“To what?” I suppose you could justifiably enquire. The expression is old jazz slang for a clarinet because of course, clarinets are usually black. I’ve sometimes heard classical players use the term but only when they’re joking, drunk or both.
When I was a student at London’s Royal College of Music, I used to share a flat with a clarinetist. Unlike me, he was an extremely diligent student and practised his clarinet for hours every day. When he wasn’t practising he was sorting out reeds with which he seemed obsessed. He used to buy them in Paris, returning with several boxes which would then be carefully sorted and graded. Then it was more practising. The upshot was that I became acquainted with much of the clarinet repertoire while still fairly young. And there’s plenty of it, I can tell you.
Late 18th century five-key clarinets.
Although the clarinet has a permanent place in the modern orchestra, it wasn’t always thus. And it wasn’t black, either. The instrument first appeared during the early years of the eighteenth century and it was a clever development of a simple reed instrument called the chalumeau (SHALL-oo-moh). The word is still used today to describe the low register of the clarinet. It looked a bit like a tenor recorder with a few metal keys stuck here and there. By the late eighteenth century more keys and levers had been added and the instrument had become tremendously popular with composers. Usually made of boxwood, these early clarinets were light brown and didn’t acquire the licorice colour (and the complex mechanism) until many years later.
The “standard” clarinet is actually part of a much larger family of clarinets some of which are so rare as to never be seen. Some early models have simply faded away and exist only in museums. Nowadays, you can sometimes spot the small E flat clarinet and the bass clarinet in orchestras. The enormous contrabass clarinet rarely makes an appearance. It’s an odd-looking thing and some designs hardly look like a musical instrument at all.
Johann Stamitz (1717-1757): Clarinet Concerto in B flat Major. Jaehee Choi (clt), NFA Project Orchestra cond. Charles Neidich (Duration: 16:55; Video: 720p HD)
Johann Stamitz was one of the most prolific and important composers of the mid-eighteenth century. He wrote nearly sixty symphonies and invented, if that’s the right word, the four-movement symphony which remained a standard format for years to come. In the early 1740s he was appointed as Musical Director to the Elector Palatine whose court was at Mannheim. Stamitz was in charge of the court orchestra to which he made significant improvements. He developed various orchestral techniques (including the rapid ascending figure known as the Mannheim Rocket) and brought the well-disciplined orchestra considerable fame. It was once described by Dr Charles Burney as “an army of generals”. Years later, Mozart heard this orchestra and was especially impressed by the clarinets.
It was once thought that this work of 1755 was the first clarinet concerto ever. However, six clarinet concertos by Johann Molter were subsequently discovered, the first of which dates from about 1743. There are also three works for clarinet and oboe by Vivaldi which could possibly date back to 1711. No one knows for sure.
The Stamitz concerto is played here on a modern instrument and it’s typical of the court music of the period, exhibiting the much-valued classical ideals of dignity, form and elegant melodies; qualities from which Mozart would later take inspiration.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra. Martin Fröst (clt), Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 15:35; Video 720p HD)
The first movement must be one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. Few composers have the gift of writing music that sounds truly American but Copland is one of them. You can almost sense visions of vast prairies and distant hills in a landscape bathed under radiant sunshine.
Copland started the work in 1947 and scored it for strings, piano and harp. It was commissioned by jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman who evidently paid two thousand dollars for the work, a considerable sum in those days. There are just two movements, linked by a cadenza – a standard part of most concertos and usually intended to display the soloist’s technical skills. The first movement is slow and expressive, full of what’s been described as Copland’s “bitter-sweet lyricism”. The cadenza introduces some of the Latin-American and jazz themes that dominate the lively second movement.
This is one of the best recordings around: not only a brilliant soloist but an incredibly good chamber ensemble. Just listen to the sparkling and virtuosic coda section from 14:15 onwards and the thrilling glissando on the last chord! I used to have a treasured LP of this work, conducted by the composer and featuring Goodman himself. This stunning performance leaves it rather in the shadows. Sorry, Benny.