Miniseries: The Clarinet

I have a coworker. I have more than one coworker, but one coworker in particular.
She’s a music major, a clarinetist. We talk (well, I talk) about music stuff: what I’ve been listening to lately, what I’ve been impressed or perplexed by, etc. as well as some recent efforts in composition. I keep her up to date on what I’m reading about, writing about, and listening to and ask for her input or thoughts on certain things.

One day the question came up (or something) about why I haven’t done any clarinet pieces. The most of anything I’ve really featured has been the piano: solo pieces and concertos, and an interview from a pianist. We’ve also had two violin concertos, but that’s about it. I haven’t gotten around to featuring other instruments like I’ve wanted to, so I decided this was as good a place as any to start. It’s also nice coming off of Beethoven’s piano concerto, which features a lovely clarinet solo in the second movement. That was a coincidence, but I’ll pretend it was intentional foreshadowing.
I’m not going to talk about the clarinet’s history and development and its role in the modern orchestra. We’ll save that for an interview with a professional. It is worth saying, though, that the clarinet is one of the mainstays of the symphony orchestra. Back when symphonies had harpsichords and
strings and little else, there was often still a pair of clarinets in the ensemble. It’s a cylindrical bored single-reed instrument (meaning its octave key is actually a twelfth key, right?), and possesses the largest range of any woodwind, perhaps any wind period, but I’m not sure. This makes it outstandingly versatile, in my opinion, and is the reason I’ve chosen it as the feature for some compositions I’m working on.
It has a wonderful, rich, woody tone that has specific characteristics in each of its registers. I really like it as an instrument, and have come to like it even more after starting to prepare this little series. My only real experience with it previously had been the small army of clarinets in a wind symphony that do the work that strings would normally do in a symphony orchestra.
But generally in either, there’s more than just one flavor of clarinet. The most common is the Bb soprano clarinet, but there’s also the A clarinet which is less commonly seen in like, concert band. The next most common clarinet is the bass clarinet, but there’s also the Eb (the small one) clarinet. Aside from these more common versions, there are many more, in total (says Wikipedia) the clarinet family is the largest in the woodwind section, with more than a dozen types. Some, including some ridiculous octa-contrabass or something that there’s only one model in the world of.
Anyway, it’s also a solid mainstay in jazz. Benny Goodman and all the rest. So it’s a versatile, popular, beautiful instrument. I’m really coming to like it more and more. My favorite is bassoon, but it isn’t nearly as famous a character in as many types of ensembles as is its cousin the clarinet.
We’ll start this week with a clarinet-ish piece, one that isn’t a solo or concerto or anything, but largely features clarinets as lead of the woodwind tribe. Aside from that, we have three pieces: a chamber piece, one with piano accompaniment, and a concerto, representing the classical, romantic, and modern eras. Granted, these aren’t the definitive representations of the clarinet repertoire, as there are lots more, but in a small little feature for this instrument I’m coming to love more and more, they’re three pretty good contenders.
I’m going to try to do more little mini-series like this one. Last year’s German(ic) Symphonies series was a hefty one, but it had such cohesion and logic behind it (for me, with the interconnectedness of most of those pieces) that I had to keep them all together. This one won’t be nearly as long. We’ll be with the clarinet for a month, so I hope you enjoy.


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