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PROGRAM NOTES: Raphaël Sévère, clarinet

by Eric Bromberger

Clarinet Sonata No. 1 in C Major

FRANÇOIS DEVIENNE
Born January 31, 1759, Joinville, Haute-Marne, France
Died September 5, 1803, Paris
Approximate Duration: 16 minutes

A contemporary of Mozart, François Devienne moved at age 20 to Paris, where he joined the Paris Opera orchestra as a bassoonist and studied the flute. Over the next decade he appeared frequently as a soloist on both flute and bassoon in that city, and he apparently was a member of the orchestra of the Loge Olympique, which gave the first performances of Haydn’s “Paris” Symphonies. During the difficult years of the French Revolution, Devienne joined the military band of the Paris National Guard, and when the Paris Conservatory was established in 1795, Devienne became its first professor of flute. In these same years he published an important method for the one-key flute, Nouvelle méthode théorique et pratique pour la flûte. Devienne’s life, however, was brief. He was placed in asylum shortly after his 44th birthday and died a few months later after a period of mental decline. A handsome portrait of Devienne, elegantly dressed and holding a black wooden flute, was painted by a student of Jacques Louis David.

Devienne was a prolific composer. Though he had great success in his own day as an opera composer, he is remembered today primarily for his writing for winds, particularly for flute and bassoon (his own instruments), and also for the clarinet. The clarinet was just being admitted into orchestras in these years, and Devienne–like Mozart–was attracted to its expressive possibilities, particularly its smooth sound, agility, and wide range.

The Sonata No. 1 in C Major, which has become one of Devienne’s best-known works for clarinet, is in fact an arrangement of his Oboe Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Opus 70, No. 1; in the process of arranging this music for clarinet, Devienne rewrote sections so that the clarinet’s greater range and agility would be highlighted. The sonata is in three movements. The first, marked Allegro con spiritoso is in a sort of early sonata form. The line moves easily between clarinet and piano here, and Devienne’s melodic material is sturdy and attractive. The Adagio moves to C minor, with the clarinet spinning its long and mournful melody over an understated accompaniment, while the concluding rondo–in the expected 6/8 meter–offers much opportunity for the clarinetist to display his abilities: long runs, a minor-key episode, and a great cadenza-like flourish all help drive this music to its firm conclusion.

Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

FRANCIS POULENC
Born January 7, 1899, Paris
Died January 30, 1963, Paris
Approximate Duration: 13 minutes

The summer of 1962 found Francis Poulenc in a valedictory mood. That summer he wrote two sonatas for woodwinds and piano, and both were dedicated to the memory of other composers who had been his friends: a Sonata for Oboe and Piano, dedicated to the memory of Serge Prokofiev, and a Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, dedicated to the memory of Arthur Honegger. Forty years earlier, Honegger and Poulenc had both been members of Les Six, a group of composers in Paris who were briefly united by their youth and talent. When Poulenc wrote these sonatas, he was 63 years old and in good health, and he could not have known that they would be his final works: he died suddenly of a heart attack the following winter.

Throughout his career, Poulenc had been particularly attracted to the sound of woodwinds: in 1940 he described his Sextet for Piano and Woodwind Quartet as an act of “homage to the wind instruments I have loved from the moment I began composing.” Something of the memorial character of the Clarinet Sonata can be seen in Poulenc’s marking for the first movement: he asks that the opening Allegro be played tristamente: “sadly.” A somewhat astringent opening leads to more lyrical material; Poulenc shifts gears at the center of the movement, moving into 3/4 and a more stately section marked Très calme before a return of the opening themes brings the movement to a quiet close. The middle movement is marked Romanza, suggesting music of an unusually expressive character. An introductory flourish from the clarinet leads to the movement’s climbing main theme, marked “very gentle and melancholy”; the exotic swirls from the clarinet will return throughout this movement, which also comes to a peaceful close. Out of the silence, the finale–“Fast and with fire”–bursts to life on pounding chords and an abundance of energy. There are more lyric episodes along the way, but the bristling energy of the opening is never far away, and the music finally pounds to the sudden plunge that brings this sonata to its abrupt conclusion.

The original plan was that the première of Sonata for Clarinet and Piano would be given by Benny Goodman with the composer at the piano, but Poulenc’s sudden death in January 1963 made that impossible. Goodman did perform this sonata at a memorial concert for Poulenc given in Carnegie Hall in April 1963. The pianist on that occasion was Leonard Bernstein.

Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Opus 5

ALBAN BERG
Born February 9, 1885, Vienna
Died December 24, 1935, Vienna
Approximate Duration: 8 minutes

The Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano come from early in Alban Berg’s career, at a moment when he was still feeling his way as a composer. Berg had studied with Schoenberg from 1904 to 1910, and now–in his late twenties–he was searching for a voice of his own. In 1911 his String Quartet met with a disastrous public reception in Vienna, the following year he composed the five Altenberg Lieder (the complete set would not be not performed until 1952), and early in 1913 he wrote the Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano. These pieces would also wait some time to be heard, for the war soon disrupted musical life throughout Europe (miserable the entire time, Berg spent the war in the Austrian army). Immediately after the war, Schoenberg established in Vienna the Society for Private Musical Performances, an idealistic organization dedicated to young composers and to new music. The Society banned all critics, gradated ticket prices on one’s ability to pay, and gave new music the rehearsal time it deserved. It was at one of the Society’s concerts–on October 17, 1919–that Berg finally was able to hear the Four Pieces, six years after they had been written. By that time he had become a completely different composer–he was now at work on Act II of his opera Wozzeck.

In the years before the war, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg had pared their musical language down to its barest essentials: this meant the virtual elimination of theme, development, repetition, and even a harmonic foundation. Their works from these years tend to be very short, built on bits of theme or rhythm or instrumental color that do not have the opportunity to develop. Berg’s Four Pieces span a total of eight minutes, and the keynote throughout is compression: the second piece, for example, is only eight measures long. These four miniatures for clarinet and piano almost by definition do not require detailed description. Berg requires a wide range of technique (the clarinetist is repeatedly asked for flutter-tonguing and echo-tone), and the sudden changes of mood rest on dynamic markings that extend from triple forte to quadruple piano.

In gratitude, Berg dedicated the Four Pieces to Schoenberg and to the Society for Private Musical Performances.

Grand Duo Concertant in E-flat Major, Opus 48

CARL MARIA VON WEBER
Born November 18, 1786, Eutin, Germany
Died June 5, 1826, London
Approximate Duration: 20 minutes

The Grand Duo Concertant took shape only gradually, and its unusual composition reflects a degree of uncertainty in Weber’s own mind about the proper form for this music. He wrote the final two movements first, composing the Andante and the Rondo during the summer of 1815 for a tour with the clarinetist Heinrich Baermann; the two of them played this work in its two-movement form on a tour through southern Germany. Successful as this version proved, Weber was not satisfied, and the following year he went back and wrote a sonata-form first movement. Weber could easily have called the resulting work a sonata for clarinet and piano, but he chose a different name: Grand Duo Concertant.

It was a good decision. This is not so much a sonata (which implies chamber music) as it is a chamber concerto. This music is certainly “grand” in scope, but Weber was also right to specify its “concertant” quality: it demands that its performers be not just equals but virtuoso soloists capable of a technique more often heard in the orchestra hall than in the more intimate environs of chamber music. Weber wrote the piano part for himself (and the music shows just how good a pianist he must have been), but the Duo shines throughout with his love for the clarinet. While it has been arranged for violin and is sometimes performed in that version, the Duo is clarinet music, featuring fluid runs, wide leaps, and the instrument’s distinctly mellow sound.

It may be no surprise that the first movement was written last. Sonata form gave Weber a good deal of trouble: he preferred a freer, more rhapsodic approach to composition, and his ambivalence about sonata form may be another reason why he chose to give this music a different name. He marks this opening movement Allegro con fuoco, and it is full of fire. This movement establishes its character from the first instant, where the piano sweeps the clarinet along an opening theme that spans nearly three octaves; the clarinet introduces the second subject, a plastic and flowing idea that Weber marks lusingando: “charming, intimate.”

Dramatic as the first movement is, the slow movement is–in its own way–even more impressive. Weber moves to C minor, and over steadily-tolling chordal accompaniment the clarinet sings the grieving main idea, marked con duolo. But, having concluded this episode, the clarinet drops out entirely and the piano launches into a thunderous interlude of its own. The clarinet returns, and the music rises to a dramatic reprise and falls away to the quiet close.

The clarinet announces the main theme of the rondo-finale, a sinuous melody full of some nice rhythmic dislocations, and the music dances ahead. Something of its character is evident from Weber’s instructions in the score: scherzando, con anima, dolce, grazioso, and delicamente. But there are surprises here too: suddenly, over surging tremolo piano accompaniment, the clarinet has a soaring episode marked con molto affetto: “with much affection.” Gradually the rondo tune reasserts itself, and Duo dances and swirls its cheerful way home.

meridia