Clarinet Concerto No 2 in E-flat

Programme note

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)
Clarinet Concerto No 2 in E-flat (1811)

Mozart had his Stadler, Brahms his Mühlfeld – and Weber his Bärmann. Stadler, Mühlfeld and Bärmann? They were the great virtuoso clarinettists of their time. Virtuosos in the broadest and greatest sense. They inspired Mozart, Brahms, and Weber to write some of their very best music for this Johnny-come-lately member of the woodwind family.

By 1810, the developments to the clarinet (now with up to 10 keys) enabled Heinrich Bärmann, as a member of the Bavarian Court Orchestra in Munich, to shine, develop his technique and artistry, and capture the imaginations of the likes of Weber. This relatively new instrument could sing with all the demonic virtuosity demanded of a great soprano in full flood during her mad scene, but could also embrace the warmth and expressiveness of the greatest love aria. The range of the instrument was astonishing. The dark, deep chalumeau register could be directly contrasted with the piercing coloratura of its upper range. And just to increase this variety, the instrument came in a number of sizes from bass (even contra-bass) clarinet, to the short, shrill E-flat clarinet. No wonder early Romantic composers like Weber sat up and paid attention.

Weber arrived at the Bavarian court in 1811 and was swiftly won over by Bärmann’s artistry and virtuosity – a fusion of the incisive style of the French with the rich full-toned sound of the German school. Weber exploited these assets by composing a Concertino. Its premiere so impressed the King that he immediately commissioned Weber to write two full-fledged clarinet concertos.

Both concertos were completed that year. Later, Weber would eschew the classical expectation of an opening movement in sonata form. Indeed in his Konzertstück for piano and orchestra (1821) he abandons the concept of separate movements altogether in favour of a work in which the different sections became part of one continuous whole. But, in 1811, and with a royal commission, Weber decided to stick to the tried and true.

The opening movement of the Second Concert in E-flat is incisive and compact within the expectations of sonata form, while giving room for the soloist to shine. Just as Mozart before him loved to juxtapose the extreme ends of an operatic voice, so Weber makes an immediate impact by juxtaposing the extreme ranges of the instrument: the clarinet’s very first two notes are three octaves apart. It is in the Adagio, however, that Weber is at his most expressive. This is an aria for clarinet equal to any in any opera. There is even recognition of this by the notation of a ‘recitative’ section near the end, where the soloist is encouraged to almost declaim, parlando. The finale is a devil-may-care Polacca- one of Weber’s favourite dance forms. It ends the concerto in a display of virtuoso fireworks that gives modern clarinettists a run for their money, let alone Herr Bärmann and his 10-keyed instrument.

It is clear that Weber responded very personally to the sound of the clarinet – it seemed to be the instrument of the orchestra that most embraced both his own dark romantic longings and his exuberant brilliance. Accordingly, Weber’s music for clarinet ranks among his very best. His fame, however, rests with his determination to change the artifice of Italian opera into something more meaningful for his German public. It was Weber’s pioneering efforts in Oberon and Der Freischütz that galvanised Wagner into his astonishing operatic activity. With that, Western music changed forever.

© David Gardner