Johann Melchior Molter, a conductor in Karlsruhe (the capital of the Margraviate of Baden-Durlach), left a vast legacy of compositions including some fifty concerti for various instruments, among them ones that were rare and unusual for the time. One of the first in the history of music, Molter turned to the clarinet: he composed six concerti for it. The composer generally used the instrument’s high register, penetrating like the timbre of the trumpet and matching the range of today’s piccolo clarinet. The virtuoso role of the clarinet, abundant in fast passages, was composed for a brilliant performer – possibly Johann Reusch, a flautist, oboist and clarinettist of the Court Cappella. The Concerto in A Major is structured in the normal three-movement style: the mobile outer sections frame the slow one in minor key.
Sergei Taneyev’s Canzone for Clarinet accompanied by string orchestra is a rare example in Russian music of a work featuring a solo wind instrument. Taneyev, who at that time had already been a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, composed it for the clarinettist Ivan Preobrazhensky who graduated from the conservatoire receiving the silver medal. It would seem that Taneyev did not attach much importance to the piece and did not include it in his list of opuses. During the composer’s lifetime the Canzone was never published. The prototype for this kind of music comes from Italian vocal lyricism, which is hinted at in the title and the use of “barcarolle” 6/8 time with its sad melody in measured tempo.
Carl Maria von Weber spent his young years travelling. This touring life brought so many surprises that at one time von Weber thought of publishing a travel guide for people like him. Almost all of his works from this period were composed for performances with newer and still newer orchestras and soloists. 1811 marked his arrival in Munich and his meeting with the Bavarian Court Orchestra clarinettist Heinrich Baermann. In just a year, the twenty-five-year-old composer had written a concertino and two concerti for him. The success was so great that in December the musicians set out together on a tour to Prague, Leipzig, Gotha, Weimar and Berlin. The second Clarinet Concerto was written in the virtuoso style then prevalent in both opera and instrumental music. In the first movement the clarinet part begins with a display of its range – more than three octaves. Then the soloist leaves the orchestra very few chances “to get a word in edgeways”. The second movement is written in the style of a romance, its middle section a pathétique operatic recitative, and once again the clarinet has the lead role. The rondo finale is a dazzling polonaise during the coda of which the soloist showers the audience with a veritable storm of passages, taking virtuoso skill to its apogee.
St Petersburg composer Sofia Levkovskaya designated the work Murder, She Wrote as a “thriller”, depicting images of this film genre in music. Here the perturbed atmosphere, apropos not devoid of irony, is created by the gloomy timbre of the bass clarinet together with orchestral effects reminiscent of the music used in Alfred Hitchcock’s films. The tense expectation is interrupted with the “gunshot” that concludes the composition.
Heinrich Baermann, whose performance inspired von Weber, passed on his genius to his son Carl, who already in his youth was performing as the second clarinettist with the Court Orchestra in Munich, succeeding his father on the latter’s retirement. Father and son frequently performed duets, and Carl often played the basset horn – a kind of clarinet with a lower sound. In 1832 the Baermanns toured to St Petersburg, and especially for that performance Felix Mendelssohn composed two Konzertstücke, of which it is generally the second that is performed. Like a full concerto, this is a work in three movements that highlight the virtuoso and cantilena skills of the soloists, albeit slightly smaller in scale.
Like other composers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his clarinet music having being influenced by the dazzling performances of a virtuoso clarinettist – that was the composer’s friend and colleague from a Masonic Lodge, Anton Stadler. The clarinet concerto – his last instrumental work – was completed by Mozart two months before his death. The second movement of the concerto, Adagio, is a lofty dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra reminiscent of an opera aria (which is also indicated by the three-movement form with the return of the initial theme in the reprise). Mozart creates a contrast of moods, expertly juxtaposing the songful upper register of the clarinet with its low notes.
Adolf Schreiner’s humoristic fantasia Immer Kleiner is structured as a miniature suite. The simple waltz melody cedes to a polonaise, and then to a polka with a gradual increase in tempo and diminuendo... of the instrument.
In the 20th century the clarinet became one of the most essential instruments of a new musical style – jazz. Elements of jazz language have become a common feature in composers’ works, while jazz performers have undertaken not-unsuccessful attempts at assimilating the classical legacy. Clarinettist Benny Goodman, “the King of Swing”, went down in history as the first musician to perform a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall (1937), and just one year after that with the Budapest String Quartet he recorded Mozart’s Quintet and later took an active interest in classical genres. For Goodman and also having been commissioned by him, an entire plethora of works for clarinet were composed, including Aaron Copland’s Concerto. The concerto has two major movements – one slow in the spirit of a ballade, the start of which somewhat unexpectedly reminds us of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – and another more lively, where the jazz element increases with the appearance of syncopated rhythms and the inclusion of the piano. The sections are united by a solo cadenza reminiscent of a virtuoso improvisation.