Archive for April, 2018

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!