Felix Mendelssohn and The Clarinet Essay

Felix Mendelssohn and The Clarinet Essay

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy – or more commonly known today via the shortened Felix Mendelssohn – is one of the selected members of the group that was responsible for creating timeless and unforgettable classical music works through his use and demonstration of his skill and instinct for music. He achieved these largely through the manipulation of the musical instrument and the carefully blending of the sound that they produced. What Mendelssohn wasn’t able to tell the word directly through words, he told the world through his music. This is not surprising considering what he believed in, particularly in the role of music.

“Mendelssohn reminds us that words express less precisely than music1.” Mendelssohn used several different musical instruments for his compositions. One of the things that he used effectively for which he was often given credited for a job well done was for his use of the clarinet2. However, minimal it was to some observers who believed that he was more focused on his piano, which were always challenged by the fact that “in addition to the piano quartets, he produced sonatas for viola and clarinet3.” Throughout his lifetime, Mendelssohn was able to create many musical composition; several of this became popular like the Symphonies 4 and 5 (the Scottish and the Italian), the Scherzo for the work A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Concert Piece in D minor, Op. 114 for clarinet and basset horn, which was reviewed very positively especially since “the duet for clarinet and basset horn with piano accompaniment by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartoldy was an interesting and melodic work4.”

Analysis: Felix Mendelssohn and his use of clarinet

Many popular classical musicians and composers – those who came before Mendelssohn and even those who came after Mendelssohn – utilized the violin and the piano intensively in their composition. They also found a very good use for the clarinet every once in a while. Mendelssohn, just like other greats like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Brahms, had the ear that appreciated the sound and texture of the clarinet and found suitable form for clarinet sound either as key sound in some of his compositions or as integral part of a whole in Mendelssohn’s other musical works5. “Mendelssohn wrote frequent clarinet solos in his symphonies and overtures6.” Because of the use of the clarinet by Mendelssohn, it is now possible to create an analysis of Mendelssohn’s outlook, approach and perspective on the sound of the clarinet and how and when he uses it and why.

An important role of the clarinet for the compositions of Mendelssohn is found in his penchant for creating what analysts considered as orchestral colour in the overall sound and feel of Mendelssohn’s musical compositions. The clarinet, as well as other different musical instruments, is something that he relies heavily on so that this particular characteristic in his compositions is achieved. Take for example, the role of the clarinet in the orchestral colour for Mendelssohn’s opus The Hebrides and how the clarinet was mentioned specifically as one of the key instruments responsible for bringing out this particular characteristic of the musical composition7. Larry Todd explained that “orchestral colour is an active agent in The Herbrides.8” He added the the audience can actually hear “a shifting series of orchestral hues in the accompaniment: in the opening bars, sustained brushes of violins, clarinets, oboes, and flutes…in the reprise, shimmering trills and tremolos in the violins, clarinets and flute9.”

One of the popular works of Mendelssohn is the Symphony No. 5 “Italian.” In this particular musical piece, Mendelssohn utilized the clarinet in such a way that it blends well with the rest of the other wind instruments that are also featured in this particular musical piece. While listening to the piece, the listener can notice the moments wherein the clarinet comes into play and how it seems to fuse with the sound of the wind instruments. The solos that were allotted for the clarinet by Mendelssohn, however short it was during the intermissions between the pacing of the clarinet solos, nonetheless, allowed the clarinet sound to make its mark in the musical piece, while moving to the background everytime the clarinet solo is done.10 In the widely respected book entitled “The Clarinet”, it says that “in the Italian Symphony, a favourite today, the clarinet fits comfortably into the wind section, emerging now and again with short solos11.”

Felix Mendelssohn – Maximizing the Clarinet

Despite the fact that Mendelssohn was not able to write many substantial repertoires that uses the clarinet unlike other great musical composers like Mozart, Weber, or Brahms did, Mendelssohn, nonetheless, managed to create some of the most famous clarinet excerpts during the times that he did used the clarinet. These musical pieces were even required for auditions and were played extensively inside classical music competitions around the world today.
The Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream features a clarinet sound that has been so distinct that it was instrumental to the creation of the overall personality of the music and it stood out intensely from the rest of the musical instruments involved in this particular composition. The odd part was that this was not even a piece that was made to feature the clarinet as a the instrument focused on by the sound of the overall composition; nor was the clarinet actually given even clarinet solo parts throughout the musical piece. And yet, the effective use and placing and design of Mendelssohn of the sound texture and other features of the clarinet allowed it to shine bright throughout the piece. “Perhaps the most famous Mendelssohn clarinet part is not really one that involves solo work at all12 (Pino, 1998, p 249).”

