Early Music Now offers an instrumental clarinet history lesson

Guest artist Eric Hoeprich, along with keyboardist Byron Schenkman and Clara Rottsolk, will illustrate the evolution of the clarinet from its origins as the "chalumeau" to its more modern form.

By - Sep 5th, 2013 12:34 am
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Early Music Now presents Vienna Revisited this weekend featuring Eric Hoeprich, Clara Rottsolk, and Byron Schenkman. Photos: Early Music Now

Early Music Now, a local forum featuring the best in pre-classical era music concerts, has long championed hearing music in the form in which it was originally composed — on period instruments. In a pre-season concert on Saturday, Sept. 7, Early Music Now is offering a unique opportunity to compare the evolution of one instrument from one step of its development to another.


The chalumeau, a precursor to the modern clarinet, will be showcased in Early Music Now’s season opener. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The concert will feature the chalumeau — a single-reed woodwind instrument that evolved into the modern-day clarinet. An 18th-century instrument maker, Johann Christoph Denner (the “Stradivarius” of wind instrument makers), refined the design of the chalumeau, then introduced the first clarinet as a complementary instrument. Further improvements allowed the clarinet to cover the entire range of the chalumeau’s voices, rendering the chalumeau obsolete.

Baroque-era work by Francesco Conti and Marc Antonio Ziani feature the chalumeau and harpsichord. The “obsolete” instrument has a mellow resonance not as obvious in the clarinet. With few mechanical controls, and a range of only 11 notes, the instrument was featured in several different ranges — as with recorders and string instruments. A side development created the basset horn, a lower-toned instrument of somewhat similar design. Each attracted 18th-century composers. Find YouTube examples of each here and here.

I find the sound of the chalumeau especially pleasing when several instruments, representing the different voices, play together. The Saturday concert will feature just one chalumeau/basset horn player, Eric Hoeprich, whose authoritative book, The Clarinet, celebrates the era when new instrument design was open to wide experimentation. Eric will be joined by Byron Schenkman, a keyboard player recognized for his “beautifully sculpted” performances on the harpsichord and forte-piano, and Clara Rottsolk, a soprano specializing in 18th-century lieder.

As the clarinet entered the chamber repertory, the harpsichord was usually replaced by the forte-piano. Schenkman will play forte-piano as the appropriate instrument for late 18th and early 19th-century compositions. The instrument offers a clarity of sound not heard in the more “muddled” overtones of a contemporary grand piano. A well-constructed forte-piano, and a performer who knows how to play it well, can offer a fresh perspective on early classical works.

Mozart was an early proponent of the “new” clarinet. Beethoven, Carl Maria von Weber and Schubert all developed early works that feature the instrument. The clarinet covers the range of the human voice, leading to Schubert’s beautiful lieder, “The Shepherd on the Rock,” featuring a perfectly matched duet between soprano and clarinet. Several songs by Louis Spohr will also be performed.

Indicative of Early Music Now’s commitment to community education, each performer will offer free workshops from 10:30-12:30 a.m. Saturday morning. The workshops will focus on the perspective performers should bring to this music, and the transition from Baroque to Classical instrumentation. Preregistration is required. There will also be a preliminary talk at 7:00 p.m. before the 8:00 p.m. performance. The concert will be held at the Schwan Concert Hall at Wisconsin Lutheran College; tickets are $25 or $10 for students, and can be ordered online.

The other end of the musical spectrum will feature the latest contemporary music in a Present Music concert at the Lynden Sculpture Garden at 4:00 p.m. The schedule offers the musically curious an early season “double-header;” you can begin the evening by celebrating the extravagance of contemporary percussion outdoors and end with the mellow contemplative sounds of two centuries ago. Check back later in the week for a preview of Present Music’s Inuksuit, and their full 2013-14 season.

Categories: Classical, Music

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