Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Sextet for 2 Clarinets, 2 Bassoons and 2 Horns in E-flat major, Op 71
Adagio – Allegro
Menuetto: Quasi Allegretto
Before his symphonies, concertos and quartets, Beethoven wrote plenty of music for winds. Sadly – not least for wind players – it may well have been more a question of market forces than a passion for their sound. Wind music sold well in 18th century Vienna, and young Beethoven was more than happy to supply it. But unlike Mozart – who wrote for winds throughout his life – once Beethoven was established as a serious composer, he turned to strings or piano in his chamber works. To add insult to injury, even this piece was re-arranged for string quintet, and then for piano trio, despite the glorious way the music fits its original instruments. Beethoven displays great affinity, particularly, for the mercurial quality of the clarinet, which makes you wonder what his clarinet concerto might have been like. The brief cadenzas and show-stealing flashes of brilliance hint that it could have been a ‘missing link’ between Mozart’s concerto and Weber’s.
Mozart’s wind music was written more as entertainment than anything else, but Beethoven had serious intent. He claims to have written this piece in a fit of inspiration during a single night – and he shaped it into the classic four-movement pattern (serious first movement, lyrical slow movement, rumbustious third movement, then a dancing finale) found in most serious chamber music and symphonies of the period – but almost never in wind music. In all of Mozart’s substantial output, there is only one wind serenade which follows this pattern (KV388); most of his works follow the more common pattern of five or more short dance movements and marches. The seriousness Beethoven signals by choosing to use this structure is borne out in the meatiness and drama of the first movement. It is an early work, despite its Op 71 catalogue number – in fact, it was written in 1796 – and it is easy to imagine the young man of 26 trying on symphonic ideas and forms for size on this reduced scale. Already there is a sense of the masterful concentration of thought which you find in all the symphonies.
© Svend Brown
Mátyás Seiber (1905-1960)
Serenade for six wind instruments (1925)
It is difficult to think of another nation that forged such a distinctive musical identity in the early twentieth century as the Hungarian empire. Unlike Russian nationalism or the revival of the English folksong tradition, the strength of the Hungarian musical character was founded on an inward-looking sense of national pride. Stravinsky’s Russian period was designed to address – and impress – a foreign audience, while the Hungarian concern with identity was determined by the internal politics of its empire, and had much less to do with the merchandising of exoticism. The magyar nóta (‘Hungarian tune’) had long been regarded as a stylistic emblem of nationalism in music cultivated by the Hungrian nobility, known aborad as the ‘Gypsy style’. Even as early as 1795, Haydn wrote a ‘Rondo in Hungarian style’, incorporating dotted rhythms, syncopations, augmented seconds and distinctive folk-like repetition. But throughout the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, a more robust and authentic Hungarian style was projected to the wider world, founded on the transcriptions and arrangements of indigenous folksong. With Bartók and Kodály leading the way, a whole host of young Hungarian composers followed in their footsteps.
Among this new generation was Mátyás Seiber, a pupil of Kodály and a student of the Budapest Academy, who had a particular interest in languages and in making vocal transcriptions of the nation’s folksongs. Seiber would become famous for his eclectic projects, which included the film scores for Animal Farm and A Town Like Alice, as well as collaborations with guitarist John Williams, percussionist Jimmy Blades, and jazz pioneer John Dankworth. He was also a respected teacher of some renown, as composer Francis Routh writes: ‘He was a complete teacher equally at home in the disciplines of Bach or Schoenberg. He particularly loved Bach. His teaching methods encouraged students to realise the reasons for every note that they wrote and every harmony that they produced. He was a genuine inspiration.’
But not all of Seiber’s forays into composition were met with such enthusiasm. When he entered his Serenade for six wind instruments into a composition in Budapest in 1927, for which both Bartók and Kodály were serving on jury, he was denied first prize. Disgusted, Bartók resigned from the jury in protest. It is not difficult to understand Bartók’s position: the Serenade is an elegant work that shows a composer mature beyond his years. Scored for two clarinets, two horns and two bassoons, its three movements present Seiber’s own renderings of different Hungarian folksongs – authentic in their origin, but transformed anew as the subject of this suite of dances. Here, the hallmarks of the ‘Gypsy style’ – such as the florid, improvisatory solo for clarinet in the first movement and the traditional dotted rhythms and syncopations of the opening dance – are given a neoclassical twist, with canonic imitation, rhythmic interplay and sharp textures. A melancholic central movement gives way to an energetic finale – a traditional march that becomes increasingly intricate and syncopated as the movement progresses, eventually bursting out into a triumphant conclusion.