Mendelssohn’s use of clarinet, the power and ability of the sound of the clarinet and how clarinet, was something that Mendelssohn utilized significantly. Despite the belief of other people that Mendelssohn was not seriously utilizing the potential of the clarinet, these were all justified by the observation of critics and analysts who believe that Mendelssohn indeed used the clarinet with style and exposed the soul of the clarinet by allowing the clarinet to play significant roles in the compositions that he made.13 In a description of one of his works, R. Larry Todd explained that “the work of the solo clarinet in the Adagio…gives the primary motif its first separate, unveiled statement and impels its ascent through the string choir14.”

There maybe individuals who would rationalize that the lacking in the focus to the more extensive use of the clarinet in his musical compositions, was a result of Mendelssohn’s seemingly innate weak musical ability to harness the power of the clarinet and bring out the best this musical instrument can give to a musical piece as reflected in his past musical pieces. The analysis of Mendelssohn’s treatment and relationship with the clarinet should not be without the facts pointing to how some of his works that featured clarinet sounds (particularly those which he wrote during his younger years). For example, Mendelssohn’s tryst with the clarinet for the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano was something that was not received with as much positive appreciation among critics compared to how some of his later, more mature works were appraised by the public and by the critics15. “Mendelssohn’s sonata for clarinet and piano was written when the composer was only fifteen years old and, while well constructed, is predictably lacking in depth16.”

Why do They Pose Challenge for the Clarinet Players?

The musical pieces like the Symphony No. 3 (Scottish) or even the Symphony No. 5 (Italian) pose challenge to the clarinet players. There are many different reasons that can trigger such fear or anxiety or even cause to doubt in the own self to effectively play the clarinet as how Mendelssohn penned it for these particular popular musical pieces. In playing the two abovementioned symphonies of Mendelssohn, as well as his other pieces like the Scherzo from Midsummer Nights Dream or even the Concert Piece in D minor, Op. 114 for clarinet and basset horn – a musical composition of Mendelssohn which is considered as one of the examples wherein Mendelssohn has effectively unleashed both the sentimentality and emotion that the clarinet can exude. At the same time, it shows the audience and listener what he can actually do as a composer and what he can do with the clarinet and its very flexible, creative and sensitive-emotional sound texture that “the clarinet and basset parts are full of sheer virtuosity and lovely sentimentality of the best sort17.” This is the first reason why players would feel that it was difficult to play is because of their anxiety; often, a lot of things are going through their mind as they are trying to learn this musical piece and the role of the clarinet in these musical pieces since some would feel that they should give Mendelssohn the proper level of respect due to him by playing his musical pieces well. This alone is a very tall order especially for those who have just begun playing these musical compositions and are risking making mistakes along the way.

Even though Mendelssohn may come off as a very talented musician and musical composer (which he is), his works are, nonetheless, musical compositions that a student or individual with sufficient training and practice can execute. The chance of a perfect execution increases so long as practice and correct attitude in training and in the performance per se is sustained by the students of music and particularly, Mendelssohn’s works especially those that play the clarinet. They pose a challenge because the shoes of Mendelssohn are too big for those who may try their luck on it and playing the music that Mendelssohn played and wrote would require someone who is talented, well trained, disciplined as much as he or she is brave and strong enough to take the challenge. In that case, playing the clarinet for Mendelssohn’s musical pieces will stop being a challenge of sorts to students and amateur musical and will become natural to the player, and in the process, enjoyable as well.

Another reason why the compositions of Mendelssohn pose a challenge to the clarinet player is because of the complexity of the pieces. Again, the paper will reiterate that compared to other major musical instruments found in some of his other works, clarinet is not something that Mendelssohn is excellent in (compared to how he handles the playing of other musical instrument). But since his gift is inherent, Mendelssohn was able to write very complicated materials especially for the clarinet. It is difficult for some musical instrument players to play Mendelssohn’s works because of the complexity of the musical pieces and the skill and training needed for a person to effectively play the musical piece.

