SS 3: Sergey Vassiliev: Mozart Clarinet Concerto
George Gershwin 1898-1937
George Gershwin
George Gershwin
Three Preludes for Piano

Transcribed for Clarinet and String Orchestra by James Cohn

George Gershwin was the first American composer to make jazz acceptable to the classical music audience. The performance of his Rhapsody in Blue at the Paul Whitman concerts in 1924 made history. His Concerto in F, which appeared in the following year, was the first large-scale jazz composition in a traditionally classical form.

The three piano preludes, especially no. 2, are in the encore repertory of most concert pianists. The history of these brief pieces a mystery: At the premiere performance by Gershwin in 1926, he apparently played six preludes, but published only three the following year. There has been a steady stream of scholars who have sorted through Gershwin sketches and memorabilia, as well as documents from his friends and colleagues. But there still seems to be no consensus. From the description of critics and others present, they may have been two Novelettes from his 1919 exercise book collection. The same two Novelettes had previously been transcribed by Samuel Dushkin for violin and piano and published under the title Short Story.

The Cohn transcriptions alter the piano embellishments to suit the clarinet.
1. Untitled: Example 1

2. Blue Lullaby: Example 2

3. Spanish Prelude: Example 3

Claude Debussy 1862-1918
Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy
Première rhapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra

There’s a little music store in Paris on the Left Bank near the Conservatoire where, in addition to standard fare, one can find huge folders dedicated to each and every instrument in the orchestra and then some. Along with parts for standard orchestra, chamber music and recital pieces reside uncounted competition and examination pieces on moldering paper dating back to the nineteenth century. Few have been purchased; even fewer have made it into the standard repertory. One of the exceptions is the Première rhapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra.

By 1904, Claude Debussy had become a cause célèbre for the new “impressionistic” style of his opera Pélléas et Mélisande, which premiered in 1902. From then on, it was common to talk of “Debussyism,” with the musical and literary forces of the time in fevered debate over the intrinsic and aesthetic merit of his music.

But neither acclaim nor notoriety put bread on the table. Debussy’s personal life was in chaos. In 1903 he had decided to leave Lilly, his wife of only four years, to move in with his lover, Emma Bardac, a wealthy married woman. Lilly threatened suicide and created a scandal that alienated many of Debussy’s friends, including the composer Gabriel Fauré (formerly Bardac's lover himself). Debussy’s financial status was always in a state of crisis, and the divorce and ensuing lawsuits and alimony demands kept him in a hand-to-mouth existence for the rest of his life.

But his fame was not to be denied, and in February 1909 Fauré, now director of the Paris Conservatoire, invited Debussy to become a member of the advisory board. As such he was expected to contribute two pieces for the wind instrument examination. Debussy’s contributions were the Première rhapsodie and the Petite pièce, both for clarinet with piano accompaniment. The composer was so pleased with both works that shortly thereafter he orchestrated them.

The Rhapsodie is written in one extended movement with frequent changes in mood and tempo, and no regular themes. Because this was an examination piece, it was designed to provide challenges for the entire gamut of techniques as well as to demonstrate the expressive virtuosity of the clarinet and the musicianship of the student. Debussy was particularly fond of it, saying it was "one of the most pleasing pieces I have written."

A languid melody reminiscent of the composer's L'après-midi d'un faune opens the piece. Example 1 A long central section in a moderate tempo, with rhythmic and expressive hurdles for the clarinetist, gives way the final animated section Example 2 and a killer final riff.
Heitor Villa-Lobos 1887-1959
Heitor Villa-Lobos
Heitor Villa-Lobos
Trio for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon

Heitor Villa-Lobos was and remains Brazil’s foremost “classical” composer. His father, an amateur musician, taught him to play the cello and clarinet, and he taught himself to play the guitar. After his father’s death in 1899, he made a living playing guitar and cello in cafés and movie houses. In his travels around Brazil he became intimately acquainted with all aspects of its popular and folk music. In Rio, which Villa-Lobos visited frequently, the Chôro was the most popular form of street music and the city’s pride and joy. This was primarily instrumental music (to distinguish it from the vocal Serenades), played late at night by loose bands of youths in the streets, usually after the close of more formal events. The musicians improvised as they went along, a process comparable to a American jazz jam session.

