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Choices for Clarinet

12 months ago

The newly refreshed Clarinet syllabus contains a hugely varied mix of brand new, stylishly differentiated and absorbing music, alongside old favourites which provide continuity and familiarity.

The pieces discussed here are my personal selection from the 240 choices which are available for you to explore and enjoy.

Grade 1 

A1: Dacre, Daisy Bell
ABRSM Clarinet Exam Pieces, Grade 1

The graded adventure could well begin with this catchy melody, with its straightforward three beats to a bar and opportunities to demonstrate a well-supported legato tone and confident finger work.

B6: Kosma & Prévert, Autumn Leaves
All Jazzed up for Clarinet (Brass Wind)

An easily flowing melody which exploits the chalumeau register and has potential to project mood and expression, given an evenly sustained tone and careful dynamic nuance. The right-hand fingers need placing firmly and squarely over the tone holes to avoid unplanned excursions into the ‘clarinet’ or altissimo register. Rhythms are fairly straightforward, but because of the possibility of an early or late departure from the tied semibreves or minims, a little extra concentration is needed. Many people know this tune and this is a very rewarding piece to seek out.

Grade 2

A8: Saint-Saëns, The Elephant (from The Carnival of the Animals)
Winners Galore for Clarinet (Brass Wind)

The humorous mood of this clever aural sketch of one of the largest of land mammals benefits greatly from some really good rhythmic emphasis and deliberate placing of the quavers. The style of the piano accompaniment assists here. 

The key of F major helps to eliminate middle-line B naturals (there is only one in the whole piece) and so facilitates crossing between registers, which is a new challenge for this grade. The scale of B flat major also appears towards the end which ties in nicely with the new requirements too. Quirky and with lots of scope for the imagination, this would be a great choice.

B5: Hanna, Barbera & Curtin, Flintstones Theme
Winners Galore for Clarinet (Brass Wind)

A buoyant tune which projects the stone-age mayhem depicted in the cartoons. Syncopated rhythms and a brisk tempo add liveliness and the repetitive melodic lines ease the process of learning the notes. This would definitely suit a more extrovert musical personality.

Grade 3

A3: Rimsky-Korsakov, Theme from ‘The Young Prince and The Young Princess’ (from Sheherazade)
ABRSM Clarinet Exam Pieces, Grade 3

This is a lovely melody which is a joy to play on the clarinet. It’s a nice way to introduce 6/8 and even at this grade, opportunities for touches of rubato could be explored. Plenty of expressive rise and fall in the sound is needed to find the character and style. Breaths will have to be worked out – after the fourth quaver works for almost the whole piece.

C2: Richard Michael, Smarty Artie
ABRSM Clarinet Exam Pieces, Grade 3

A tribute to the American bandleader Artie Shaw, this music swings in both rhythms and moods. Contrasts of dynamic are frequent and the articulation is varied, contributing greatly to the musical style. The temptation to play the staccato dots ultra short should be resisted here as the melody needs to have a sense of direction in spite of the rests.

Grade 4

A3: Trad. Klezmer, Choson Kale Mazel Tov
ABRSM Clarinet Exam Pieces, Grade 4

It can be good to open a programme with some energy and impact and this music gives exactly those qualities. Emphasising the before-the-beat grace notes and contrasting dynamic levels to vary the repeated melodic lines will make the most of this piece.

B2: J. Collis, School’s Out! (from Tom Sawyer Suite)
ABRSM Clarinet Exam Pieces, Grade 4

Relating to Mark Twain’s character Tom Sawyer, this allows for some spirited playing – and since most school-age children look forward to the end of term and the beginning of the summer holidays,  personal experience might help in projecting the musical character. The music is harmonically interesting, contrasting articulation is evident and the melody is suitably jaunty and carefree.

Grade 5

B8: Nigel Hess, Theme from Ladies in Lavender (Faber)

A really lovely piece. Each time you play it you want to go straight back to the beginning and start all over again. The harmonic changes are really telling, and subtle differences in the layout of chords when the melody is repeated add further interest. The melody lies in the traditionally romantic ‘clarinet’ register for much of the time and technical hurdles are few. This is beautifully crafted with a nicely integrated piano part allowing real duo skills to emerge.

