Felix Mendelssohn and the clarinet

Come back with me 40 years ago to the New England Conservatory Orchestra and my first time playing in the orchestra.Yes, at that time, I was attending classes and coming directly to orchestra from class, I was playing bass clarinet, the orchestra was playing The Fairies Kiss, by Stravinsky, and the bass clarinet is heard early in the introduction. I got the horn together and wet the reed, which then looked like it had waves in it. I was trying to get it on the mouthpiece, when the conductor asked, “You need some HALP? I mumbled something about comng from class, (and yes it did play). Then later,  we were doing the Mendelssohn 4th, the Italian Symphony, and you all know the first movement. There is,immediately prior to the recapitulation a lovely little solo by the first clarinet, reminiscent of the returning first theme. I was playing first clarinet.Mr. Burgin, the Concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the time, looked at me and said,”clahnet, think of the most beautiful sound you can make when playing this solo” I looked up at him, started counting and listening and entered with the biggest CLAM anyone ever heard. (honk, honk, anyone ever do that?)
Naturally, there was dead silence. I think I finally got it right, but I have never forgotten his setup for that noise I made. This was my formal introduction to the music for orchestra by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. The Italian Symphony is a work filled with wonderful little places for the clarinet, as are all of the works of this incredibly gifted composer. The Salterello, the final movement is a wonderful exercise for the entire woodwind section to learn to play impossible things together, to share the joys of section articulation and to get into the orchestra in general. There are no better works than the Mendelssohn Symphonies, and of course, we have the Midsummer Nights Dream, written when the boy was about 17. Thought the Octett is perhaps his greatest masterpiece, and does not have clarinet, we will all listen to that any old time.(Let us not forget the Violin Concerto, perhaps the most famous of the Romantic Period))
Mendelssohn was in general a calm conventional guy, except for occasions wherein he would get so angry over something that he would have to sleep for perhaps as much as 12 hours. But, as I was saying, he was a conventional type of person, especially when compared to Schumann, Copin and Liszt, but a few of his contemporaries.
He also started the Lepizig Conservatory, did all that writing, spoke both English and German and was celebrated in the UK at an early age.
And then, there was Jenny Lind, the very celebrated Swedish Soprano. They worked together on many concerts, but there is very good evidence that he proposed to her, (she was unmarried, but he had 5 children with his wife Cecile) and asked her to elope with him and go to America. It is said that while there was “absence of evidence,there was no evidence of absence” of the affair.She, upon hearing of his death said that he was the most welcome person to her spirit, but that she had lost him after just finding him.
You know, he also was quite a fine painter as well. Amd all this in about 39 years. He died after having a series of strokes.
We listen to his music with such joy and ease.
But then, we have the music for the clarinet, aside from the orchestral music. We have the Sonata, not one of his best works, quite repetitious with nothing special about it, and there are the two Concertpieces, #113, and #114 for  Clarinet Basset Horn and Piano.
These, I have played many many tmes, but always with Cello instead of Basset Horn. An actual Basset Horn is only usually borrowed from an orchestra when they do the Mozart Requiem . so hardly worth the effort of trying to borrow them for these two works. Cello works quite well and both little pieces are terrific to open or even to close a concert. There are even examples of them on Utube, though not terribly well done, and there has even been an orchestral version made from them, which also sounds not well. But, perhaps I am spoiled from playing them so frequently. (I’ll get them on my site, when I learn how to do it.) Until then, if anyone wants to hear me play them in concert, send me a CD and I’ll copy them for you.
In closing I will say that Felix Mendelssohn-Batholdy, who was born Jewish and whose father renounced this religion, (Mendelssohn was baptised Lutheran) and his Reformation Symphony # 5, has the most beautiful clarinet parts, maybe even more than the Scotch(3) and the Italian(4), and one final little bit, it was he who ressurrected the Saint Matthew Passion of JS Bach, so many years after Bachs death, and indeed reinvented Bach (who had become out of fashion in Mendelssohns time.)
All this, and clarinet music, and Jenny Lind, in 39 years.
Get busy, everybody, and stay well, and oh yes, keep practicing.



One Response to Felix Mendelssohn and the clarinet

  1. danop says:

    Sherman, I know you’ll enjoy this story. Back when I was in college, my teacher had me work on orchestral excerpts. One day, I was playing the well-known Vivace non troppo section of the Scottish Symphony (the part where there are measures of sixteenth notes mixed in with measures of dotted eighths and sixteenths). I thought I was playing it pretty well, but my teacher didn’t agree.

    With a stern look on his face, he stopped me and told me that my dotted eighths and sixteenths weren’t right. “What do you mean!” I thought. I knew how to play dotted eighths and sixteenths, I had been playing them for years, and I “knew” I was playing them just fine! I kept my mouth shut, and waited for his next move. He had a reel to reel tape recorder on his desk, and he asked me to play the passage again. He then played the tape back to me, but at a very slow speed. Ouch! He was right, although it was painful to admit it. At a slow speed, these dotted eighths and sixteenths didn’t sound so good.

    You made a point a while back (in an article about auditioning for an orchestra) about playing rhthms perfectly. Very close isn’t good enough. I sure learned that lesson that day!

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