Archive for the ‘Clarinet’ Category

New ABRSM Piano and Clarinet Syllabi

The ABRSM have announced the release of a new piano syllabus, details available from Thursday, June 7th, 2018. The new clarinet syllabus can be downloaded here .

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!

The Vexed Question of Vibrato

Sooner or later, a clarinettist will begin to wonder about vibrato.

For almost all other wind instruments, the question of vibrato (“to be or not to be?”) is almost self-referential: of course one uses vibrato, it’s an essential attribute of the instrument’s tone colour. In some cases (hrrrrmsaxophone!), it plays a vital role in centring pitch. Why does vibrato become an issue for clarinettists?

F. G. Randall makes some interesting observations in his 1954 monograph ‘The Clarinet’. After stating that the clarinet’s greatest asset is its beauty of tone and power of expression, he comments on the need for caution in using vibrato. He states that vibrato “is quite unknown east of the Rhine”, but “had a passing vogue in France”. He then advises great care and discretion in using vibrato on the clarinet, suggesting that it is ” more suited to wind instruments of a tenuous or stringy tone, the flute or oboe, than to the clarinet with its complex and highly charged harmonic texture”. [Rendall, F. G. The Clarinet. Ernest Benn, 3rd edn. 1971 rev. Bates, P. pp. 39,40]

The great British clarinettist Jack Brymer broadly supports this view, and joins Rendall to a degree in deploring excessive and inappropriate use of a jazz-style vibrato. However, he relates a reminiscence of Brahms’ favoured clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld attributed to a “very old” viola-player who had occasionally been called upon by Joachim to play in his quartet, including performances of the Brahms Quintet with Mühlfeld. He describes the legendary clarinettist as having a fiery technique with a warm tone and a “big vibrato … much more than Joachim, and as much as the cellist”. [Brymer, J. Clarinet. McDonald and Jane’s, 1976. pp. 204-7]

Further, Eric Hoeprich comments on a recording of Charles Draper playing the quintet in 1917 in which “both the clarinettist and the strings make liberal use of vibrato”. Mühlfeld is reported to have commented favourably on a performance of Draper’s that he heard at that time, although that does not necessarily indicate any similarity in style of playing. He also claims that vibrato was “virtually never heard in Germany”, but was an accepted feature of clarinet playing in France and England. [Hoeprich, E. The Clarinet. Yale University Press, 2008. pp. 234-5]

Use of vibrato in Britain certainly seems to be accepted among clarinettists today, even if still viewed by some as controversial and by no means universally employed. Given the documentary evidence of Draper’s vibrato in 1917 and the anecdotal evidence of Mühlfeld’s playing style, it would seem possible to infer that vibrato was in more common use at the turn of the century than among the subsequent generation of clarinettists.

If this was the case, Reginald Kell was a notable exception. Kell studied clarinet at the Royal Academy from 1929 to 1932, developing an expressive use of vibrato inspired in part by the lyrical playing of celebrated oboist Leon Goossens. When recounting an occasion when none other than Fürtwängler complimented him on his playing, Kell describes his surprise in view of the fact that he was accustomed to being criticised for his vibrato instead of commended. After a successful career as principal clarinet of the Royal Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras, he moved to America where he received a mixed reception. Colin Lawson explains it thus: “The American clarinetist Robert Willaman (1954) gives some idea why; he described vibrato as originating on the saxophone in dance bands around 1920, as a palliative for crude tone production. “It may be that vibrato is a real improvement. Some people put sugar on ice cream. A great many do not and never will” (p. 246).” [Lawson, C. The British clarinet school: Legacy and legend. AEC, 2011]

Both Jack Brymer and another great British clarinetist Gevase de Peyer were greatly influenced by Kell and incorporated a warm, controlled vibrato into their style as a natural matter of course. For the most part, the issue of whether to use vibrato or not should be dictated by the requirements of the music and the interpretation of the performer. It should be neither omnipresent as a mannerism or consciously excluded as a matter of principle; as with other wind instruments, vibrato should be a matter of taste and choice.

Perhaps part of the problem experienced by some has to do with the difficulty of producing a controlled vibrato on the clarinet. The method used by saxophone players of pulsing the embouchure is also used by jazz clarinettists, and is simply too coarse an effect for many classical applications. To be preferred is the diaphragm vibrato, essentially similar to the technique used by singers. This is also the method used by flautists, but while it is straightforward enough when using the voice or an edge-blown wind instrument with little resistance, the clarinet is a different matter altogether. It takes considerable practise to master the subtle control and delicacy of a diaphragm vibrato on the clarinet, and I know of no easy way to teach it apart from cultivating it with the voice first. I remember my teacher answering my questions about vibrato by explaining the two techniques, describing the diaphragm vibrato as the preferable method, and encouraging me to leave well alone!

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 <>