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What Is a Clarinet Concerto?

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  • Written By: Peter Hann
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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The concerto first arose as a musical form in the Baroque Period, initially as the concerto grosso of composers such as Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi in which a group of instruments would play against the background of a continuo. The concerto developed later in the form of a single instrument playing in dialogue with or in opposition to the orchestra. The solo instrument in the Baroque Period would typically be the oboe, flute or trumpet but, by the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the clarinet was being introduced into orchestras and began to be featured as a solo instrument. The clarinet concerto is normally written in three movements, the first and third being fast movements with a slow movement between them. The smooth, rich sound of the clarinet allows it to combine well as a solo instrument in a conversation with the orchestra, and several composers have written works in this form.

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Mozart realized the instrument’s potential when he heard the playing of the well known clarinetist Anton Stadler and subsequently wrote a clarinet sonata and a clarinet concerto. Mozart’s clarinet concerto is characterized by a dialogue between the solo instrument and the orchestra that highlights the interaction with the orchestra rather than relying on the solo performance of the clarinet. In the Romantic Period, the two clarinet concertos written by Carl Maria von Weber at the beginning of the 19th century demonstrate the range of the clarinet by including upward leaps and fast-rising passages.

In the 20th century, the clarinet concerto received attention from a variety of composers who approached the form in different ways. The clarinet concerto by Carl Nielsen is written as one movement, though it has four sections that alternate between fast and slow. The work takes the form of a struggle between the solo instrument and the orchestra and is a restless, unsettled work finishing with a more tranquil slow section.

One of the most notable works of the 20th century is the clarinet concerto by Aaron Copland, who wrote the work for the jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman and included many references to jazz in the concerto. Copland commented that it was difficult to bring out jazz effects using an orchestra without a large percussion section and he made use of the percussion effects of other instruments, such as the harp and the bass. By contrast, an example from the 21st century is the clarinet concerto by Magnus Lindberg, which is written in one movement that contains musical references to other works and allows the solo clarinetist to demonstrate musical virtuosity.

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