The clarinet began life as a poor relation to the oboe and flute. Players usually doubled roles, and it was not until the 1770s, nearly eighty years after the instrument's invention, that any significant dedicated repertory developed.
The concertos on this recording show the extent to which native English composers quickly embraced the galant idiom in works of great spirit which frequently exploit the more colourful palette to be drawn from the clarinet when it is employed in tonalities remote to the natural pitch of the instrument.
Although the clarinet was invented around 1700, it did not become a regular member of the orchestra or develop a significant solo repertory until the second half of the eighteenth century. Its solo repertory remained small because it was not played much by amateurs (who preferred the recorder or the flute) and its orchestral use was limited by the fact that it was mostly played by oboists, who regarded it as an exotic tone colour for special occasions. Only when orchestras developed to the point where specialist players were available did the clarinet make a substantial impact on musical life. Thus Handel wrote an overture for two clarinets and horn in the 1740s and Thomas Arne used the instrument in a number of vocal works in the 1760s, though a sizeable body of orchestral and solo music for the clarinet only developed in England in the next decade. Indeed, the first native-born virtuosos on the instrument seem to have been John Mahon and his brother William, who appeared on the concert scene only in the early 1770s.
John Mahon was born in Oxford around 1748, the son of a professional musician. He was probably related to the Irish family of singers and actors; he worked in Ireland in later life and retired to Dublin in 1821. He was unusual for the time in that he does not seem to have played the oboe as well as the clarinet. When he joined the Royal Society of Musicians on 6 April 1783 he was described as ‘a Single Man’ who ‘Performs on the Clarinet, violin, Tenor [viola] &c. &c.’ He made his debut as a clarinettist in a concert in Oxford in November 1772 and moved to London shortly afterwards. His F major clarinet concerto was described as ‘No 2’ when it was published in the middle of the 1780s (his first clarinet concerto is lost), but it seems to have been composed rather earlier. Mahon paid a tribute to Thomas Arne by using the famous song ‘The wanton god’ from Arne’s masque Comus (1738) as the theme of the Rondo, and so it is probably the work he played on 16 February 1775 in a concert given by Arne at the Haymarket Theatre.
Mahon’s clarinet concerto may come as something of a surprise to those who think that eighteenth-century English composers confined themselves to Corellian concerti grossi or Handelian organ concertos. Not many English solo concertos survive, presumably because they were too difficult for amateurs and were rarely published, but those that do show that by the 1770s native Englishmen had acquired a surprisingly fluent grasp of the galant idiom.
The first movement of Mahon’s concerto is an assured and extended example of Classical concerto form, with a profusion of elegant, tuneful ideas in the manner of J C Bach. The Andante is more characteristically English, or ‘British’, since it is a beautifully conceived setting of the Scots tune ‘The birks of Endermay’. There was a fashion among English composers of the period for slow movements in the Scottish style: examples can also be found in the violin concertos by Linley, Shaw and Brooks.
Mahon’s clarinet-writing is often brilliant, but it sounds somewhat limited to our ears since it avoids the lower chalumeau register exploited so memorably by Mozart and later clarinet composers. In part this is because English clarinets were less advanced than those used on the Continent, but it is also because the solo part was conceived, presumably with amateurs in mind, so that it could also be played on ‘Hoboy, German Flute or Violin’ as well as clarinet. It is interesting that Mahon does use the chalumeau register in the cadenza of the first movement, which comes from his later treatise A New and Compleat Preceptor for the Clarinet (c1803). The concerto only survives with string parts, but when it was published it was described as ‘in all its parts’, which sounds as if there should be orchestral wind instruments as well, so the opportunity has been taken here to add parts for two horns.
The two ‘concertante duetts’ recorded here are also taken from A New and Compleat Preceptor for the Clarinet. They are printed in such a way that they can be played on two clarinets, or, using alternative low notes, on ‘two Corno Bassettas’. They are probably the earliest English pieces for the basset horn.
As far as we know, J C Bach did not write any solo clarinet concertos, but he did give the instrument a prominent role in his ‘concerted symphony’ in E flat. The work is fascinatingly inconsistent in its scoring. The first movement starts in symphonic style, full of bustling textures and orchestral drama, but it suddenly changes direction when the clarinets, horns and bassoon are given a series of genial concerto-like passages. The movement continues to veer between symphony and concerto idioms and there are some delightful passages where the winds and the strings bandy phrases, as in seventeenth-century polychoral music. Similarly, the beautiful slow movement starts like a bassoon concerto, soon turns into a flute concerto, but also has some mellifluous trio passages for two clarinets and bassoon. The trio of the concluding minuet is scored just for wind band.
James Hook’s clarinet concerto was never published. It survives in the composer’s autograph score, once in the collection of W H Cummings and now in the Nanki Library, Tokyo. It is dated 1812 and was probably written for the concerts at Vauxhall Gardens; Hook was resident organist and composer there for forty-six summers, from 1774 until 1820. The work is still basically in the galant style, though the clarinet-writing is much more elaborate and wide-ranging than Mahon’s, with frequent forays into the chalumeau register, and the slow movement has a Beethovenian sense of drama, contrasting severe string tuttis with more mellifluous solos in a way that is oddly similar to the slow movement of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto. Hook returned to a more conventional and old-fashioned idiom for the virtuoso finale, though there are some pleasing and original textures in the last episode, where the clarinet’s arpeggios accompany a series of village band imitations in the orchestra.
Two features of this recording need some explanation. The first is the use of a concertino of two violins, cello and continuo to accompany the soloist in the two solo concertos. This practice was derived from the concerto grosso and seems to have been universal among English concerto composers of the late eighteenth century (it is also found in the violin concertos recorded on). It is indicated by the consistent omission of the viola and the wind instruments in the solo passages, and by the occasional ‘solo’ and ‘tutti’ mark. Further research needs to be done in this area, but it seems that the practice was also common on the Continent. It has recently been argued, for instance, that Mozart used a concertino to accompany the solo sections of his piano concertos. In the Classical period English orchestras were still directed by the leader and the continuo player, and a keyboard is certainly needed in many places in these concertos, not least at the end of cadenzas where a dominant chord is required under the soloist’s trill.
Peter Holman © 1997