About this Recording
8.573032 - Chamber Music with Clarinet - POULENC, F. / BERNSTEIN, L. / STRAVINSKY, I. / GOULD, M. / BARTOK, B. (Waiting for Benny) (J. Herve)
English  French 

Waiting for Benny: A Tribute to Benny Goodman
Poulenc • Bernstein • Stravinsky • Gould • Bartók


Benny Goodman (1909–86) will always have a place in the history of music, not only because of his career as a virtuoso jazz clarinettist and swing bandleader, but also on account of the works he commissioned from a dozen or more classical composers. All the composers featured on this album knew Goodman personally, making him the common thread on this musical journey through the twentieth century.

Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Sonata for clarinet and piano (1962)

In a recent article¹, my co-author and I wrote about the extremely complex gestation period of Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata. Its slow movement dates from as early as 1959, but Poulenc was still working on the piece when he died on 30 January 1963 (the score was on his desk that day, freshly corrected). On the 19th, he had promised his publishers Chester the definitive version within the week…

When it comes to performing this work, French musicians follow in the footsteps of André Boutard, principal clarinettist with various Paris orchestras (Société des Concerts, Opéra-Comique, Opéra de Paris). Boutard, who had worked with Poulenc, gave the sonata’s French première at the Aix-en-Provence Festival on 20 July 1963 with the composer’s favourite pianist, Jacques Février, before recording it later in the same year. The world première, however, was given by Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall on 10 April 1963, as promised by Poulenc. Sadly, of course, the composer did not live to hear the performance, but he had at least rehearsed the sonata with Boutard and Février.

Although the sonata was Poulenc’s last composition (one of a number of clarinet pieces that turned out to be a composer’s final work, beginning with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto), it was by no means his first attempt at writing for the instrument. Indeed, he had been writing for the clarinet since the early days of his career, as a list of some of his key works shows: the Sonata for two clarinets, a highly modern work in its day (it was composed in 1919, making it a contemporary of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for solo clarinet, and was then revised in 1945), the Sonata for clarinet and bassoon (1922), the magnificent Sextet for piano and wind instruments (1932, rev 1939–40) and the charming incidental music for Anouilh’s L’Invitation au château for clarinet, violin and piano (1947), not to mention the clarinet, cello and piano trio (1921) and clarinet quintet (1923) that were, unfortunately, either lost or destroyed.

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990)
Sonata for clarinet and piano (1941–42)

Bernstein too took an early interest in the clarinet: in around 1940 he bought a second-hand instrument, learned the rudiments and wrote a set of Four Studies for two clarinets, two bassoons and piano, although these were never published. In September 1941, at the age of 23, he began work in Florida on his Sonata for clarinet, completing it in Boston in February 1942. He was later to say, “I’ve always loved the Clarinet Sonata, particularly because it was my first published piece. I remember how proud I was of it and, for that matter, I still am—in spite of a certain student element in the work.” Dedicated to clarinettist David Oppenheim, it was first performed on 21 April 1942 in Boston, with David Glazer on clarinet and the composer at the keyboard.

Bernstein dedicated his Prelude, Fugue and Riffs for clarinet and jazz band to Goodman in 1949 (the première only came in 1955). More recently, meanwhile, another work has come to light: Leonardo’s Vision, a piece based on the notes on an eye chart that Bernstein had spotted during a visit to his friend and dentist Ron Odrich (who was also a talented clarinettist). The score appeared in 1998, several years after Bernstein’s death, the composer’s original theme having been worked into a set of variations by Odrich and Larry Fallon.

George Gershwin (1898–1937)
Three Preludes for piano (arr James Cohn) (1926/87)

When jazz and blues became popular at the start of the twentieth century, it was Gershwin who brought them into the concert hall with his Rhapsody in Blue (whose celebrated opening clarinet glissando was introduced at the suggestion of Ross Gorman, solo clarinet in the Whiteman Band). Gershwin wrote no solo pieces for the instrument—composer James Cohn (b 1928) transcribed the jazz-influenced Three Preludes for piano (1926) for clarinet and piano in 1987.

