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ClassicsOnline Home » COPLAND, A. / BERNSTEIN, L.: Clarinet Sonatas / DANKWORTH, J.: Suite for Emma / Picture of Jeannie (Johnson)
Sir John Dankworth was inspired by Benny Goodman’s playing to study clarinet at the Royal Academy: his delightful Suite for Emma was composed for Emma Johnson, former BBC Young Musician of the Year, who performs it on this disc. Jazz and popular music influences are to the fore in the young Leonard Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata , which foreshadows the music for his ever-popular West Side Story. Aaron Copland’s arrangement for clarinet of his Violin Sonata is a major addition to the repertoire.
By David Denton
Emma Johnson is the UK’s best known and most charismatic clarinettist, an unending appetite for appearances throughout the country being fitted into a busy diary around the world. One of the early winners of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, she has since had many works composed for her, Johnny Dankworth’s For Emma, being one of considerable charm. Better known as a jazz musician, Dankworth shapes the five movements in ‘classical’ style and sounds so typically British. Johnson is a performer who colours music with thought and sensitivity, and Bernstein’s Sonata lives or dies on those criteria. She never uses that squeaky tone at the top end of the instrument that has become fashionable to heighten impact, but Johnson risks some incredibly quiet pianissimos. She has much more competition in the Copland, and I would not name this as my first choice, as I miss some of the Americana both in Johnson and her excellent partner, John Lenehan. Originally for violin and piano, Nocturne does not sound ‘right’ in its clarinet format, but Johnson raises the temperature in the final track with a display of virtuosity in Dankworth’s elaboration of Stephen Foster’s Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair. Listen to the technical quality of the recording and ask while all others cannot be as good. Rated among the top clarinet recital discs in the catalogue.
Aaron Copland (1900–1990) • Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) • Sir John Dankworth (b.1927)
Music for Clarinet and Piano
It has been on my wish list for a while to record the pieces John Dankworth wrote for me in the 1980s and 1990s, so I am glad to have the opportunity to set them down on this disc alongside classics by Bernstein and Copland, both of whom were also composers who could blur the boundaries between classical and jazz.
A leading figure in the jazz world for fifty years, Sir John Dankworth was born in 1927 and studied at the Royal Academy of Music where he was the first pupil to study both the saxophone and the clarinet. This habit of breaking the mould has shaped much of Dankworth’s astonishingly varied career. Hit jazz singles in the 1950s, and successful television and film composing credits have not precluded conducting leading classical symphony orchestras and writing music for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The theatre in Wavendon he set up with his wife, the singer Dame Cleo Laine, is testament to Dankworth’s strong belief in doing away with musical barriers and programming all types of music together.
Suite for Emma is a selection of classical song-like pieces with jazz inflexions glinting below the surface. John says of them “I didn’t think of writing classical or jazz, just of the music I would like to hear Emma Johnson play”. Each is a gem requiring great dexterity from the clarinettist but written by a composer who really knows how to show the instrument at its most velvety lyrical too. Most of the set was written in 1987 and given a première in Wavendon: Valse is a nostalgic waltz with a fiercely punchy middle section, Pavane a bitter-sweet melody with the regular tread of a medieval dance, Scherzo exploits jazzy rhythms to extremely witty effect, Ballade goes deepest of all the five, capturing the illusion of the clarinettist sharing his thoughts as he improvises, and reflecting Dankworth’s love affair with the musical interval of a fourth. Clarentella was added in 1993. It draws together motifs from earlier in the suite and provides a show stopping ending.
Similarly eclectic in outlook is the towering figure of Leonard Bernstein. His achievements in musical theatre with West Side Story and On the Town are second to none. Added to which he was one of the world’s great classical composers and conductors, a fluent pianist and improviser, and an inspiring lecturer on music and aesthetics.
Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata (1942) dates from the very beginning of his career. Bernstein had graduated in conducting from the Curtis Institute after studying music theory at Harvard and was unsure which of his many talents would propel him into the world of professional music. The most important conductor of the era, Serge Koussevitzky, had just started his famous summer festival at Tanglewood and this turned out to be the most inspiring experience of Bernstein’s musical education. His great friend and mentor Aaron Copland attended, as did other composers, including Hindemith. It was at Tanglewood that Bernstein met the work’s dedicatee, the clarinettist David Oppenheim, and the two became close friends.
