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Harmonia Early Music

The Early Clarinet

This week on Harmonia, we’ll look at the 18th-century clarinet and its repertoire We’ll also review a new release of heroic arias by Antonio Vivaldi.

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Most of the woodwind section in a modern orchestra can trace its history back to Jean Baptiste Lully, who promoted their development and incorporated their use in his own works. The flute, oboe, and bassoon owe their existence in part to him while the clarinet does not.

As a post-Lully invention, the early clarinet came to life in Germany where a close relative of it was well known. The chalumeaux as it was called was already quite popular. Georg Philip Telemann, who played it throughout  his early career, was perhaps its greatest champion who included it in many of his compositions.

The first great composer to write for the baroque version of the clarinet was Antonio Vivaldi, who composed only a few concertos. Not content to have the instrument shine on its own, he usually included a pair of clarinets with pairs of other instruments.

Another composer who wrote for the clarinet was Jean-Philippe Rameau, who included a pair of them in a number of his dramatic works like the overture to the opera Les Boréades.

There is probably no greater composer for the clarinet prior to the 19th century than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Both his clarinet concerto and quintet are generally recognized as true masterpieces. Yet neither of them might have been composed if his connection to the instrument were not as special as it was—he wrote both works for his friend Anton Stadler, who had invented a version of the clarinet known as the basset clarinet. This new instrument differed from the regular version because of its extended lower range. As Stadler was its inventor and champion, other composers wrote for him as well.

By the close of the 18th century, the clarinet’s presence in the orchestra now seemed more or less permanent. Composers went on to write solo concertos for an instrument that was continually developing in its mechanical design. The composer Carl Maria Von Weber, who followed Mozart’s example, also included it among his chamber music compositions. His Gran Duo Concertant is among the most well known from this genre.

Our new release this week features French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in a recording of heroic arias by Antonio Vivaldi. Selections from various operas are accompanied by Ensemble Matheus and directed by Jean-Christophe Spinosi.

Here’s a video of Eric Hoeprich in an ensemble performing a movement from Mozart’s “Gran Partita” (Frans Brüggen, dir.):


The music heard on this episode was performed by clarinettist Eric Hoeprich with  The Academy of Ancient Music, the Orchestra of the 18th Century, London Haydn Quartet, and Melvyn Tan.

Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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