Aaron Copland: Clarinet Concerto

performed by Martin Frost and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra

So here we are in our final installment of a brief but surprisingly enjoyable miniseries on the clarinet. 
What’s left? Well, we haven’t had a concerto yet, and this week’s piece brings us solidly into the modern era, with a piece written within the lifetimes of some people still around today. 
Copland’s clarinet concerto was written shortly after his third symphony. I feel like this shouldn’t be the piece we use to first represent Copland on the blog, as he has lots of other stuff worth talking about, but in the interest of this miniseries, his clarinet concerto can’t really go unmentioned in the repertoire. 
It was written between 1947 and 1949 as a commission from Benny Goodman, one of the world’s famous (jazz) clarinetists. 
Can I just say something here? I can’t even really describe why, but I just don’t like jazz. That might seem strange coming from someone who started playing the saxophone around 20 years ago, and has been in jazz bands, but I love big band and swing stuff, and I don’t mind a lot of Benny Goodman’s repertoire, but … that jazz club live band/trio stuff… kind of makes me cringe. I know it is a worthy genre with incredibly talented musicians, but it’s not for me. 
So when this piece came up for this series, I figured… it’s probably as close as we’ll get to the genre on this blog. Something else that comes to mind when one thinks of orchestral writing flirting with jazz in a classical setting is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, written a few decades earlier, but that was originally actually for a piano and jazz ensemble, only arranged for an orchestra in 1942, still a number of years before this work was completed. Anyway…
Wikipedia has a quote from Goodman to Copland biographer Vivian Perlis. He is quoted as saying:

I made no demands on what Copland should write. He had completely free rein, except that I should have a two-year exclusivity on playing the work. I paid two thousand dollars and that’s real money. At the time there were not too many American composers to pick from… We never had much trouble except for a little fracas about the spot before the cadenza where he had written a repetition of some phrase. I was a little sticky about leaving it out—it was where the viola was the echo to give the clarinet a cue. But I think Aaron finally did leave it out… Aaron and I played the concerto quite a few times with him conducting, and we made two recordings.

