Berlioz and the Clarinet

Clarinet in C by Bouchman, Annonay, France, ca. 1825. A lovely instrument in excellent condition by a little-known maker working in a small town near Lyon in the south of France, where instrument-making was actively pursued in the 19th century. Built of boxwood with ivory ferrules, it has seven keys. The round key flaps to which the pads are glued are curved to conform with the curvature of the body, a unique feature not normally seen that gives the instrument an unusually sleek appearance. A metal tuning slide on the inside of the bore, between the barrel and the top joint, became a feature that was widely used well into the 20th century, but often causes the barrel to crack, as the wood shrinks. Ex coll.: William J. Maynard, New York. Board of Trustees, 1996.

The above could have been the kind of instrument for which Berlioz composed.



“In an artist’s life one thunderclap sometimes follows swiftly on another … I had just had the successive revelations of Shakespeare and Weber. Now at another point on the horizon I saw the giant form of Beethoven rear up. The shock was almost as great as that of Shakespeare had been. Beethoven opened before me a new world of music, as Shakespeare had revealed a new universe of poetry.
Hector Berlioz
Berlioz (1803-69) said this of Beethoven, and was deeply impressed by the Music of Beethoven, especially in the Symphonie Fantastique, written in about 1830, which follows the example of the Symphony #6 of Beethoven, both, because there are five movements in each and each have a program, a story, if you will.
Beethovens program for the pastoral was of the impression of the countryside, shepherds, a storm and quiet after the storm.
Similarly, Berlioz writes of the countryside, but also of a love, the love of his life, whom he meets, his advances spurned , pursues and finally marries. This was Harriet(sometimes) Henrietta Smithson, the Irish actress, with whom Berlioz had an incredible marriage(finally), and then saw die, but stayed loyal to her passing for years afterward, tending to her grave. But, while this was transpiring, Berlioz kept quite busy, marrying twice again.

In last nights performance of the Symphonie Fantastique, by Berlioz, all was not perfect, at least not for the principal clarinet, specifically in the long clarinet solo in the slow movement, Scene aux Champs. I’m sure that all clarinetists know this long solo in the slow movement, both for its legato demands, its breathing, and the one salient  point, the throat Bb, played in the legato passage twice, the second time in an ppp mode.
What was very interesting for me as a clarinetist , was the playing of this part on an Oehler Clarinet, which is the system of clarinets used in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. They swear by these extremely well-made instruments, which are very costly, have a different fingering system, a different bore and require more air support
Very frequently, I am very pleased by the sound of these clarinets, their depth, and their heavier woody quality than the french boehm clarinet, which is used in most of the other European Orchestras.
But this performance last evening by the Berlin Orchestra was disappointing for me , especially in that particular solo. Each time it was played, the player used the easiest way of achieving that Bb, and both were unacceptable from the standpoint of sound. Why? Because he simply got over the two Bbs as easily as he could , detracting from the expressive possibilites and actually playing them faster than written. You may say, no big deal, but to any clarinetists aspiring to play this work in a fine orchestra, it is of great importance.
Now, as an aside, if I were playing this solo, on my Mazzeo full Boehm clarinet I would have played the Bb with the long Bb key, which works perfectly for two reasons: it simply fall directly under the fingers, and two, it is in context with the rest of the solo, and works expecially well, in the repeat of that measure in ppp. But , it must be remembered that this passage presents no problem with complete awareness of the demands.
I thought that this was a different player than usual, not the first Principal, but still, it was no excuse for the blip instead of the Bb.
Usually, when performing this work, all of the clarinets are used. The principal plays the C clarinet part on the Eb, instead of the second clarinet for whom it is written by Berlioz, but this time it was performed as written, by just two clarinets, the principal already mentioned, the second player playing the C part on the Eb. This is the most difficult to negotiate and the fellow who played the part was extraordinary, really great playing. If one has a chance to visit this performance in the archives, it is very well worth the visit, mostly because this is the way Berlioz conceived the parts.
Seeing and hearing this work has always been a party for me, more a theater piece than a symphony. There are so many unusual players,a couple of sets of tympani, four harps, for there are chromatics in the harp parts, specifically in La Bal, wherein the hero meets his beloved, his idee fixe at the Ball, and the ability of the harp to play chromatic notes was not yet invented. So,extra harps are there , tuned so that they could play the notes Berlioz wrote.
There are also the two great funeral bells which begin the last movement of the work, prior to the duet for two tubas of the Dies Irae, from the March for the dead. There are also for the first time, glissandi written for the flute and the oboe, usually left out, but played here in the Berlin performance.
Berlioz followed Beethovens plan of five movements, telling a story in the Pastoral, but Berlioz uses instead a program concerning a musician, totally infatuated by a lady, whose theme is repeated and is known as the Idee Fixe. This theme appears in all of the movements in different ways always symbolzing the beloved, as the hero sees her at Un Bal, kills her in March to the Scaffold(and is beheaded, a wonderful G major chord played in the full orchestra in applause of the beheading )and sees her again in the Dream of the Witches Sabbath, the final movement in which appears the Dies Irae frlm the Mass for the Dead, turning into a perfect fugue with different thematic entrances made in various instrumentlal guises. The idee fixe is another way of saying leit motiv. so frequently used by Wagner.
If there is anyone who does not know this work intimately, avail yourself of the opportunity.
Berlioz is not only extremely colorful as a personality , a critic of concerts , the writer of the best book on orchestration ever written, and Frances most famous composer of his time and possibly the entire history of music.

keep practicing, learn all the Berlioz solos.
stay well, sherman

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