© Jo Kirkbride
Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Adagio and Rondo (1808)
A close contemporary of Beethoven and important figure in the emerging Romantic era, Weber’s works often receive far less attention than those of his contemporaries, despite his popularity during his lifetime. Like Mozart, he died relatively young – at the age of 39, from tuberculosis – and although his works do not match Mozart’s in number, his music left a legacy that was later acknowledged by the likes of Wagner, Debussy and Mahler. He is perhaps best known for his opera, Der Freischütz, considered by many to be the first ‘Romantic’ opera and held up as a masterpiece of dramatic representation, orchestration, and sublime melody that would influence opera composers for many years to come.
Alongside his vocal music, Weber also wrote a large number of instrumental works, including several seminal concertos for solo wind instruments and a wealth of chamber music, most of which is also for wind. This predilection for wind writing had much to do with the virtuoso clarinettist Heinrich Bärmann, who inspired Weber to write his two concertos for clarinet, Opp. 73 and 74, the wind quintet, Op. 34 and the Concertino, Op. 26. Yet, his two surviving scores for wind ensemble pre-date his collaborations with Bärmann, suggesting that he had a gift for wind writing even before they met. His Adagio in E flat major and Rondo in B flat major for two clarinets, two horns and two bassoons were written at separate times and on separate leaves of manuscript, so it is possible that Weber never intended them to form a cohesive work. But their closely-related keys and identical scoring suggests otherwise, and together they form a well-balanced pair of musical miniatures, each only a little over two minutes long.
In 1808, Weber was employed by the Duke of Württemberg, serving as his private secretary with no other musical duties. This left him free to pursue projects that pleased him and to take on private commissions, though it is not clear for which occasion – if any – the Adagio and Rondo were composed. The sinuous, elegant lines of the Adagio are in stark contrast with the playfulness of the Rondo that follows. While the former has echoes of Mozart in its calm, contemplative melodic writing, the Rondo is entirely Weber’s own, coloured with the same wit and humour that would characterise his clarinet concertos just two years later. Sadly, Weber’s employment with the Duke did not end well: after falling into debt, he and his father were accused of misappropriating a large amount of the Duke’s money and while Weber was in the midst of a rehearsal for a new opera, the two were arrested and thrown into jail. Nevertheless, the episode had its advantages: when they were later released and banished from Württemberg, Weber was at last able to concentrate on composing full-time, producing some of his most notable works in the years that followed – the clarinet concertos included.
© Jo Kirkbride
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Serenade in E-flat major, K375
By far the greatest of Mozart’s many divertimenti and serenades for wind instruments are the last three wind serenades, numbered 10, 11 and 12 in the complete edition of his works, and written in 1781 and 1782. Two of these expand the boundaries of the conventional serenade form, No 10 in B flat by its extravagant scoring for thirteen instruments and its sequence of no fewer than seven movements, and No 12 in C minor by its remarkable expressive content. But No 11 in E flat achieves its mastery more conservatively, within the established framework of the Viennese serenade of the time.
It was indeed written for outdoor performance in the true serenade tradition: it was given for the first time in Vienna on St Theresa’s Day (15 October) 1781, and no fewer than three Theresas were favoured with performances of it on their name-day during that evening. The Serenade was played then by pairs of clarinets, bassoons and horns, but the following year Mozart rewrote it for 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and 2 horns, the most common wind band scoring of the classical period. The layout of the movements also adheres to the norms of eighteenth century Vienna: an extended first Allegro, a rather lighted finale, and two minuets enclosing a central slow movement.
© Anthony Burton
“At eleven o’clock at night I was treated to a serenade — and that too of my own composition. These musicians… surprised me, just as I was about to undress, in the most pleasant fashion imaginable with the first chord in E-flat.” So wrote Mozart in 1781! That very Serenade ends this lovely concert, which opens in youthful high spirits with Beethoven’s Sextet. The clarinet is a bit of a scene-stealer here - Beethoven gives it plenty of flashes of brilliance.