Since its invention by Johann Christoph Denner in Germany more than 300 years ago, the clarinet has enjoyed a storied history. Achieving prominence in the first half of the 20th century during the big band era, the versatile woodwind revealed itself in different forms as the century progressed. Let’s take a look at some of the best clarinet players across this period, and a few reasons they are the names to watch and listen to.
2019 is the 110th anniversary of Benny Goodman's birth to Russian immigrants in Chicago, Illinois. A good time, then, to look back at the great jazz clarinetist, known as The King of Swing.
In 1938, Goodman's band took to the stage at the legendary Carnegie Hall, the first jazz band so to do. With one performance, they took the jazz clarinet from the fringes of smoky, dark, back-room bars, and elevated it to high art.
Rose Room is one of Benny Goodman's classics, performed at the height of his fame in the late 30s and featuring the dulcet tones of his clarinet. This tune also features Charlie Christian, who can lay claim to being the first electric guitar hero. Goodman wasn't that interested in having a guitar in his sextet so, when Christian auditioned for him, he struck up the tune Rose Room, assuming Christian wouldn't know it. But Charlie had been raised on the song and, so the story goes, knew twenty different versions. He launched into a solo that included every version he knew, and lasted almost 40 minutes. Needless to say, by the time he had finished, his place on the front row of Benny's band was assured.
Goodman was, in his own way, something of a hero too, because he was one of the first band leaders of the time to allow a black player, like Christian, or pianist Teddy Wilson, to play with him. As a child of poor Jewish immigrants fleeing anti-Semitism in Russia, Goodman knew that where you were from and how you looked didn't matter anything like as much as how you played. And, when Goodman played, he gave the clarinet a warm, sweet tone, mixed with an urgent tempo that made an entire generation get up and dance.
Goodman's great rival during the big-band heyday of the 1930s, was Artie Shaw. Like Goodman, he was the son of Jewish immigrants, who started earning a living as a session musician when still in his teens.
Like Goodman, he would work with the best musicians he could find, irrespective of their race, creed, or color.
Unlike Goodman, Shaw wasn't content just to make audiences dance; he wanted to constantly innovate. Influenced by classical composers, and an unquenchable curiosity, Shaw created several different bands, with different line-ups, such as his side-project Artie Shaw and the Gramercy Five, which recorded eight hits in 1940, including at least one million-seller. Then, in 1941, he broke that band up and started another, always eager to try something new.
Not an easy man to work with, audience demands exasperated Shaw because, instead of his new and exciting projects, they just wanted to hear his trademark version of Begin the Beguine, a tune he grew bored of playing.
In later life, Shaw gave up playing the clarinet altogether because, he said, his perfectionism was killing him. He turned, instead, to writing and produced a well-received autobiography as well as many short stories.
So much for the leading clarinetists of the recent past; what about the musicians who emerged in the second half of the 20th century and who you can still see performing today?
Sabine Meyer is the epitome of the classical concert clarinetist. She got her big break when the legendary Austrian conductor Herbert Von Karajan created a storm of controversy by recruiting her as solo clarinetist for the Berliner Philharmoniker; flying in the face of its entrenched tradition of excluding women. After a year, so the story goes, the male musicians voted against her staying. It was the early 80s; a different time!
So, if being a woman in a man's orchestra was going to prove a problem for her, Meyer decided to go it alone and, as a soloist, has recorded many albums and played with the great orchestras of the world, from the San Francisco Symphony to the St Petersburg Philharmonic and, of course, the Berlin Phil.
All the time, Meyer has helped reinstate the clarinet’s position as a lead instrument for concert platforms. Her world-class talents and her consummate performances have taken the clarinet to new musical heights in her homeland and abroad, fitting for an instrument invented in Germany.
Meyer also teaches clarinet, as professor at the Lübeck Academy of Music, and her students fly in from all over the world to be taught by the best. If he were around today, Johann Christoph Denner would surely be smiling from cheek to cheek.
Conductor and clarinetist, Martin Fröst has an energetic, even playful style, which gives him plenty of opportunity to throw shapes on stage. Born in 1970 and picking up his first clarinet at the age of eight after hearing Mozart’s clarinet concerto, he brings to the clarinetist the glamour of the guitar hero.
Universally recognized as a virtuoso on the instrument, Fröst's tone has been described as "seductive" and, as such, he could have made his reputation as a leading interpreter of Mozart, but his ambitions went beyond simply being the best at one incredible thing.
So, he created Dollhouse, a multimedia piece where he performs as soloist, conductor, dancer, and actor. Fröst is redefining what it is to be a soloist, and revolutionizing the experience of going to a classical concert.
For Fröst, allowing “the human voice” to emerge through the clarinet is vital. “In the classical business we are so focused to be trained in a certain way of playing the instrument, that in the end we don’t know how to use all of the air to create different colors and different phrasing,” he remarked during a visit to a Buffet Crampon facility to test out new clarinets.
THE CLARINET OF TOMORROW
Fröst, with his non-traditional use of the clarinet, and his deconstruction of the concert-going experience, is pointing the way to the future for the clarinet. The instrument’s versatility and its ability to breathe life into different musical styles across different eras promise rich times ahead for this magical woodwind.