For example, the execution of the clarinet parts in the Scherzo from Midsummer Nights Dream is simply very complicated and difficult even to the well trained (and intensely difficult and complicated and even impossible to play perfectly for the untrained or those who are poorly trained or those who are just getting to know Mendelssohn and his style). This appraisal of the level of difficulty in playing this particular part is not just a mere assumption. There are professional analysts who believe in the same thing. “During the Scherzo from the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the composer calls for the clarinetists to execute tremendously difficult passages characterized by fast, agile and light tonguing18.” Because of this, it is no doubt that Mendelssohn’s clarinet pieces found in his compositions indeed pose a challenge to the clarinet player.

The intense playing and tonguing in the Scherzo is not just the only proof that illustrates the point that Mendelssohn clarinet pieces pose a challenge to the clarinet player, because another popular work by Mendelssohn – particularly the one entitled Symphony 4 (Scottish). In this particular piece, it is noticeable how the playing of the clarinet was sustaining its sound in long stretches that the clarinetists playing this particular piece are positioned to have a challenging time executing this musical piece. This is not because of Mendelssohn being sadistic but because Mendelssohn appreciates the color and power of the sound of clarinet that it seems that Mendelssohn seemed to not want to let go of the sound from start to finish. In Eric Hoeprich authoritative work focused on the analysis of the use of this particular instrument (clarinet), the author explains that “the Scottish Symphony’s four movements, played without a break, offer a clear example of the impracticality by this time of corps-de-rechange19.” He added that “the change of clarinets (from A to B flat) going into the opening solo of the Vivace ma non troppo allows barely enough time to put down one clarinet and pick up the other20.”


The presentation of what the professional music critics and analysts say about Mendelssohn, his musical creations and inclinations should have provided enough information to convince the viewers. Even if Mendelssohn indeed was not as focused with the clarinet as he was with piano and even though in comparison his clarinet works were not as extensive as his piano works, Mendelssohn’s life and work, nonetheless, proves that he has the ability to bring out the best of the clarinet, either in solos found in some of his symphonies, or in the clarinet rhythms that went well with the rest of the musical instruments as they are played together like the Scherzo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as the clarinet pieces in his other works. Mendelssohn has proven that he knows how to use the clarinet for best melodic tone results in his compositions. “Mendelssohn writes in thirds for the solo instruments and very effectively uses the lowest notes of the basset horn in triplets to accompany a melodic line played on the clarinet21”. Even if Mendelssohn was not chiefly known for clarinet – a predicament that he does not hold exclusively since there are also other musicians who are lodged in this situation. Some of his works were acclaimed and praised for the interesting and arresting clarinet parts, like the Konzertstucke opp 113 and 114. “A few non-players also composed for the instrument in this period, and Felix Mendelssohn’s Konzertstucke opp 113 and 114 for clarinet22.”

Because of the skill of Mendelssohn on display via his musical composition and particularly in his use of the clarinet, his works have been considered at par with other great musical pieces and great musical composers.
“Mendelssohn’s Konzertstucke Op. 113 and Op 114 for clarinet, basset horn and piano or orchestra are a different matter altogether; brilliant…and superb when orchestrated. Among other works of value is the Duo for clarinet and piano by Norbert Burgmuller, unambitious but tremendously talented, who died tragically young23.”
Mendelssohn is a musical icon who may not be focused intensely in the clarinet was he was with piano. Nonetheless, he was important in the growth and development of the clarinet and the music created for this particular musical instrument, just as the other classical music composers were important in clarinet playing too. “Cycles of Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann and even Brahms then gave an enormous impetus to study of the early clarinet24 .”


Hoeprich, Eric. The Clarinet. Yale University Press, 2008.

Lawson, Colin James. The Cambridge Companion to the Clarinet. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Lawson, Colin. The Early Clarinet: A Practical Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Mercer-Taylor, Peter. The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Mercer-Taylor, Peter. The Life of Mendelssohn. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Pino, David. The Clarinet and Clarinet Playing. Dover Publications, 1998.

Rice, Albert R. (March 2009). From the Clarinet D’ Amour to the Contra Bass: A History of

Large Size Clarinets, 1740-1860. Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.

Todd, R Larry. Mendelssohn, the Herbrides and other Overtures. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Todd, R Larry. Mendelssohn Studies. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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