The Brahms Sonatas, Opus 120 (redux)

I began playing the clarinet when I was 15 which was in 1948. I progressed quite rapidly, and I was quite ambitious.
It was fun to play and I was reasonably successful playing.
Sometime a year or so after I began playing, I entered a radio playing contest. I played the first movement of the Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F Minor. My accompanist was Irma Levine, a high school student in the same class.
I remember only the outcome of the show. I won a prize which consisted of a box of Post Sugar Crisp, (who was the sponsor of the show), and five dollars. I don’t remember if I shared the prize with Irma Levine, either the cereal or the 5 dollars. I do remember taking her to see the movie, “Quo Vadis”, a period piece with exciting music and pretty stars, though I can’t remember their names.
I don’t recall ever seeing Irma Levine after that movie. I hope she is happy, wherever she is.
What a nice experience for me as a young clarinet student to win a small contest playing the music of Brahms. It had to be a great boost for every speck of ambition and musicality I had in me
Since then, at least 50 years ago, I have played both of these two sonatas literally dozens of times, no, much  more. I cannot understand why anyone who plays the clarinet cannot love these two great works.

But I came across this story the other day or so, about a clarinetist who absolutely hates these pieces and wll play almost anything else instead.
A clarinetist was asked to play the Brahms Eb sonata, Opus 120. He flatly refused,offering anything in its stead.He simply hated this work.

But first, the probable reason the clarinetist refused: They are among the most difficult pieces to render, perform musically well and in a convincing manner. There is frequently the intent by the performer to make something profound of the piece. It is profound, both sonatas are, but in their simplicity as in the case of the f minor, and in their complexity in the case of the Eb major both have to be performed exactly as the notes appear on the page. That is quite important, playing every single note in the exact rhythm, and dynamic which appears on the page. Without this, you are playing incorrectly. At the very opening of the f minor there is the leap from the 3rd space Cto the High Eb, , the only problem being the fingering: C with the left hand little finger the Eb with the right hand little finger, and to play it without fear or some kind of  movement of a shoulder or other part. Think of it as not difficult, and always practice the whole opening phrase so as to gauge where you’ll be at that moment.

I recently heard a well known clarinetist playing the opening of the Eb sonata. As he reached each different pitch level, we would swell the sound just a bit. This is objectionable , but a natural tendency,though creating a distorted impression. The sound unfortunately suffers from this kind of interpretive mistake.We train clarinet students not to sound like accordions, where the bellows moving in and out causes mini crescendi.

The two sonatas are full of difficulty, perhaps the most difficult in the entire standard repertoire for the clarinet.
The piano parts are not accompaniments in the sense of a simple harmonic basis for the solo clarinet; they are frequently much more important, and they are of concerto difficulty.(One should remember this when requesting a pianist to play the piece with you) There are so many accidents by pianists in these performances, caused by either terribly difficult sections( the first piano solo in the Eb major, marked forte, and usually rushed to a striking extent, and with many errors. And the most common error in the f minor sonata comes with the first two notes of the piano introduction. Very frequently the second note is played louder than the first , giving the mistaken impression that the first note  is a pickup note, which confuses the beginning,  basically the main  idea of the movement.
The whys are manifold, and here they are as I think of them.( I have performed these two works together on all-Brahms programs many times, having been both satisfied or reasonably happy, or sometimes once or twice, elated. Once, I was terribly upset with my playing. I had changed mouthpieces immediately prior to the performance, and while it went well, I was sharp throughout the F minor Sonata, the reason being that I used a German mouthpiece, and by the time we got to the F minor the pitch had risen too high, unfortunately for me.And for the audience). But these are asides. (The best rule I can think of is never to change mouthpieces right before a performances.)
The time I as elated was when I played the Eb at an after-dinner concert at Fontainebleau at the Conservatoire Americain. Nadia Boulanger was in the small group and when I got to the development of the first movement, she said audibly,” ahh, but this is wonderful”. When Boulanger said “wonderful”, take it to the bank. Probably what impressed her was the execution of triplets as triplets and not like sixteenth notes, another mistake many clarinetists make.( quite opinionated, but actually my opinions come directly from the idea that what is on the printed page is paramount. This comes first. If one looks at these pieces in the way of total accuracy, then you are on the road to beautiful expression and phrasing.) There is no room for “individuality”. Through total accuracy comes individuality, or as I heard Boulanger say many tmes, “there can be no freedom without discipline”.
If we consider the Eb Sonata, one is confronted with the biggest problem, the group of 16ths rising to the D, the one with the quintuplets. Nobody plays it in time, which is the way Brahms wrote it. Some make a sweeping gesture with a huge crescendo and ritardando . Wrong! It is not written that way, and we know that this particular composer was a neoclassical composer. He wrote exactly what he wanted to hear and he was very specific, placing many difficulties before both the pianist and the clarinetist; syncopations for both players with cross rhythms intermixed. Canons at the smallest of metrical values. And all of this is written out, totally written out by this composer.
Some play it like a cadenza, again, wrong. Why? Because it is difficult to play it in time, making the crescendo and the legato perfect.
That is what is written. Nothing else.
Next is the section with the triplets, which many play as sixteenth notes/ Again, this is incorrect.To play it correctly, one has to be able to make the syncopation. The piano has eighths, the clarinet triplets and it is slow enough for trouble, which is what usually occurs. One must remember that this was not written in the Romantic style, let us say of Liszt, wherein many liberties are and should be taken by the player. While Brahms lived at the same time, he is considered the first neoclassical composer, his compositions reflecting more of the basic aspects of Bach and Beethoven. His harmonic vocabulary is amongst the most sophisticated of the entire century.
So, instead, the player who hates these sonatas chooses the Poulenc, or almost anything else. They’re much more melodious, though they do not have the harmonic and rhythmic interest as does the Brahms Eb. And of course, the absence of any contrapuntal activity.

So, what I mean by all of this is that we should learn any piece in the manner first of an absolutely literal reading of the notes on the page, exactly as the composer wrote, all rhythmic values especially. One may take for granted that if there is not understanding of the work, or the passage, it will come with careful practice. In the case of Brahms, rest assured it will come, and when it does, either by playing the music in rehearsal or with a coach, it will more meaningful, much more than the Sonata of Poulenc, whic is also beautiful, but of a much different kind .
It is our job to play exactly what is on the page, and to learn all of this music, as much as we can, before we may cast it aside. The most dangerous damage a player can do is to hate a piece of music, especially if he or she cannot play it.Ths inability is frequently the cause of the disdain.

So, make it a rule. The ability to render the music accurately comes first, much before any other consideration. And, after total accuracy , one then must make the music sing, never forgetting that this clarinet we play is very frequently, emulating the voice; And it will come.

Stay well and play well. And learn those triplets,and how to play five notes equally in one beat, which is the first key that will open the door to the Brahms Sonatas.


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