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Length: 17 minutes
Orchestration: piano, harp, strings, and solo clarinet
Clarinetist Benny Goodman, faced in the 1940s by a decisive end to the swing era and a lack of public interest in his brand of big-band jazz, began to turn his attention not to swing's successors, but rather to the classical repertoire. Already accomplished in the standards of the clarinet repertoire, Goodman decided instead to commission a handful of new works for his own use. It was not a new concept; jazz clarinetist Woody Herman had also taken a similar route, asking Igor Stravinsky to write his Ebony Concerto. But unlike many novelty fusion works of the time, two of the pieces Goodman commissioned - Bartók's Contrasts and Copland's Clarinet Concerto - have endured as landmarks of the modern repertory.
Goodman asked Copland to write the work in 1947, two years after the composer won the Pulitzer Prize for the ballet Appalachian Spring and another two before he was to win an Academy Award for music from The Heiress. The year 1947 also saw Copland off on a four-month Latin American tour; as a result, shadows of Latin musical styles can be found in the Clarinet Concerto's boisterous second movement. Copland finished the work in the fall of 1948, soon after returning from the tour, but Goodman was reluctant to play the original edition, expressing worry about the often-tricky rhythmic notation and extensive use of the instrument's upper register in the second movement. (Copland, familiar with Goodman's wide range after listening to the clarinetist's recordings, remained unconvinced as to his Concerto's difficulty but agreed to simplify parts of the work anyway.) Even with the revisions, however, Goodman did not premiere the Concerto until 1950.
Half a century later, the work endures as a shining example of Copland's musical vocabulary. His characteristic idioms - from the open, sparse chords and woodwind-based timbre of Our Town to the unmistakably Western American sound of Billy the Kid and the Latin flavor of El Salón México - are all present, interspersed with a sprinkling of jazz. The cadenza in particular (sandwiched between the work's two movements, resulting in 17 minutes of continuous music) showcases Copland's versatile language; its two-and-a-half minutes are a charming transformation from the melancholy, lyrical atmosphere of the first movement to the quirky, stilted jazz stylings of the second. Add to this a steady, building increase in ensemble energy, staccatissimo passages in the clarinet's highest register, and a rollicking finale (complete with final glissando à la Rhapsody in Blue), and the work presents itself almost as a Copland tutorial.
- Jessica Schilling