Concerto for Two Clarinets in Eb, op. 35, P. III:3

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            Krommer was born in Moravia, but like so many artists from that time and place, he spent his career moving easily throughout the vast, multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire.  That’s why his name, like that of everyone from Liszt to Stamitz was traditionally given in the German form.  His real name was František Vincenc Kramář.   Serving at times in Hungary and Austria, he ended his distinguished career in Vienna, where he was composer for the Imperial Court.  Today, it is not generally appreciated in this country the degree to which Czech composers and performers were an integral part of the music scene in Vienna in centuries past.  Krommer is a typical example of their importance, and while certainly not a household word today, at the time he was well known and respected--even seen as one of Beethoven’s rivals.  Living during the lives of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, his musical style reflects the span of them all, as he evolved from a “pre-classic” composer to a romantic one.  A prolific composer—more than three hundred published works—he composed over seventy string quartets and nine symphonies.  He is especially known today for his contributions to wind literature, including wind ensembles and wind concertos.  The latter are for a variety of solo instruments, including “triple” concertos for flute, oboe, and violin; solo concertos for clarinet, flute, and oboe; and the two double concertos for clarinets.   While composers during the nineteenth century wrote relatively fewer concertos for clarinet, by the early 1770s it seemed as if everyone and his brother was composing them.  So, we have examples from masters like Mozart, von Weber, and Spohr, as well.

            Krommer’s first double clarinet concerto, composed around 1802, is in the usual three movements, and takes full advantage of the resources of the instrument.  A facile technique, warm low notes, and great dynamic flexibility are innate to the instrument, and all are on display in this charming and entertaining work.  It’s both a reflection of the resources of the early nineteenth-century instrument, and testament to why it was one of Mozart’s favorite instruments. Inevitably, a common reaction to first hearing Krommer’s work is that  “It sounds like Mozart!”  And so it does, along with everyone else at the time, for it’s composed in the mature classic style, and it is done well, at that.

             The first movement is in a typical classical concerto first movement form. After a long, bustling orchestra exposition, in which the two solo clarinets cheerfully participate as part of the wind section, they finally softly enter with the main theme together in harmony.   Since there are two of the same instrument there’s no opportunity for the contrasts of color and register that two different instruments might provide in long solo sections, Krommer largely keeps the two clarinets joined in harness.  So the two engage in gay repartee, as in a friendly conversation between close friends.  They answer back and forth, occasionally joining together in harmony, or perhaps with one singing in sustained tones high up, and the other busily engaged in what one wag called “oily German band” arpeggios in the low register.  Tunes seem to just  “fall out of his sleeve,” and Krommer provides a parade of cheerful ones as the exposition zips ahead.  At the usual movement to the dominant at the advent of the second thematic area, Krommer creatively plays around with both the major and the minor mode.  The development explores the usual contrasts in key, including some extended forays into the minor.  The imaginative parade of ideas seems to never stop, until the easily recognizable return of the recapitulation.

            The slow movement is a noble and dramatic one in C minor that exploits the clarinet’s expressive side.  Krommer deftly moves through some interesting other minor keys—with brief turns to the major.  Throughout one hears an expressive use of  the chromatic lines that are redolent of many of Mozart’s serioso moments.

            The last movement is, as one might expect, a rondo. So, the main section, which returns after contrasting sections, is a happy little dance in 6/8 time—not too fast.  Soon, the first contrasting section appears, which is a study in the clarinet’s effortless facility.   Arpeggios and soaring scales careen with abandon.  After an abbreviated reprise of the main rondo theme, the second contrasting section takes us to a doleful C minor.   Then, just an allusion to the main theme leads right into another virtuosic new section.  This time, the second clarinet gives quite a display of fluid motion in the very bottom of the instrument’s tessitura—something the clarinet does exceeding well.  And so it goes.  Finally, the dash to the end brings the familiar arpeggios and scales, this time featuring cascading chromatic scales in thirds that bring a really delightful piece to conclusion.  Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven were not the only game in town in those days.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©William E. Runyan 2021