Archive for the ‘Clarinet Repertoire’ Category

Fantasy for Clarinet and Piano – Carl Nielsen

The 2018-2021 ABRSM clarinet exam syllabus includes a noteworthy early work by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Born on the island of Funen in 1865 to a family of modest means, Nielsen became one of the most individual musical voices of the early twentieth century.

Carl Nielsen

Although he is best known outside Denmark for his cycle of six symphonies, Nielsen’s output was extensive and of the highest quality across the range of genres.

Towards the end of his life, Nielsen wrote a concerto for clarinet which has become a staple of the repertoire. The Fantasy Piece for Clarinet and Piano is the only other work he wrote featuring the clarinet, and comes at the beginning of Nielsen’s career as a composer. In this way, the clarinet frames his stylistic development.

The Fantasy Piece appears to have been written between 1881 and 1883, while the teenage Nielsen was a trombone and horn player in a military band in Odense.

Carl Nielsen in his mid-teens

The source consists of manuscript copies of the parts, originally attributed to the hand of the dedicatee, a certain ‘M. Hansen’ (possibly one of the clarinetists in the band), but now believed to be in Nielsen’s own hand. The style reflects Nielsen’s limited experience up to that point, and owes much to Niels Gade who later became one of Nielsen’s tutors at the Copenhagen Conservatory. Dynamic extremes in quick succession accord both with the high Romantic sound-world of the period and Nielsen’s tender youth at the time of composition. Musical ideas are handled well, with a competence and polish belying Nielsen’s limited formal musical education at that time, although there is little evidence of the distinctive character his music would later acquire.

The title ‘fantasy’ traditionally indicates a free composition – free in the sense that it is not required to conform to a set musical structure – and Nielsen emphasises this aspect by means of a motto inscribed beneath the dedication on the piano part of the source. This appears to be a quotation from a poem by Ludwig Uhland which was also used by Gade as a motto for his Opus 1 overture ‘Efterklange af Ossian’: “Formulae we leave behind us, Our art is poesy.” So it is with this piece; after an opening fanfare from the piano, a cantabile melody unfolds over four bars, which is then repeated with decoration and a four bar coda which modulates swiftly to a cadence in the relative major, before returning to g minor and repeating.

The second time bar leads into a simple cadenza (nothing more than a descending chromatic scale and an accelerando trill over the tonic), after which the piano begins the brief Allegro Agitato with fortissimo octaves in the left hand and tremolo chords in the right. The clarinet overlays the harmony with a repeated scalic figure before joining the piano for Beethovenian punctuation chords to conclude.

This is not high art, but competently crafted occasional music intended as a pleasing programme filler to showcase the clarinet. It is entertaining and satisfying to perform, both for the soloist and the accompanist, and is not without interest. Had Nielsen produced this during his time at the Conservatory, I suspect it would have merited a ‘good effort’, or its Danish equivalent, from Professor Gade!

Stanford Sonata for Clarinet Op. 129

Charles Villiers Stanford

Charles Villiers Stanford

In May, I will be performing the second movement of C. V. Stanford’s opus 129 sonata for clarinet and piano, as part of a mixed chamber and orchestral concert in Hertfordshire.

Although Stanford’s sonata is not well known, the second movement (Caoine, pronounced ‘keen’) is a real gem. Jack Brymer describes it as “pleasant and absorbing to play” and “not presented as often as it should be”. The outer movements are characteristically Brahmsian, but in the Caoine Stanford once again reveals his Irish heart in a free interpretation of a traditional lament. This music is Irish in spirit, however, and not particularly in it’s thematic material and harmonies, which remain firmly rooted in the late romantic idiom.

Charles Villiers Stanford was born in Dublin in 1852, and was an influential teacher in addition to being a prolific composer. In 1870, he gained an organ scholarship at Queen’s College, Cambridge and subsequently became organist at Trinity College. During his tenure at Trinity, Stanford was able to spend considerable time in Leipzig, where he absorbed the new music of Brahms and Wagner while studying composition with Reinecke. It is also noteworthy that Stanford was known to Joachim, who had visited Stanford’s family in Dublin and later recommended Stanford to study in Berlin with Friedrich Kiel. In 1883 he joined the staff of the Royal College of Music as its first professor of composition. It was at the the RCM that Stanford came to have significant influence over a generation of young composers such as Bridge, Howells, Ireland and Vaughan-Williams. Stanford died in 1924.

The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano was completed in 1911, and dedicated to the clarinetists Oscar Street and Charles Draper. Oscar Street was a talented amateur and former student of George Clinton, and Charles Draper a noted professional clarinetist and teacher at the RCM, Trinity College of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Draper had been the soloist in the première of Stanford’s clarinet concerto in 1903, and he also gave the first performance of the sonata in 1916. Coming as it does at the start of a golden age in British clarinet playing, as well as a period when English music was at long last finding a distinctive voice, this sonata would seem to deserve a wider audience.

The sonata is in F major, but for the Caoine Stanford turns to the relative minor (D minor), with a contrasting middle section in D major. Cast in ternary form with a modified return of the A section (ABA’), Stanford creates masterful light and shade throughout this movement; however, it is in the opening and closing sections that the clarinet is made to ‘keen’ expressively. The piano has several passages where it evokes the sound of an Irish harp, echoed by the clarinet’s gentle wails, although careful writing ensures that this presents no difficulty in ensemble. Rising and falling runs and turns, some in irregular groupings of 5, 7 or even 10 demisemiquavers, require careful reading to ensure expressive but controlled performance. Indeed, this piece calls for sensitive rubato throughout along with careful shaping of the beautiful melodic lines. The laments die away in sighs of dotted quavers, and the piece concludes with a whisper-thin upper register f in the clarinet, played ppp, fading to e and dying away as the reverberations of the piano’s arpeggiated D minor chord dissipate.

The middle section is brighter in nature, like a wistful reminiscence of happier times. Although there is no indication in the score, many performers will feel the need to give a little more animation to the melody here. The sun shines only briefly, however, before more painful thoughts are ushered in as the minor key returns in an accelerando passage leading to the return of the opening themes.

Although not overly demanding technically (this piece has been set at grade 7 by Trinity Guildhall), a truly engaging performance must bring out the deeply emotional character of this movement. Judicious use of vibrato can be effective – remember, Brahms’ favoured clarinettist Richard Műhlfeld was reported to have a wider and more expressive vibrato than Joachim himself – but must come from the diaphragm, not the embouchure, and must not be overdone. The clarinet should truly sing in this movement. A lament of this kind, after all, is above all vocal in nature. Stanford’s combination of Irish spirit and Edwardian restraint should combine in that uniquely English way. However, the upper lip may be permitted to tremble on occasions!

The printed score is published by Stainer and Bell, and is available from most sheet music retailers. However, I find Chappell of Bond Street to be competitive, with the added advantage of free first class delivery in the UK.

The piano score and a re-typed clarinet part can be downloaded here from IMSLP. Don’t worry, this music is out of copyright in most countries.


1 Brymer, J., Clarinet, (London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1976)

2 Dibble, Jeremy, “Stanford, Sir Charles Villiers.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 31 Mar. 2012 <>