I think a few things of this quote. For one, it must have been quite a compliment for Copland (or for any artist) to have someone come to them with zero requirements for the piece. It’s the omakase of commissions, in a way. He has free rein to do whatever he wanted with it. Goodman’s only
stipulation was to have performance rights. 
There are some conflicting opinions of the premiere dates for the piece, some claiming that the November 6, 1950 ‘premiere’ with Fritz Reiner and the NBC Symphony was not the first performance, but whatever. There was some delay not from Copland in composing it, but from Goodman finally to get around to performing it.
It quickly made its place as a famous standard in the repertoire. It is unique in structure among almost any concerto for any other instrument, and unique in the pieces for clarinet that we have discussed.
It is in two major sections with a cadenza in the middle. The first section is lyrical, slow, extremely tender and bittersweet, and the second is the jazzy, lively very modern bit. These two sections are split not just by their extremely different language, but separated by the cadenza between them. The first movement bleeds into the cadenza, where the piece morphs and not only shows off the soloist’s virtuosity, but introduces the jazzy, bluesy elements that make up the greater portion of the second half of the piece.
The first ‘movement,’ or section is really sumptuously beautiful. There’s harp (?) and lots of strings, and it creates a soft, shimmering, warm thing, almost texture or fabric more than sound, to float the clarinet onto. Long, soft lines, like the second movement of some wonderful American symphony or something.
The cadenza starts out plainly enough, but the more technical it gets, the more jazzy it gets as well. It’s like our warm, cozy ball of dough from the first movement has turned in to flubber and started building energy and bouncing off the walls. It builds and builds and the rest of the orchestra joins the party. Copland talks about the minimal orchestration being somewhat of a challenge for him. I don’t know why he didn’t just add them as he wanted, but he says the following:
“The instrumentation being clarinet with strings, harp, and piano, I did not have a large battery of percussion to achieve jazzy effects, so I used slapping basses and whacking harp sounds to simulate them. The Clarinet Concerto ends with a fairly elaborate coda in C major that finishes off with a clarinet glissando – or “smear” in jazz lingo.”
Perhaps that would have been ‘too easy’ or too directly jazz instead of just winking at or suggesting the idea of jazz in a much more purely classical element. I can accept that, and I probably like the piece more than I would had it had lots of percussion toys and more direct jazz leanings.
The second half is as fun and almost comical as the first half is somber, solitary, melancholy and beautiful. These two starkly contrasting ideas almost literally revolve around the clarinet. The instrument is featured in both halves as the star of the show, and the only link between these opposing ideas is again the clarinet, in its cadenza.
This is perhaps the only are in which this piece is similar to the previous two weeks of clarinet pieces: the clarinet. It features it as the sole woodwind. In Copland’s orchestration, there are no other winds, not even a flute or a trumpet, so the soloist stands out quite well. The first movement is very… stringy and smooth texturally, so the clarinet is an obvious standout, but even then, it blends into the lyrical tapestry (I can’t believe I let that sentence stand. ‘Lyrical tapestry’ sounds so cliche.)
But again, it’s probably the only area of similarity. Even Schumann’s piece with piano put the two at an equal level, in many ways. While I said before that the Mozart piece in some ways felt like a full-on concerto, as a quintet, it lacked a cadenza, that full-on showoff of one’s virtuosity, putting the string quartet at an equal level to the soloist again. So the concerto is really the standout. It’s not just because it’s a concerto; in many ways, this piece should play like Mozart’s quintet (aside from the century and a half between them); it’s just a large quintet, but Copland’s treatment of the instrument for his designated soloist is different than Mozart’s treatment for Stadler, for obvious reasons.
The one thing we haven’t yet addressed is the modern affinity for the clarinet as a jazz instrument. In this series (unlike the thesis written by my music major friend who suggested I do this series [thanks VW]), we haven’t talked about (and won’t) the history of the instrument itself, but its affinity for jazz has only been a recent development. It’s a highly versatile instrument, with a large range and unique timbres throughout, lots of room for expression and color, so Copland had a lot to play with.
If the first movement is melancholy, lonely blue somber sadness… then the cadenza is where the sun starts to peek out from behind the clouds. There isn’t much transition between these sections; the chamber ensemble kind of fades away and only the clarinet remains. The cadenza kind of blossoms out of what lingered from the beginning, and it gets quite busy. The speed and agility in this section is much more than anything in the piece so far. It doesn’t sound necessarily jazzy to me at first, but the rhythms and choice of harmonies do certainly at least suggest it.
It’s only when the ensemble finally agrees to return does everything fall into place. I may have said it before, but I’ll say it again. I don’t like jazz. Really much at all. I like big band and swing kind of stuff, but not jazz. I can deal with something like Rhapsody in Blue; that’s okay. This piece I can also abide, because it’s just… fun. It suggests jazz in the style of the piece, but never really morphs into a full-blown jazz piece.
What certainly makes it feel quite modern is a lot of the harmonies that Copland uses as well as the rhythms. If I’d never heard this piece before and didn’t know who wrote it, I’d like to think I would identify it almost immediately as Copland. From having listened to his Rodeo and other things, I feel like it’s kind of in the same vein… maybe? Regardless… the second movement (or part) is crisp, playful, energetic, and exciting. It can’t really not bring a smile to your face. It gets more intense and the wheels really kind of fall off at the end, but in a playful rather than tragic way. The ‘smear’ at the end of the piece garners some laughs from the audience in the video above.
On the one hand, something so playful and fun and kind of… lighthearted could almost be at risk of … not being taken seriously, just for fun, but in a pedantic sense, this is serious music. I’m not any kind of musicologist or professional or major or anything, but Copland’s strategic decisions and intentional use of certain colors and techniques show a fantastic command of orchestration and style to produce a desired effect. Perhaps you don’t really care for that effect, and if you don’t, I’d understand why. And while this piece (likely) isn’t one I’ll go back to over and over again to enjoy with awe and admiration, in its own fifteen-minute setting, it’s a wonderful little gem.
To close, I feel like if this piece were in a Fantasia-type film (i.e. set to cartoon), the three sections would be something like… lonely person (or dog; Disney [or Pixar] does super cute things with anthropomorphized animals) sad in their own house, twiddling with food they don’t eat, wishing for a companion. Then there’s hope: a letter in the mail, a new neighbor dog friend, a phone call, an email, whatever, and our lonely subject starts to imagine the possibilities. Finally the two meet, and it is blissful, no more loneliness, no more gray days and all is bliss. That’s cliche and Hollywood, but there’s nothing wrong with that, is there? It’s kind of what I hear when I listen to this piece, and I will say the more I listen to it, the more I enjoy it. It’s really pleasant.
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