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Three Pieces for solo clarinet (1918)

In an article that appeared in the first issue of Clarinette Magazine in 1984, we wrote the following: “During the First World War, Stravinsky settled in Switzerland. The Russian Revolution of 1917 cut him off even further from his native country, and his financial circumstances became strained. A patron, who was a keen amateur clarinettist, came forward to fund the staging of his Histoire du soldat. As a mark of his gratitude, Stravinsky dedicated these Three Pieces, written in Morges in 1918, to his benefactor, as the inscription on the manuscript indicates: ‘Music for solo clarinet and for Werner Reinhart’.

“The first public performance was given in Lausanne on 8 November 1919 by Edmundo Allegra, principal clarinettist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. According to him, Stravinsky had heard one of the first black jazz bands to tour Europe and had been particularly impressed by the clarinettist, who between two of the programmed works had improvised a blues that hinted at his homesickness. Stravinsky took the notes from the blues and used them as the basis for the first of the Three Pieces (the two others contain direct borrowings from other parts of the same concert). That clarinettist may well have been Sidney Bechet, about whom Ernest Ansermet, then conductor of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, wrote in glowing terms. Ansermet was also a great friend of Stravinsky.”

These Three Pieces, notable for their great sense of melodic freedom, are both the oldest and the best-known works for solo clarinet, a repertoire that only took shape in the twentieth century. Among Stravinsky’s other works for the instrument is the Ebony Concerto of 1945, commissioned by Woody Herman for his jazz orchestra, and later recorded by Benny Goodman under the baton of the composer himself.

Morton Gould (1913–1996)
Benny’s Gig, Eight duos for clarinet and double bass (1962/79)

Morton Gould was a child prodigy with a talent for both improvising and conducting, and was only six years old when his first work was published. He wrote two works in a jazz idiom, both of them dedicated to his friend Benny Goodman. The first, Derivations, for clarinet and dance band (1955) had its première on 14 July 1956 and was recorded with Gould himself conducting. It later became a ballet, staged firstly as Clarinade by Balanchine, and then as Jive by Eliot Feld. In 1962 Gould wrote a set of seven duos for the unusual combination of clarinet and double bass for Goodman to take on his forthcoming tour of the USSR. Benny’s Gig may have a single dedicatee, but both players have ample opportunity for solo display. The eighth and last duo was added in 1979 to celebrate Goodman’s seventieth birthday. On that occasion Gould dedicated the music to “my special longtime friend and super colleague…to signify my friendship and admiration. After all, how many Benny Goodmans are there at any age, or in any age. Congratulations, Benny, and keep playing.”

Béla Bartók (1881–1945)
Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano, Sz 111 (1938–40)

Bartók wrote Contrasts in response to a letter of 11 August 1938 from the violinist Joseph Szigeti, telling him that Benny Goodman wanted to commission a trio with solo violin and clarinet. Bartók was by then 57, and had never written a chamber work for a wind instrument.

Contrasts was created in two stages. Originally a two-movement work, it was completed on 24 September 1938 and given its première on 9 January 1939 under the title Rhapsody: Two Dances, with the pianist Endre Petri. Bartók then added a slow movement (marked Intermezzo on the manuscript), and the enlarged work was given its première on 21 April 1940 by Goodman, Szigeti, and Bartók. They also recorded the piece for Columbia. The title comes from the opposition between the jazz and folk melodies and rhythms contained within the music. Contrasts is a particularly complex and virtuosic work, and notably requires the clarinettist to switch from a clarinet in A to a B flat instrument for the opening and closing sections of the third movement (similarly the violin has to be retuned in peasant mode to G sharp, D, A, E flat). The first movement, Verbunkos (Recruiting Dance) is based on a traditional gypsy tune, then the calm of the second, Pihenő (Relaxation), is followed by Sebes (Fast Dance), providing a fast and furious conclusion to the work.

Jean-Marie Paul
French National Chair of the International Clarinet Association

English translation by Susannah Howe

¹ Jean-Marie Paul, Guy Deplus: The Poulenc Sonata, in The Clarinet, March 2010, pp 82–83

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