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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 z??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
Disc: 1
Concert Piece in D minor for Clarinet, Basset-horn
1 I. Allegro con brio
2 II. Adagio
3 III. Allegretto
4 I. Allegro
5 II. Adagio
6 III. Andante grazioso
7 IV. Allegro
8 I. No. 1
9 II. No. 2
10 III. No. 3
11 IV. No. 4
12 I. Allegro con fuoco
13 II. Andante
14 III. Presto
15 I. Presto
16 II. Andante
17 III. Allegro grazioso
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