Speaking in Tones
Works by Jean Sibelius, Carl Maria von Weber and Béla Bartók
The Munich Court Opera’s singers faced a competitor within their own house early in the 19th century. When Heinrich Joseph Baermann began to play a solo passage in the orchestra pit, many listeners held their breath: “Leading connoisseurs are of the opinion that the singers should not fail to notice the clarinettist Baermann’s secrets of tonal attack, shaping, swelling and aspiration,” reads a contemporary report, “and that they should study completely his delivery, breath control, trills and all those qualities which good singers desire in themselves.” Carl Maria von Weber was so taken with Baermann’s artistry that he promptly wrote and dedicated four great clarinet works to him, including the Concerto in F minor being performed today. Baermann’s mastery complied with many composers’ penchant for employing the clarinet as a symbol of the human voice. The First Symphony of Jean Sibelius begins with a lonely clarinet’s mysterious bardic song, and Béla Bartók has given the Girl’s seduction music to the voice of a clarinet in his pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin.
Musical Dialogue: Jean Sibelius’s First Symphony
The unusual opening of his symphonic first-born bears witness to the long journey that must have led Sibelius to that point. At the time he composed it, shortly before the turn of the 20th century, the Finnish composer was already an established artist who, during his studies in Berlin and Vienna, had been deeply impressed by symphonists like Bruckner as well as creators of the contemporary tone poem. His symphonic cantata Kullervo op. 7 and the Lemminkäinen Suite op. 22 straddle both musical spheres and show the composer completely under the spell of the Finnish national epic Kalevala. Bearing in mind those preceding works, his First Symphony – after the literally legendary fabled clarinet solo of the opening bars – seems to be quite aware of its form, and when it gets to the finale, marked Quasi una Fantasia, it pushes against the genre’s boundaries. Yet at first glance, the E minor Symphony doesn’t really seem so unconventional: it has four movements, a sonata-form first movement, a three-part Andante, a Scherzo and Trio, and a Finale with a slow introduction. Even the internal structure of the movements with their contrasting thematic groups seems familiar, although by the time we reach the transition to the second theme of the opening movement, with the high strings preparing the ground for the flutes with shimmering tremolos, its creator’s individual voice has already become clear. The initially lyrical Andante reaches a new plateau in remote E flat major, while the Scherzo in C major seduces us into a more Mediterranean ambience. The Finale takes up the clarinet theme from the opening, but this powerful movement will not achieve an apotheosis: the hymn is withdrawn, and that tragic turn is confirmed by a laconic E minor ending. The symphony does not culminate in another Finlandia, notwithstanding the composer’s allusions to Karelian folk culture: the use of the harp here, atypical of Sibelius, is a symbolically charged allusion to the traditional Finnish kantele.
Instrumental Theatre: Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No. 1
“Weber came into the world to write the Freischütz” – that remark of Hans Pfitzner’s, made in 1926 on the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death, has not become any truer through frequent repetition. But the independent life of this sentence speaks volumes about the history of Weber’s reception. The Berlin Philharmonic’s annals show two complete performances of Der Freischütz, conducted by Joseph Keilberth and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whereas the First Clarinet Concerto – aside from a recording with soloist Karl Leister and Rafael Kubelik on the podium plus a presentation of the Adagio as part of a potpourri concert – was only performed twice before, in 1887 and 1938.
And yet, anyone who loves Der Freischütz is sure to find this concerto appealing as well. It is scarcely imaginable that this masterpiece was created in such a short time and in parallel with other works. In 1811, the composer had met the virtuoso Baermann, first dedicating a Concertino (in E flat major, op. 26) to him and, after its successful premiere, finding out that the Bavarian king Max Joseph and his orchestra wanted “to have concertos from me”. A few months later, two concertos were already finished (in F minor, op. 73 and in E flat major, op. 74), giving Baermann the opportunity to display his artistry in instrumental cantilena as well as his stupendous virtuosity. The latter is called for only in passing by the F minor Concerto, emerging almost spontaneously from the clarinet’s heartfelt melodies. The first movement is like a plaintive opera aria which, after a mystical orchestral introduction, goes well beyond the scope of a brilliant concerto. The C major Adagio – a Romantic idyll with wistful horn calls – also seems to come from a man of the theatre. The final rondo, in relaxed F major, revolves around a dancelike theme and is one of Weber’s pithiest inventions.
Tales from the Urban Jungle: Béla Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin
Béla Bartók wasn’t particularly successful in the theatre, even though his three one-acters can all be described as major works. He wrote them at a time when the “long 19th century” was being transformed into the “world of yesterday”: the opera Bluebeard’s Castle in 1911, the ballet-pantomime The Wooden Prince between in 1914-17 and the pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin, composed and orchestratedover several years beginning in 1917 and later revised as the concert suite being performed today.
The story takes place “in a shabby room in the slums”, according to a summary of the action printed in the score. “Three tramps, bent on robbery, force a girl to lure in prospective victims from the streets.” An old cavalier and a shy young man are found to have thin wallets and are promptly thrown out. Then the eerie and exotic Mandarin enters, genuinely desiring the Girl and unfazed even when the pimps attempt to suffocate him, run him through with a sword and, finally, hang him: “Only when they cut him down, and the Girl takes him into her arms, do his wounds begin to bleed and he dies.” In this unlikely setting, life-force and love-death converge.
This violent consummation is not found in the Mandarin suite, however, which replaces the last ten minutes of the pantomime with a short concert ending. Bartók made this truncated version mainly for practical reasons. The original, in addition to already lavish orchestral forces, calls for a mixed chorus, whose wordless vocalise in the work’s final section is a commentary on the assaulted Mandarin’s resilience. But the piece is spectacular even without that added attraction. Aggressive motor rhythms, atonal harmonies, wildly layered sonorities, plus striking trombone glissandi – the birth of the apocalypse out of the spirit of jazz: all that makes the Miraculous Mandarin one of the most exciting scores in modern music. When the Girl dances with the Mandarin, Bartók levers out three-quarter time by placing the light upbeat on the heavy first beat: this displaced waltz isn’t for “Tales from the Vienna Woods” but rather “Tales from the Urban Jungle”.