Blackwood and Reger: Clarinet Sonatas

Easley Blackwood's Sonata Op. 37 and Sonatina Op. 38

Both pieces were written between June 30 and October 24, 1994 — first the Sonata, and then two weeks later, the Sonatina. They were composed for Mr. Yeh, with whom I have had a stimulating musical relationship for over seventeen years. It seems rather strange that there should be so little for clarinet and piano in the standard repertoire. The only works of this genre by well-known composers are the Duo of Weber, the two Sonatas of Brahms, a Sonata by Saint-Saens, three Sonatas by Reger, the Rhapsody of Debussy, and the Sonata by Poulenc.

My Sonata is written for clarinet in A for two reasons: most of the afore­mentioned works are for clarinet in B-flat, suggesting that a gap might be filled; also, the additional low note furnished by the clarinet in A is very useful. My Sonata is in a conservative tonal idiom, which, for the past seven­teen years, I have found more con­vivial than conventional, academic modernism. In the Sonata, I use the entire tonal harmonic vocabulary, including advanced altered chords and chromatic resolutions, such as those found in Franck, Strauss, and Rachmaninoff, but sparingly — only at dra­matic or expressive moments.

The first movement is in sonata-allegro form, although with an unusu­al key arrangement in that the first and second themes in the exposition are in A minor and B major, respectively. Another salient feature of the move­ment is its relatively frequent use of augmented triads to effect modula­tions between relatively remote keys. This is especially noticeable in the connection between A minor and B major in the exposition, and from B major back to A minor via a different route, from the exposition to the development. In the recapitulation, the second theme is presented in A major. The movement closes with a brief coda, at the beginning of which augmented triads are again prominent.

The second movement is a series of gently contrasting episodes that bear some resemblance to a theme and variations, especially at the close of each episode. Each section is in a dif­ferent mode and key; however the modes are used strictly only at the outset and a later return, while the central portions are freer. The scheme

is as follows: Theme, in C-sharp minor Aeolian mode, a slow march; Variation 1, F major Mixolydian mode, rather quicker; Variation 2, C minor Dorian, slow and pensive; Variation 3, E major Lydian, a minuet; and Variation 4, C-sharp minor Phrygian, a barcarolle.

The last movement is a sonata-rondo, again featuring an unusual key scheme. The first statement of the refrain is in A minor, the first couplet is in C-sharp major, and the next ver­sion of the refrain is in A-sharp minor, a variation on the first featuring invertible counterpoint. The development is characterized by a more complex chromaticism; following this, the cou­plet returns in D major. The work concludes with 1 brief reference to the refrain and a coda.

The Sonatina posed a special chal­lenge, for there is no repertoire what­ever for piano and E-flat clarinet (pic­colo clarinet) — at least to my knowledge. Furthermore, the E-flat clarinet is generally associated with humor or grotesquerie, such as the sardonic solo during the "bad-dream" episode of Berlioz's Symphonic Fantas- tique, or the outlandish solo in Cop­land's El Salon Mexico. But the instrument is adaptable to a lyric style as well, especially in the lower register, and it generally permits a higher tessi­tura, although this can become a dan­gerous endurance problem for the performer. In order that the Sonata and the Sonatina should be in con­trasting styles, the latter uses a simpler harmonic vocabulary and a less intri­cate formal arrangement.

The Sonatina's first movement is in a conventional sonata form whose first and second themes are in F major and C major, respectively, in the exposi­tion. The development does not make use of the more remote keys, tonics being confined to A minor, E minor, G major, and C major. The second movement is in an A-B-A form; outer sections are in A-flat major, and the central section is in F minor. The finale is a rondo that uses a rather more intricate key scheme, but largely avoids chromatic progressions. Over­all, the Sonatina is not unlike the three Sonatinas for violin and piano of Schubert, although the key succes­sions of the last movement are rather more like Schubert's song Die Sterne (D. 939, 1828).

Max Reger's Sonata No. 3, Op. 107

Reger's Sonata No. 3, Op. 107, was completed in 1909, seven years before his untimely death in 1916 at age 43. In 1909, this unjustly neglected com­poser was enjoying enormous prestige. From 1907 to 1911, he was professor of composition and director of music at Leipzig University. At the same time, he composed more than twenty large-scale works, while maintaining active careers as both conductor and pianist. Although best known and esteemed for his organ works, he com­posed in every genre, save for opera. As a composer, Reger is part of the German Romantic lineage that includes Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, Strauss, and Schoenberg in his pre-atonal period, and the influence of these can be plainly sensed in Reger's music. He is also consciously indebted to J.S. Bach, especially in his works for piano and organ.

