can’t see the forest

Death by Clarinet

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clarinetThere is something about the clarinet that kills. Behold the murder weapon.

Both Mozart and Brahms, two of the titans in the German Classical tradition, composed works for the instrument shortly before their deaths. Brahms penned his Trio for Piano, Cello, and Clarinet, Op. 114, the B minor Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, in 1891, and produced the famous Two Sonatas for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 120, in 1894. These works were followed only by the Vier Ernste Gesänge and the Chorale Preludes for Organ before the maestro from Hamburg left us in the spring of 1897. Prior to them, he had composed no major works specificially featuring the clarinet.

We see much the same pattern with Mozart about a century earlier: the Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, appeared in 1789, and was followed by the Clarinet Concerto, K. 622, in 1791. A few months later, Amadeus was dead. Some say it was typhoid, some say cirrhosis. I say it was an especially acute case of clarinettitis.

In all probability, it’s just coincidence, of course. But regardless of the mood of the music, there is something about the reedy, expressive timbre of the clarinet which is decidedly autumnal. It is, I would venture to say, the most expressively versatile of all the wind instruments, owing to the ease with which the clarinet can handle technical passages, and the striking differences in tone quality between its various registers, from the sombre chalumeau, to the plaintive, slightly nasal timbre of the middle clarion, to the piercing, playful, somewhat exotic sound of the altissimo. Nevertheless, just as the flute infuses everything it plays with springtime, and the oboe and bassoon have always suggested to me the languid flourish of high summer, so the clarinet seems to invoke the falling leaves and first snows with every passage.

So it is only appropriate that, when Mozart and Brahms perhaps unwittingly finished their careers with some of their finest instrumental writing, they chose to devote it to the clarinet.

mozartMozart’s works for clarinet are the result of his collaboration with clarinetist Anton Stadler (1753-1812), a Viennese musician renowned for his expressive, voice-like tone. Both the Quintet and the Concerto were written with the basset clarinet in mind, an instrument very similar to the modern clarinet but with a longer body and extra keys allowing a significant downward extension of its compass. They are typically performed in slightly revised editions on modern instruments which cannot handle these extended low notes (as below), although, in recent years, ever more performances and recordings have been given on period-style instruments.

Here is the famous German clarinetist Sabine Meyer performing Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581, with the Hagen Quartet:

(1) Allegro

(2) Larghetto

(3) Tempo di menuetto

(4) Allegretto con variazioni

Those familiar with the Clarinet Concerto will note the striking parallels, particularly in the first and second movements: the figuration of the clarinet line in the first movement of the Quintet is almost identical to its analogue in the Concerto (for instance, in the use of arpeggiated dominant seventh chords), and the haunting, beautiful second movements of each work are extremely similar in form, content, and mood.

brahmsJust as Stadler spurred Mozart, so the Meiningen court clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907) inspired Brahms a century later. In fact, Brahms had decided to end his career as a composer altogether with the String Quintet No. 2, Op. 111, until he heard Mühlfeld’s exquisite artistry! No greater complement than this can be given to a performer, methinks.

To mix it up a bit, let’s have a few different examples of Brahms’ work for the instrument. First, a very nice rendition from a young artist, Robyn Cho, with Greg Millar, pianist, of the first movement (Allegro amabile) from Brahms’ Sonata for Clarinet and Piano No. 2, Op. 120, No. 2. This sonata—and especially this particular movement—is one of my favorite works of classical music, representing the composer at both his most piquantly expressive and his most astute craftsmanship. Not only are the themes of rare and outstanding beauty, they are woven together brilliantly and capped off by a peaceful surprise ending that leaves listeners breathless. Notice that, rather than merely relegating the piano to oom-pah accompaniment, Brahms allows it to communicate as an equal partner with the clarinet.

Now, a performance from Hungary of the first movement of the Trio for Violoncello, Piano, and Clarinet, Op. 114. The audio quality is fairly good and the performance superb and well-balanced:

And, finally, just to keep Mozart on his toes, we close with the final movement of Brahms’ own Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. This example—the artists are unknown, but good—represents the clarinet at its most autumnal.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding the composition of these masterworks, let us be thankful that their composers lived long enough to create such wonderful, generous music for the clarinet, and that they were inspired to do so by the work of fine artists. Music such as this was instrumental—my, what a terrible pun—in bringing the clarinet out of the orchestra pit to center stage, where its full powers in the hands of capable performers are best displayed.

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2 Responses

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  1. Bluebear2 said, on 12/18/08 at 11:51 pm

    In fourth grade, inspired by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, I took up the clarinet. I immediately fell in love with it and was soon in the school band. My parents on the other hand thought I was spending too much time with it and I had to give it up.

    I began saving every penny I could to get myself a clarinet. I sold seeds to earn a few dollars each spring and mowed lawns.

    By eighth grade I realized I may never have enough for a clarinet, but that Sears Silvertone Dreadnaught was awfully inviting.

    So I plopped down my $52 and have had blisters on my fingers ever since.

  2. Curtis said, on 12/19/08 at 12:11 am

    That’s awesome . . . so you wanted to be the cat, eh? I recently got my hands on a recording of P&tW with Ormandy conducting and Bowie narrating. Pretty cool.

    I’ve always been primarily a pianist, but I also play a little blues guitar. I picked up the clarinet in the 10th grade just to have something to play in the band besides the xylophone, and I did very well with it for several years. I still play for fun, but I haven’t seriously worked at it in a while. It’s my favorite of the winds, for sure.


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