store by them and later orchestrated the piano part.

We may analyze both pieces in terms of their innocent virtuosity. Of Opus 113 Mendelssohn explained to the Baermanns: ‘The Battle of Prague. A grand duet for steamed dumpling or cream strudel, clarinet and basset-horn, composed and humbly dedicated to Baermann senior and Baermann junior’. On Opus 114, for which Mendelssohn made variations on a work by Baermann, he added: ‘In the first part, for which your theme is a basis, I imagined Herr Stern, if you had won all his money off him at whist and he had flown into a rage. In the Adagio I wanted to give you a memory of the last dinner, when I had to write it, the clarinet depicts my feelings of longing, while the basset-horn adds the rumbling of my stomach. The last movement is cold, as you travel to Russia, where the temperature is like that’.

Alban Berg (1885-1935): Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op.5

Revolutionary, brilliant, uncompromising in their modernity, Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op.5, were written in 1913, when the composer was 28. He dedicated them to his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, who, like Anton von Webern, the great third member of the Vienna School, strove for an extreme reduction to ‘expressionist Moments musicaux’ (in the words of the important theorist Theodor W.Adorno). Berg, basically a late romantic in the Viennese tradition, in his later works favoured a tonal element, but the three-part clarinet pieces are strongly atonal. Together they make up a sonata, the first a kind of Allegro, the second an Adagio, and the third a Scherzo. The fourth, however, does not follow the analogy.

Schoenberg did not receive the work dedicated to him well, and Berg set out on his own great late romantic way, which places his work today in the great tradition of Beethoven or Brahms, and also moves it into the basic area of competence of the Vienna Philharmonic.

All these masters had its sound in their ears. The last piece has fallen into place. We offer the hearts of our listeners an example of the sound of Vienna that has lasted and resisted all modern fashions.

Peter Schmidl

English version by Keith Anderson

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