Concertino for clarinet and small orchestra Op. 48
Concertino for Clarinet and Small Orchestra
op. 48 (1918)
(b. Empoli, 1 April 1866 – d. Berlin, 27 July 1924)
Toward the end of his life, while working on his austere and ultimately unfinished magnum opus Doktor Faustus, Ferruccio Busoni took the time to write two instrumental works that belong to the most endearing creations from his pen: the Clarinet Concertino, op. 48 (1918), and the Divertimento for flute and small orchestra, op. 52 (1920). In fact, he conceived these two works as a sort of musical diptych; writing to his friend Albert Biolley in 1920, he confided that the Divertimento was “a ‘pendant’ to the Concertino for clarinet, more fantastic perhaps, but perhaps more virile as well.” As the word “virile” suggests, the Concertino represented the female half of this musical pairing, a combination equally evident in his other paired works from this period, such as the Sarabande and Cortège of 1918-19, which later found their way into Doktor Faustus.
The Concertino was written quickly in March and April of 1918 and dedicated to Edmonda Allegra, the principal clarinetist of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, where Busoni was living at the time. On 10 May 1918 the orchestra gave the new work a trial run-through for the benefit of the composer, who pronounced himself entirely satisfied, as was the orchestra. The first public performance also took place in Zurich on 9 December 1918, with Busoni’s staunch friend Volkmar Andreae conducting the Tonhalle Orchestra and Edmonda Allegra playing the solo part. The result was warmly greeted by musicians and audience alike, and since then, to quote Busoni’s biographer Antony Beaumont, the Concertino “has enjoyed an undemonstrative place in the repertoire.” In the same year as its creation, 1918, the work was published in full score by Breitkopf & Härtel as Vol. 2480 in its Partitur Bibliothek series; and at about the same time an arrangement for clarinet and piano was prepared by Otto Taubmann, likewise published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1918.
The Concertino is scored very lightly for (to use Busoni’s whimsical term) an “orchestrino” consisting of two oboes, two bassoons, two trumpets, percussion (with triangle), and strings. The lightness of the scoring is matched by the lightness of the music itself: it is, basically, a ten-minute cantilena for clarinet in which the orchestra assumes a decidedly secondary role. The work is laid out in a single movement which, however, falls into four sections corresponding roughly to the outline of a concise three-movement romantic concerto. The opening section, lyrically effusive and clearly tonal, projects a sense of historical pastiche reminiscent of Strauss’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme suite or Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, both of which date from roughly the same period (1917). Rossiniesque staccato accompaniments contrast with passages in tarantella triplets and Weber-like roulades from the clarinet to convey a sense of delicate historical allusion. After a heavily abridged recapitulation this opening section elides with the next one, a slow waltz of entirely different character, with a strangely migrating tonality and a plucked bass line recalling the contemporaneous study for Doktor Faustus, the Sarabande (1918-19). This slow movement originated in a discarded setting of “Es war ein König in Thule,” Gretchen’s famous song from Part I of Goethe’s Faust. Perhaps noticing the similarity with Berlioz’s celebrated setting of the same poem in La damnation de Faust (“Le Roi de Thule”), Busoni abandoned the song altogether, but reworked its melodic ideas and rhythmic impetus into the slow movement of the Concertino – hence the strange, other-worldly atmosphere in this otherwise poised and urbane composition. The slow movement is followed, as in the Mendelssohn concerto, by a passage of orchestral recitative leading into the finale, in which the main melody is initially given to the solo oboe while the clarinet adds accompanying arpeggios. Eventually the movement settles into a stately and comically stilted minuet whose general atmosphere would later serve Busoni for the entrance of the Duke and Duchess of Parma in Doktor Faustus. With a flashy ascending chromatic scale from the clarinet followed by a brief chordal epilogue, the Concertino comes to a good-humored and satisfying close.
From its inception in 1918 Busoni’s Concertino has retained a small hold in the admittedly limited repertoire of concertante pieces for clarinet and orchestra. Among its several recordings, special mention should be made of those by Ulf Rodenhauser with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (cond. Gerd Albrecht), Ludmila Peterková with the Prague Chamber Philharmonic (cond. Jiři Bĕlohlávek), Paul Meyer with the English Chamber Orchestra (cond. David Zinman), and John Bradbury with the BBC Philharmonic (cond. Neeme Järvi).
Bradford Robinson, 2010
For performance material please contact the publisher Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden.