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Noon Edition

Licorice Stick: A Salute to the Clarinet


We're hoping these selections are not a [cylindrical] bore! (Pixabay)

It's Ether Game's salute to the sweetest sound of the orchestra, the "licorice stick" (a.k.a., the clarinet)! Slide on into our playlist of tunes that we are sure won't "B-flat"!

  • George Gershwin (1898–1937), Rhapsody In BlueRhapsody in Blue was one of the first pieces, and arguably the best piece, to incorporate the rhythm and life of jazz into the concert hall. The work had its premiere in 1924 in Aeolian Hall in New York City at a concert strangely titled “An Experiment in Modern Music.” It was a big event, and such luminaries as John Philip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff were in attendance. Imagine what it must have been like for the audience to hear the now-famous opening clarinet glissando, bringing this traditionally classical instrument into the world of jazz. Gershwin himself played the piano in that premiere (and improvised most of the piano part), accompanied by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra with arrangements by Ferde Grofé. While today, Rhapsody in Blue is adored, at the time, reviewers weren’t so sure. The New York Post offered a scathing review after the premiere, calling it “trite,” “conventional,” “feeble,” and “vapid,” adding, quote “Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony. So derivative! So stale! So inexpressive!”

  • Hector Berlioz (1803–1869), Symphonie Fantastique: V. Songe d'une nuit du sabbatAs the audacious story of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique comes to its violent conclusion, the protagonist has fallen into an opiated trance and believes that he has been executed for murdering his beloved. The music rejoices in bizarre and ugly effects, as the protagonist dreams himself at a black mass of witches and ghouls who drag him to hell to the sound of triumphant fanfares. Thrown into this nightmarish stew is the Dies Irae, a medieval sequence dating from the mid-thirteenth century. Everything about the Symphonie Fantastique is whimsical—even down to the symphony's instrumentation. Berlioz was especially interested in new and unusual instruments, and he was among the first to write for the E-flat clarinet, a piccolo member of the clarinet family invented to play high melody lines. He fleshed out the bottom of his brass parts with the addition of an ophicleide, the bass member of the keyed-bugle family which was newly patented in 1821.

  • Claude Debussy (1862–1918), Première Rhapsodie – At the end of every school year at the Paris Conservatoire, musicians are challenged to perform the year’s concours or contest piece for their instrument. Originally, the pieces were written specifically for the competition. Some, such as Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsodie for clarinet and piano, have become staples of the repertoire for their respective instruments. It was the contest piece in 1910 and has since been arranged for clarinet and orchestra. It offers both technical challenges and opportunities for lyrical interpretation with lilting, impressionistic melodies. The clarinet originated in France, where it’s sound was associated with the reed pipes played by shepherds and farmers. It went through a variety of mechanical innovations in the 19th century, so that by the time Debussy wrote for it, it was capable of playing every note of the scale in several octaves.

  • Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992), Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (Quartet for the End of Time) – The unusual instrumentation of Messiaen’s Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano was dictated by circumstance. In 1940, the composer was interned in a German POW camp in Silesia. This work was written and performed in the camp by Messiaen and a small group of musicians who had managed to acquire instruments. The work did not bear any thematic connection to the war or his captivity. Rather, Messiaen, a devout Catholic, wrote a deeply religious work based on images from the Book of Revelation. His other obsession was birdsongs, and naturally, they were also incorporated into the Quartet. The clarinet mimics precisely the call of the blackbird and the violin mimics a nightingale's song. The work was premiered to what Messiaen recounted as a raptly attentive audience. After this performance, Messiaen and his friends were re-listed as non-combatant musician-soldiers and were allowed to leave prison and return to France.

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 622 – Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was one of the composer’s final pieces, written just months before his death in 1791 at the age of 35. He wrote it for his friend Anton Stadler, a notable clarinetist working in Vienna for whom Mozart wrote several clarinet pieces. According to Mozart’s sketches, this work began as a concerto for basset horn, a single-reed instrument more related to an alto clarinet than to any actual horn. He eventually transformed these sketches into a piece for clarinet, an “A” clarinet to be precise (as opposed to the modern B-flat clarinet). The A clarinet in the 1790s did not extend down to the lower registers that Mozart needed for his concerto, so Stadler used a specialized “basset clarinet,” a new instrument that could hit lower notes. Once the modern B-flat clarinet became standardized, the basset horn and basset clarinet mostly phased up, but do show up occasionally.

  • Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), Clarinet Sonata in E-flat, Op. 120, No. 2 – By the time Brahms had reached his 60s, he had promised the public that he would retire from composing. That vow was short-lived. Brahms became infatuated with the clarinet after attending a concert of Mozart’s clarinet music in 1891. The instrument, which by that time had enjoyed a variety of mechanical improvements, reminded Brahms of a female alto voice, so much so that he would often refer to the instrument as “fräulein klarinette.” He became close friends with the main clarinet soloist at that 1891 concert, Richard Mühlfeld, for whom he composed his clarinet sonatas. We just listened to the second of two sonatas he completed, some of the final music Brahms completed before his death in 1897. The sonatas have since become masterpieces of the clarinet repertoire with transcriptions available for clarinet accompanied by a string orchestra.

  • Béla Bartók (1881–1945), The Miraculous Mandarin: Seduction Games – Bartók’s pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, a follow-up to his first ballet The Wooden Prince, was deemed immoral when it first premiered in Cologne, Germany in 1926. However, it’s become one of his more famous works, and also contains one of the most famous clarinet excerpts in the orchestral repertoire. The story is about three beggars who convince a young woman to seduce passersby in an attempt to earn them some money. The third man she seduces is the “Miraculous Mandarin” of the title, who seems to possess strange powers. For each seduction dance is accompanied by the clarinet, highlighting the instrument’s exotic quality. Although clarinets were invented in Germany, they soon spread around the world, developing that “exotic” sound in the West. In addition to being used in classical orchestras and 1930s swing bands, clarinets are essential parts of the Klezmer bands of Eastern Europe, Albanian wedding bands, and Turkish folk bands.

  • Leroy Anderson (1908–1975), Clarinet Candy – In 1935, Leroy Anderson left his position as an academic at Harvard University to pursue a freelance career in music. His name became synonymous with a distinct style of light American orchestral music, even though he had spent half of his career as a university organist, choir director, and symphony conductor. Anderson formed a creative partnership with Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops Orchestra, a group that was finely tuned to play his playful compositions. Many of these works employed creative sound effects and nonmusical equipment, such as his pieces The Typewriter and the Sandpaper Ballet. His 1962 composition Clarinet Candy was originally written for full orchestra, requiring (according to Anderson) a “mature clarinet section.” Its confectionary title draws inspiration from the clarinet’s frequent jazz-age nickname “licorice stick.”

  • Johann Christoph Graupner (1683–1760), Ouverture à 3 chalumeaux – Though it's often performed for three clarinets, it was originally written in the Baroque era for the early version of the clarinet, called the chalumeau. The chalumeau was one of several reed instruments that were heavily favored by the French aristocracy in the Baroque era, who romanized the instrument for its association with shepherds and pastoral folklore. The chalumeau originally came in several sizes, like a recorder consort, with the bass version of the instrument matching the size of the modern clarinet. As the instrument gained popularity, it spread to Germany where composer Christoph Graupner heard the instrument in the pit of the Hamburg Opera where he was a harpsichordist. He wrote the overture we just listened to for three chalumeaux, one of 85 overtures he composed over the course of his prolific life.

  • Mr. Acker Bilk, “Stranger on the Shore” – Before the Beatles, if you were talking about a “British Invasion” in American pop music, you were probably talking about the clarinetist Mr. Acker Bilk. Bilk—with his distinctive goatee, bowler hat, and warbling clarinet tone—was the biggest British export to hit the pop charts in America pre-1964. Yes, you heard me right, a clarinetist was the biggest British pop star in America before the Beatles. His 1962 song “Stranger On The Shore” was, in fact, the biggest selling single on the Billboard pop charts for the entire year of 1962, beating anything by Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, or Sam Cooke. “Stranger on the Shore” is one of those earworms that continues to show up in various pieces of pop culture. You may remember it from a scene in the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus where a shy redheaded clarinetist is only able to perform the song’s low note with the help of Mr. Holland’s inspirational teaching skills.

Music Heard On This Episode

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