For a while, Villa-Lobos was a member of a chôro band in Rio, resulting in a profound effect on his music. In 1918 on a South American tour, pianist Artur Rubinstein “discovered” Villa-Lobos, who was already by then well-known in Brazil, and encouraged him to visit Europe “to show his accomplishments.” The trip finally took place in 1923, and he stayed in Paris until 1930. He returned to Brazil to take charge of music education in the schools. In 1935, he began traveling continuously and extensively in Europe and the USA. During his long career, the sheer quantity of his works places him among the more prolific composers of all time.

Composed in 1921, the Trio was premiered in Paris in 1924. This was a period in Villa- Lobos’ career in which he was still developing an individual style that combined the harmonic vocabulary of the French “Impressionist” composers and Stravinsky with the indigenous rhythms and instrumental sonorities of Brazil.

The Trio’s unusual instrument combination was one of Villa-Lobos’ experiments, which extended to the 14 Chôros he composed between 1920 and 1928. All three movements are through composed, series of new rhythms, tempi, meters and instrumental sonorities. As a result, there are no central themes that bind the content of the movements together, even though there are repeated phrases within each segment. In general, the oboe dominates most of the ensemble’s melodic content. Example 1 Each instrument, however, is given the opportunity to take center stage with virtuosic riffs. Example 2 The contrapuntal texture is extremely complex, giving the impression of traditional heterophony (improvised counterpoint). Example 3 Although the melodic material constantly shifts, Villa Lobos often grounds the sections with an ostinato pattern in one of the instruments. Example 4 The rhythms often imitate the calls of tropical birds. Example 5

The two outer movements are fast, while the second movement is slower and, to some extent, more lyrical. Example 6
Béla Kovács b. 1937
Béla Kovács
b. 1937
Béla Kovács
Sholem-alekhem, Rov Feidman!

Hungarian clarinetist and composer Béla Kovács is one of today’s foremost clarinet virtuosos with many recordings to his name. His father was a director of the music school in his hometown in Western Hungary and started him on the piano at age six. A few years later Kovács decided he wanted to play the oboe, but his school had no oboe available. One was ordered, but in the mean time he found an old clarinet lying around, picked it up and the rest is history. Kovács studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, and even before graduation in 1956 was appointed clarinetist with the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra, a post he held until 1981. He has been a professor at the Franz Liszt Academy since 1975 and from 1988 has also taught at the Musikhochschule in Graz, Austria. He is a long-time member of the Budapest Chamber Ensemble and was a founding member of the Hungarian Woodwind Quintet. He has premiered a large number of works by contemporary Hungarian composers.

Kovács has composed and adapted numerous works for the clarinet. He wrote Sholem-alekhem, Rov Feidman! (Peace be on you, Rabbi Feidman) in 2003 as a tribute to legendary Klezmer clarinetist Giora Feidman. The title does not directly reference the famous Ukrainian writer, Solomon Naumovich Rabinowitz, who took the pen name Sholem Alekhem, but Kovács piece will remind listeners of the music of Fiddler on the Roof, which was based on Sholem Alekhem’s tales of Tevye the Dairyman.

While now associated with celebratory bands at weddings and bar mitzvahs, Klezmer music has ancient roots in the cantillation of the Hebrew Scriptures during synagogue services. Unlike those ancient chants, however, Klezmer melodies were mostly improvised – a kind of Jewish jazz – consisting of medleys of original or folk melodies decorated with fiendishly difficult ornamentation.

