My guide to understanding, learning and performing the seminal works for clarinet from a performer's perspective. I have over 25 years experience as a performer and teacher based in London, UK.
A little bit of background history is essential. After that it's time to look at what the score shows us and my thoughts on what makes these pieces stand out from the pack. There's a bit of analysis and each podcast is followed with a more detailed look at the score on my youtube channel. For more details and links head over to my website www.stuart-king.com
Exploring Claude Debussy's Première Rhapsodie with Stuart King
One of the most influential French composers of the first half of the 20th Century, Claude Debussy wrote music that was quintessentially French. With exquisite timbres and textures, Debussy created music that stood as the antithesis of the prevailing Germanic traditions championed by the 'establishment'. His early music was influenced by Wagner and symbolist poetry but it evolved into a unique French voice synonymous with the Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist movements that straddled the dawn of the new century. His election to the Conseil Supérieur of the Paris Conservatoire in 1909 went a long way to changing the direction of French music in the years ahead.
One of the first duties he carried out in this role was writing two test pieces for the annual Solo de Concours for clarinet. André Messager had previously written a piece for the 1899 competition but Debussy's Première Rhapsodie is a work of infinite more delicacy, musicality and panache. It is a true test of any clarinettist's breath control, stamina, finger-work and musical sensibility but more than that it stands as a ravishing work for the concert hall by a composer at the peak of his power.
Sadly Debussy had but a handful of years left before his death in 1918. If only this had been the first of many Rhapsodies rather than a lone orphan.
Exploring Witold Lutoslawski's Dance Preludes with Stuart King
Witold Lutoslawski was one of the foremost composers of the 20th Century. His early life was marred by the loss of his father and eldest brother at the hands of the Bolsheviks and his own brush with death at the hands of Nazis in the Second World War. Thankfully Lutoslawski escaped the clutches of the Germans and found his way back to Warsaw where he forged a living playing in cafés with his friend the composer Andrzek Panufnik. After the war Lutoslawski struggled, like many composer of serious art music, to express himself through his music in a way that was acceptable to the socialist realism ideology of the Eastern bloc countries under Soviet control. Nationalistic pieces steeped in folklore were expected and Lutoslawski spent much of the 1950s trying to safely toe the line.
in 1954 he was commissioned to write a cycle of pieces based on the folk traditions of Poland. Eventually he penned the Dance Preludes for clarinet and piano that were an instant success and became one of his most celebrated works. They remain firm favourites to this day. Join me as I explore these fantastic miniature snapshots of Polish folk-dance rhythms seen through Lutoslawski's eyes; slick, modern and endlessly inventive.
Exploring William Alwyn's Clarinet Sonata with Stuart King
Composer of over 70 scores for film and TV, former flautist with the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst and William Walton, William Alwyn is one of the most under-rated composers of the 20th Century. His prolific output is over-shadowed by the works of Benjamin Britten and perhaps Malcolm Arnold, another composer a degree more famous than Alwyn in his writing for film. This relatively obscurity is a crying shame as Alwyn developed a beguiling musical voice that is dramatically presented in the Clarinet Sonata dating from 1962. Consider that this Sonata was premiered a few months before the Sonata of Francis Poulenc, which is enjoys considerably more fame than Alwyn's Sonata. Both are technically demanding and there are interesting parallels between the two pieces given Alwyn's reverence to the impressionistic piano writing of Debussy and Ravel.
Join me as I uncover the mystery and exotic fantasy world that Alwyn reveals to us in this 'fantasy sonata' commissioned by my teach Dame Thea King.
Exploring Arnold Bax's Clarinet Sonata with Stuart King
Born into a wealthy London family, Arnold Bax was able to follow his passions without constraint as a young man. This saw him travel across Europe in the years preceding the Great War absorbing music, ballet and culture from a world that was about to be ripped apart by war. His private income afforded him the luxury of not needing to work for money. This set him apart from most of his peers and may have resulted in a sense of not quite 'fitting in'. Nonetheless he was a prolific composer able to continue honing his craft through the First World War as a result of a heart condition that precluded him from National Service.
