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The Première Rhapsodie for Clarinet by Claude Debussy was composed between December 1909 and January 1910, and dedicated to the French clarinet professor, Prospére Mimart. Debussy wrote his Rhapsodie shortly after joining the governing council of the Paris Conservatoire, where he was asked to compose two pieces for the clarinet concours.
Debussy responded with a short Petit Pièce, intended to test sight reading, and the Première Rhapsodie, one of his few pieces written for solo wind instruments. In July 1910, after hearing eleven clarinet students perform the Rhapsodie with piano for the Solos de Concours, Debussy wrote to his publisher: “To judge by the expressions on the faces of my colleagues, the Rhapsodie was a success, and one of the most charming I have ever written.” Debussy was so taken by his piece that he later revised it for full orchestra.
French composer and pianist Francis Poulenc was born in Paris in 1899. Francis Poulenc’s compositions for woodwind instruments occupy an important place in the musical repertoire. In addition to pieces for flute, oboe, bassoon, and horn, Poulenc wrote three sonatas that feature the clarinet; Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in B-flat, and Sonata for Two Clarinets. His Sonata for Two Clarinets is scored for one player on B♭ clarinet and the other on A clarinet. Before Poulenc became involved with the innovative group of French composers, Les Six, he wrote one of his earliest pieces, Sonata for Two Clarinets, at the age of 19. Interestingly, one of Poulenc’s latest compositions was his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, written in 1962, the year before his death. Poulenc wrote his Sonata for Two Clarinets in the same year of Debussy’s death, eight years after his Rhapsodie was premiered. Debussy’s influence on Poulenc can be heard in the similar musical language and use of color, and also in similar “finger-twisting” descending passages in the third movement of the Sonata, and in the Scherzando section of the Rhapsodie.
Cesare Pugni was an Italian composer who spent much of his life in St. Petersburg, Russia, composing music for the Imperial Ballet at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. Pugni is considered the most prolific ballet composer of all time, having written almost 100 ballets in his lifetime.
The Little Humpbacked Horse (1864) is one of Pugni’s best-known ballets. It was largely based on Russian folk stories, and Pugni included many Russian folk songs in the music. Because of the strong ties to traditional Russian culture, the ballet enjoyed success with the public, inspiring a series of other Russian-style ballets. Ironically, the French choreographer, Arthur Saint-Léon, not well versed in Russian folk dance, invented his own dances for the ballet. This version of the ballet was arranged for trio by Russian clarinetist and composer Simeon Bellison in 1933.
Carl Maria von Weber was born in 1786 to a family of musicians. In addition to musical parents, his four cousins all became notable singers, including Constanze, who went on to marry Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Weber’s works featuring the clarinet are extremely significant pieces in the repertoire. These works, consisting of a Concertino and two Concertos with orchestra, Variations with piano (all 1811), a Quintet for clarinet and strings, "Introduction, Theme and Variations" for the same combination (both 1815), and a Grand Duo Concertante with piano (1816), would never have been written if in 1811, Weber had not met clarinetist Heinrich Baermann. After hearing Baermann play, Weber was so inspired by the smooth tone and facile technique Baermann produced on his instrument, that he composed three new works for clarinet in the span of a single year. Heinrich Baermann later had a son, Carl, who also went on to be a noted clarinet virtuoso.
Weber’s compendium of clarinet works are treasured by clarinetists not only because of their virtuosity, playful style, inventiveness, and musicality, but because Weber’s writing for the newly invented 10- keyed clarinet was so idiomatic that over 200 years later his compositions remain integral components in every clarinetists’ performing life.
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Wyrick-Flax, Amalie Johanna, "Leading and Supporting Roles: Clarinet as an Actor" (2014). Senior Projects Spring 2014. 64.
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