Clarinet Classics (CC0014)

Colin Bradbury (clarinet) and Oliver Davies (piano)

The term bel canto did not enter the musical vocabulary until the mid nineteenth century, and it was coined to describe, in retrospect, the style of singing cultivated in Italy through the 17th and 18th centuries. Singers such as Malibran, Grisi and Rubini carried the tradition into the nineteenth century but by 1858 fashions had changed, leaving Rossini to bewail that "alas for us, we have lost our bel canto". The bel canto ideal was control and beauty of tone (glorification of the voice for the voice's sake) and the exploitation of the voice's gymnastic possibilities. Composers tailored their arias to particular singers, and it often followed that, when orchestrating, they would write for a particular instrumentalist. As the active career of an instrumentalist was usually considerably longer than that of a singer, the bel canto style may well have lasted longer in the pit than it did on the stage.

Throughout the history of musical performance instrumentalists have endeavoured to equal the sound of the human voice. In 1635, long before the invention of the clarinet, Giovanni Battista Doni wrote "--wind instruments are softer, better able to express pathos, and closer to the human voice than the other instruments," whilst Quantz, advising the flute student in 1752, said "Each instrumentalist must strive to execute that which is cantabile as a good singer executes it." The clarinet, invented around 1700, was late in gaining entry to the orchestral woodwind family but, once accepted, it was undoubtedly its vocal qualities which established it as a solo instrument. Iwan Müller, whose transcription of Beethoven's Adelaide was one of the most popular items in the early 19th century clarinet repertoire, wrote in his Method "--you must, above all, concentrate on the melody, and to do this you must listen attentively to an accomplished singer and regard him as the best guide to follow. This extends even to the sound of the instrument". In England, in the same year, a colleague reported of the distinguished English soprano, Mrs. Salmon, that "her voice was rich and full, like the clarinet", and in 1832 William Gardiner in The Music of Nature was saying "The clarionet approaches the tone of the female voice, nearer than any other instrument". The great Victorian clarinettist, Henry Lazarus, on being asked "where did you learn your exquisite phrasing?" said, "I learnt it from the singers at the Opera years ago", whilst the tenor, Sims Reeves, on being asked the same question, replied "I fancy I learnt more from hearing dear old Lazarus play the clarinet than from anyone else".

The repertoire of the nineteenth century clarinettist encouraged the comparison. Between 1834 and the end of the century few concertos and little chamber music appeared for the instrument but clarinet recitals were popular, and clarinettists were routinely expected to compose. Given the universal popularity of Italian Opera it was natural for players to use melodies from the operas as a basis for their own fantasies, nowhere more so than in Italy itself, where opera houses were the main source of employment for singers and instrumentalists alike. These opera houses were the hub of a city's social life and their performers received adulation comparable to that of film and sports stars today. Instrumentalists, like their counterparts the singers, adopted a flamboyant way of living which matched their playing. Some were not above adding their own bit of spice to a performance and it was reported that Giovanni Bimboni (1813-1893) was in the habit of doing a grand improvisation to herald a singer's aria which provoked a frenzy of applause. In their own compositions, the operatic fantasies, the clarinettists paid tribute to their distinguished composer colleagues as well as providing themselves with vehicles for their own bel canto. Unwittingly, and before the days of the gramophone, they also left us evidence of the performing style of the time. Liverani, especially, delights in demonstrating the extremes of contemporary vocal practice, occasionally to the point of parody. In his fantasies he has given us the fruits ofyears in the opera pit spiced with a delicious sense of humour.

© Pamela Weston
Colin Bradbury

1 Ernesto Cavallini (1807-1874)
Variazioni sopra un tema di Bellini nell' opera La Straniera (1840)
2 Domenico Liverani (1805-1877)
Melodie dei Puritani di Bellini (1846)
3 Domenico Liverani (1805-1877)
Fantasia sulla Cavatina della Niobe di Pacini (c. 1838)
4 Filippo Fasanotti (1821-1884) and Antonio Spadina (1822-?)
Duetto Concertante sopra motivi dell'opera Mosè di Rossini (c. 1867)
5 Donato Lovreglio (1841-1907)
Fantasia sull' opera Un Ballo in Maschera di G. Verdi (1865)
6 Donato Lovreglio (1841-1907)
Fantasia sull' opera Maria Stuarda di G. Donizetti (1865)
7 Giusto Dacci (1840-1915)
Aida di G. Verdi: Fantasia (1873)

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