C5: Chris Gumbley, Just Browsing
Double Click!! for Solo Clarinet (Gumbles Publications)

Whilst this has a chromatic purpose as a study, it is also musically convincing, rhythmically alert, contrasted and stylish. The staccato has to be crisp and this means the breath has to keep coming while the tongue trims notes to the required length. The thinking has to be legato, so the musical line is maintained in spite of the gaps. This is a really worthwhile technique to master and will add hugely to the character of this piece.

Grade 6

A8: L. Kozeluch, Poco adagio from Concerto in E flat (Kunzelmann)

This is a lovely melody from the era when the clarinet had found its feet as a serious instrument and was making progress towards being accepted on the same level as its older relatives in the woodwind family. In B flat major (C major for the clarinettist), technical demands are light and the music unfolds with ease and spaciousness, hardly ever dipping below third space C natural.

The challenge is to play with musical awareness and a beautifully expressive and relaxed sound. As is normal for music of this period, dynamic markings are sparse so there is room for personal shaping of phrases and time to simply listen to what you are doing with the notes. This is compelling clarinet music.

C10: Nigel Wood, Jab Jab from Six Exotic Studies (Saxtet Publications)

This is a lively piece full of syncopated rhythmic character and exuding sheer joy in its extrovert mood. It is ideally suited to the developing clarinettist, who should be at a point where technical demands can be overcome with focused practice, allowing for a more individual realisation of the musical elements. 

The piece is very tonal and based on straightforward arpeggios – all takes place within a range of less than three octaves from bottom E. Dynamics should be worked out carefully and there are two kinds of accents to consider. Nimble tongue and finger coordination coupled with crisp staccato will add much to the performance but projecting the carnival atmosphere is what makes the music really work.

Grade 7

B1: John Blood, The Dreamer (from City People)
ABRSM Clarinet Exam Pieces, Grade 7

Most of this piece is technically straightforward with the quicker flourishes following known scale patterns. The music has a lot to say and the performer can devise a suitable story to help project mood and character. The piece needs accurate pitching, some rubato, supported tone and purposeful phrase shaping to create a successful performance.

C9: Uhl, Study No. 6 or No. 20 from 48 Studies for Clarinet, Book 1 (Schott)

Alfred Uhl was a gifted composer and leading Viennese clarinettist. His studies, while achieving the objectives of improving finger technique, articulation, tonal evenness and stamina, also involve musical interpretation, since they are all well-crafted pieces of music. Each has a few areas which need focused attention but both work at a more relaxed tempo than the printed metronome mark – this is a case of fluency and convincing shaping trumping virtuosity.

Grade 8

A5: della Giacoma, Tosca Fantasia (Musica Rara)

There are lots of notes here, but on closer inspection scale and arpeggio patterns form the foundation of the bravura passagework and the musical rewards are many. For example, as early as bar 17, one of the most famous operatic solos in the repertoire, E lucevan le stelle, makes an appearance with its intense emotion, flexibility of pulse and perfectly judged tessitura. Definitely a choice for the clarinettist who wants it all!

B4: Grovlez, Sarabande et Allegro (Leduc)

A tuneful opening movement in a ‘mock Baroque’ style allows for flexible tone and lots of expression – drama is inherent here and most lies nicely under the fingers. Clarity in the quicker flourishes is essential and a second look at some of the rhythmic patterns is advisable just to be sure of genuine accuracy. 

The Allegro features some continuous semiquavers. This makes demands on tongue and finger coordination, but phrases have logical harmonic shapes and the music is full of purpose and energy which make it exciting and rewarding to play.

 


Chris Swann is a clarinettist who combines solo performing, directing, conducting and coaching. He also has a background in orchestral and chamber music. Chris teaches at the Royal Northern College of Music and is an ABRSM examiner.

Learn more about the 2018-2021 Clarinet syllabus and its supporting books, recordings and apps.

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