After the first performance of the Bernstein Clarinet Sonata in 1943, Copland, declared it “full of Hindemith” but the Herald Tribune review praised the music’s “tender, sharp, singing quality” and called it “alive, tough, integrated”. Certainly the German composer Hindemith is brought to mind by the fastidious neoclassicism of the first movement (Grazioso) in which sonata-form structure is superbly handled. However the lean melodic lines and economic writing create a sense of lonely objectivity that is uniquely American and which can also be found in, for example, paintings by Edward Hopper or poetry by William Carlos Williams. Driving rhythms in the accompaniment also look forward to later American composers such as Glass, Reich and Adams. The second movement begins with slow, exposed music (Andantino) which is reintroduced and reworked in the middle of the subsequent fast section (Vivace e leggiero). Bernstein the lonely outsider and Bernstein the gregarious partygoer are skilfully integrated in this movement; the second slow section appears to melt into the final joyous drive home in which jazzy 5/8 rhythms yield to 6/8 and 7/8. West Side Story does not seem far off!
Aaron Copland acted as a father figure not only to Bernstein but to American music as a whole. His achievement was to forge an American voice amongst the hitherto mainly European voices of classical music. On a practical level he also helped set up a badly needed professional infrastructure of unions and laws to protect American musicians’ rights and royalty entitlements. Like the other composers on this disc, Copland possessed the ability to draw upon the vernacular. He could take the sounds he heard around him, distil them, and raise them into high art.
Copland’s Clarinet Sonata (1943) was a response to the death in combat of Lieutenant Harry H. Dunham, an admired friend who was shot down in the Pacific and whose loss was felt keenly by the arts community. The work’s first incarnation was as the Violin Sonata No. 1 but in the late 1970s Copland reworked it for clarinet and piano. This involved transposing the work down a third and making a few other minor changes. The reworking owes much of its success to the fact that the focussed tone of the clarinet tends to emphasize the sense of the “long line”, of each idea moving coherently and ineluctably to the next, that is so crucial to Copland’s music. The clarinet sound also underlines the associations with other Copland works of the 1940s such as Appalachian Spring and the jazzy Clarinet Concerto. Despite the sonata’s connections with war, the first movement (Andante semplice) is not overtly tragic but shows rather, as the commentator Howard Pollack puts it, “the values at stake: peace, civility and freedom”. The singing simplicity of the opening could be the sun rising over the vast open spaces of America. The singing line works itself up into jagged, dancing, thrusting music of the type that might have inspired the choreographer Martha Graham with whom Copland collaborated on the ballet Appalachian Spring. At the heart of this movement a moment of reflection is provided by a hymn-like melody in Shaker style. The bare textures of the second movement (Lento) are bleak but also bring to mind the dignity of a war memorial or of a Remembrance Day parade. At one point the music rises to forte as the melodic lines develop into a three-part canon, and it as though the composer’s personal grief suddenly comes into focus. Composure is quickly recovered and the music resumes its ceremonial tread which is all the more devastating for its understated simplicity.
High spirits return for the third movement (Allegretto giusto). The rhythmic poise of the opening has all the swagger of big-band jazz, but this is only one of a patchwork of elements, from the eloquently lyrical to the zanily raucous, that are cleverly juxtaposed here. An earlier American composer, Charles Ives, seems at times to be looking over Copland’s shoulder as several ideas play simultaneously and recreate the “can do” bustle of a big American city. Unfortunately eventually the party must end. Disjointed phrases from the first movement poignantly bring the movement to a close in uneasy tranquility disturbed only by odd memories of dancing rhythms in the bass of the piano.
Copland’s Nocturne was written in 1926 as one of a pair of violin pieces (the other is an up-tempo number called Ukulele Serenade). Copland and the violinist Samuel Dushkin performed them in an all-American show-case concert in Paris where Copland had studied for three years with Nadia Boulanger. A line of music slowly unravels to conjure up the colours and smells of nightfall in a sleepy American town. This work was republished for clarinet in 1976.
Before Copland, Stephen Foster (1826–1864) was a kind of uncrowned “Father of American Music”. Songs like Beautiful Dreamer, Camptown Races and Oh! Susanna were incredibly important to the American settlers of the nineteenth century and still are popular today. Sadly Foster was before his time in trying to make a living as a songwriter in the New World and he died, sick and penniless, in his thirties. As yet there were no enforceable laws of copyright to ensure him an income from his popular hit songs. Picture of Jeannie is a skilful elaboration for clarinet of a Foster song that I have loved since childhood: Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair. John Dankworth wrote the arrangement for me to play in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Summer Pops season of 1986.
Emma Johnson, 2008
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COPLAND, A. / BERNSTEIN, L.: Clarinet Sonatas / DA...