By the time Bax came to write his Clarinet Sonata in 1934, he was well-established as one of the foremost British establishment composers, noted for his Symphonic works. The early 1930s produced a rich seam of chamber-sized works and the influence of Frederick Thurston, the leading clarinettist of the day, cannot be underestimated. Bax had himself studied the clarinet whilst at the Royal Academy of Music, and early sketches for a clarinet sonata were found after his death. This early interest was re-ignited by Thurston's playing resulting in the Sonata being premiered by Thurston and Bax's lover Harriet Cohen in 1935. It quickly became one of his most popular small-scale works and marked a high-point in a career that was on the wane. After being made Master of the King's Music, Bax wrote little of consequence owing to the change in the direction of musical innovation and public taste.
It is without doubt a triumph! I hope you will enjoy exploring Bax's Clarinet Sonata with me.
Exploring John Ireland's Fantasy Sonata with Stuart King
There is something about the clarinet that composers discover or perhaps rediscover when they are in their twilight years. Mozart, Brahms, Poulenc, Howells and this episode's master, John Ireland all wrote their final and arguably best chamber works for the clarinet.
It is hard to imagine that at the start of the 20th century the clarinet was still a relative newcomer to the world of classical chamber music. Frederick Thurston, the finest clarinettist of his generation, first learned the instrument at the start of the new century. His talents soon earned him a place at the prestigious Royal College of London where he was fortunate to take his first steps in the music profession in the afterglow of Brahms' incredible outpouring of chamber works for the instrument. Still Thurston complained that the repertoire for clarinet was dull and uninspiring. These two energies merged between the wars and acted as a catalyst for young British composers to write for Thurston's exquisite mastery of the clarinet buoyed by the lyrical and dramatic possibilities of the instrument as evidenced in the four titanic works Brahms penned in the last three years of his life.
John Ireland was a quiet, deep-thinking man, who had experienced his fair share of life's woes before adulthood. He wrote two early chamber works involving the clarinet; a sextet and a trio but it wasn't until shortly before his retirement that Ireland returned to the clarinet inspired by the artistry of Frederick Thurston. Ireland wrote to Thurston upon completing the Fantasy Sonata:
If you find you really like the work, I shall be happy to dedicate it to you, as it was your playing which led me to write for your instrument. And I have heard some good clarinet playing – Mühlfeld in my early days made a sensation here, and in his time Charlie Draper was remarkable. So I am in a position to appreciate your playing and what it means to music.
And so John Ireland created a ravishing, passionate evocation of the sea and wartime in this Fantasy Sonata. I hope you will enjoy exploring it with me.
Exploring Francis Poulenc's Clarinet Sonata with Stuart King
Urbane, witty, tragic, spiky and lyrical! Just a few words that give a flavour of the artistry of Francis Poulenc. Singled out as part of a gaggle of artistic friends that hung out in a bookshop on la rive gauche in the 1920s, Les Six, was a master of mélodies whether in Art Song or instrumentally. The death of parents pushed him towards a series of father figure composers and musicians; Ricardo Viñes, Erik Satie, Georges Auric and Igor Stravinsky.
Scarcely 19 when he wrote his first published works, that included the quirky Sonata for two clarinets with it's innovative use of bitonality and unusual scoring of one clarinet in B flat and one in A. This work dates from the same time as Stravinsky's Three Pieces for solo clarinet that I explored in my last podcast. Whether each composer was aware of the other's work at this precise time is not known, but is no less interesting for that.
Like so many other distinguished composers, Poulenc returned to the clarinet at the end of his life. Mozart, Brahms, Schumann all wrote pieces in the last years of their composing life. Poulenc embarked upon a series of Sonatas for wind instruments of which the Clarinet Sonata is the penultimate one. It is full of searingly beautiful melodies; pain, anguish, sorrow and vitality that were all features of this fascinating composers oeuvres.
Join me as I take a dip in the pool of Francis Poulenc's Sonata for Clarinet.