One factor that aided Reger in his prolific creativity was his ability to work on several different compositions simultaneously. For example, part of the day might be given to advancing on a new work — sketching out the principle melodies, the bass line, andan overview of the form. Next, he might take a work already in this state and add details regarding the har­mony. Finally, he would go on to yet another work that needed only the working out of the intricate voicings and textures that are so characteristic of his style. I strongly suspect that the Third Clarinet Sonata was written in these three stages.

The Sonata is a large, ambitious work that should certainly be regarded as among the best of the repertoire for clarinet and piano. Its harmonic idiom is complex and chromatic, but never diffuse or incoherent. Formally, it is entirely traditional; the first movement is in sonata-allegro form, the second is a scherzo and trio, the third is in a ternary song form, and the finale is a sonata-rondo.

Of particular interest is the use in later movements of material heard earlier. For example, portions of the scherzo are inconspicuously quoted in the slow movement. Of more importance are the expressive transformations of a six-note motive that forms the principal part of the first movement's second theme. Transformations of this nature play a significant part in works of com­posers who are often characterized as "post-Wagnerian." The six-note motive is recalled once in the third movement, at a particularly expressive moment, and then assumes greater importance in the Sonata's finale, where it is presented first as a pastoral melody, then as a stately chorale, and finally a lilting dance. The work closes with a coda that is drawn, first from the slow movement, and then from the ending of both the exposition and recapitulation of the first movement, which in turn contains a final state­ment of the six-note motive.

  • Easley Blackwood

About the Clarinets

I am very grateful to the Yamaha Com­pany which created the three clarinets used on this recording. The Oehler-Sys- tem, or "German-system," clarinet in B-flat, played in the Reger Sonata, is typical of those widely used in Ger­many and Austria. Its sound is charac­terized by a homogeneous tone quality and the tendency to a phrasing aesthet­ic that emphasizes long, smooth lines. The Eoehm-System clarinets, pitched here in A and E-flat, for Easley Black-wood's Sonata and Sonatina respective­ly, employ the so-called "French-System" fingering widely used by clar­inetists around the world (except in Germany and Austria). The slightly larger dimensions of the reed, mouth­piece, and bore of French-system instruments promote a degree of flexi­bility and brilliance in the tone quality not emphasized by German-System instruments. Hence, the French-style performance aesthetic tends more toward coloristic shadings and tonal variety than the German-style.

  • John Bruce Yeh

About the Performers

Easley Blackwood's career as a composer has been consistent only in its seeming contradictions and strong individuality. A Professor at the University of Chicago since 1958, Blackwood received his musical training from such legendary figures as Olivier Messiaen, Paul Hindemith (at Yale, where Blackwood earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in 1953 and 1954), and Nadia Boulanger. Blackwood's recent return to tonal composition, which has even produced some works set in consider­ably older musical styles, stems from his research into the properties of microtonal tunings and his decades-long study of harmony.

As a pianist, Easley Blackwood is cited in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians "for his performances of modern works of transcendental difficulty." His Cedille recordings of music by Casella and Szymanowski (CDR 90000 003; "Intelligent, sen­sitive, masterly playing." — High Performance Review) and sonatas by Ives and Cop­land (CDR 90000 005; "***** A bulls-eye." — Cincinnati Enquirer) have played to rave reviews.

John Bruce Yeh became a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1977, at the age of 19. Two years later, Sir Ceorg Solti appointed Yeh Assistant Principal Clar­inetist. As a 1976 Fromm Fellow at Tanglewood, Yeh studied with Harold Wright of the Boston Symphony and received the Benjamin H. Delson Memorial Award as Outstanding Instrumentalist. Mr. Yeh also won prizes at the 1982 Munich Inter­national Music Competition and the 1985 Naumburg Clarinet Competition in New York. In 1979, John Bruce Yeh organized the Grammy Award-winning Chicago Pro Musica. Mr. Yeh also continues to perform as a soloist with orchestras throughout Europe and the United States, and with prestigious chamber ensembles including the Guarneri String Quartet and The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.