Sholem-alekhem, Rov Feidman! opens with a slow introductory flourish at the bottom of the clarinets range Example 1 eventually ramping up into a lively Eastern European dance. Example 2
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622

This extraordinary work is Mozart's last completed instrumental piece. It has been without doubt the most popular work ever written for the clarinet and few others have done the instrument more justice. Most of the larger compositions Mozart wrote in the last years of his life were commissions – attempts to raise badly needed cash. The Clarinet Concerto, however, was an exception: Mozart composed it, and the Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, for his friend, the celebrated virtuoso Anton Stadler. What began as a purely musical association between composer and performer became a deep friendship, cemented by their involvement with Vienna’s Freemasons. They shared one other trait: neither could hold on to money. Stadler used to borrow relentlessly – often from Mozart, of all people. Fortunately for us, the friendship withstood the strain (Mozart having died before it most likely would have hit the skids).

The clarinet was a relative latecomer to Western music; while there is some evidence that both Antonio Vivaldi and George Frederick Handel employed the instrument occasionally, the clarinet did not comer into regular use until the second half of the eighteenth century and was in continual evolution. While today’s young band students learn on an instrument in B-flat, thereby making it the default instrument, there are more varieties of clarinets – in shape, size and key, than in any other family of instruments.

Until his friendship with Stadler, Mozart had used the instrument sparingly, except in his Harmoniemusik, serenades and partitas for wind ensembles used for outdoor entertainment. But by the late 1780s, he was including the instrument in his last three piano concerti, his final symphonies and all his major operas composed in Vienna.

Mozart wrote the concerto in its original form for an instrument of Stadler's invention, an extended range clarinet (sometimes called a ”basset clarinet”). The range of this instrument extended one fourth (four notes) lower than the standard instrument. The autograph manuscript, however, was lost and only an adaptation for the regular clarinet, made in 1802 by the original publishers, survived. Since the late 1940s clarinetists have made numerous attempts to reconstruct the original score for the “basset” clarinet, and instrument makers have attempted to recreate the instrument. An increasing number of performers are currently playing the concerto on these extended-range instruments.

After the traditional orchestral exposition, the voice of the clarinet is seldom still. There is a masterful interplay between soloist and accompanying orchestra, as well as an astounding number of themes, most of them introduced by the soloist. The mood is changeable, at times cheerful, as in the opening theme, at others resigned or even sad; the tone rich and languid, by turns – all created by Mozart’s unusual choice of secondary themes in the minor mode, rather than the customary major. The orchestra begins with the principal theme, which consists of three distinct motives that occur both together and separately throughout the movement. Example 1 Mozart also develops this theme and its component parts by writing free variations on the theme for the soloist. Example 2 After the repetition of the main theme in the second exposition, Mozart gives the clarinet the first of a series of secondary themes, this one also a complex series of motivic elements as well as an unusual foray into the minor. Example 3 New themes crowd in, combining a display of technical mastery with sudden shifts of mood, even within the same theme. Example 4

The slow second movement is one of Mozart’s most poignant, gentle and introspective utterances. Yet, it is a simple ABA song, but the phrases are long and irregular, giving a sense of emotional tension. The clarinet begins with the first part of the main theme, Example 5 which is repeated by the orchestra before the soloist completes it. Example 6 The clarinet also introduces the B theme, in the relative major key. Example 7 A repeat of the A section plus a coda completes the movement.

The Rondo finale is in a very different mood, harking back to the simplicity and charm of music from Mozart’s earlier days and reflecting the happy mood of the opera The Magic Flute which he was composing at the time. The clarinet opens the movement with the rondo theme. Example 8 In one of his inimitably elegant touches, Mozart elongates the concluding phrase of the rondo. Example 9 Mozart binds together the material between the repetitions of the rondo with three additional musical ideas, one in the major Example 10 and two in the minor. Example 11 & Example 12 Of course, there are also ample opportunities for the clarinet to show off, but in no way approaching the level of technical fireworks found a generation later in the concerti for clarinet by Carl Maria von Weber, which really put the instrument through its paces.

Stadler premiered the Concerto was in Prague on October 16, 1791, less than two months before the composer’s death.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018