Programme Notes – Clarinet Concerto (1999)

In several of my works I have turned to my Jewish roots as a source of inspiration. At the very end of the twentieth century I wanted to bring together elements of this musical ancestry to write a large-scale work. The chance to write a piece for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra gave me a great opportunity to do this. Obviously the key historical event for the Jewish people in the last century was the Holocaust. I wouldn’t be able to begin to write a piece of music about such a tragic period of our history. I wasn’t there, and evil on such a large scale goes beyond the realms of artistic expression. Where I feel that I can say something is about the ultimate failure of the Holocaust, the fact that Jewish culture was not destroyed, but lives on triumphantly.

There are two important musical areas that have guided me during the writing of the Clarinet Concerto. One is the field of Yiddish folk music, or Klezmer, the other is the music of Gustav Mahler, a composer who, in my mind, foresaw the horrors of the twentieth century in his works like no other composer. Mahler’s work remains, to me, profoundly Jewish despite his later conversion to the Catholic faith. There are quotations from every Mahler symphony in various parts of the Clarinet Concerto, some obvious and others less so. A wonderful (some would say terrible) characteristic of the Jewish people is the ability to laugh in the face of terror. This is a constant feature in Mahler’s music and I also hear it in the Klezmer music that is played at weddings, parties and bar mitzvahs. This juxtaposition of high comedy and deep melancholy runs through the Clarinet Concerto, which is in three movements played without a break.

The opening of the work is a torrent of despairing rhythmic instability over which the soloist defiantly wails in Klezmer style. A piercing climax is reached, out of which emerges a gracious oboe melody, which is then developed flippantly through the orchestra. The soloist introduces a more lyrical theme, which is soon swallowed up by material from the opening, and leads to a climax marked in the score as ‘catastrophic.’ The remainder of the movement is a slow descent into the murky depths, although at one point there is the briefest glimpse of paradise, courtesy of Mahler!

The unstable rhythms of the opening return in a spectral guise at the end of the movement before a rhythmic pattern is set up in the percussion to introduce the second movement. Here the solo clarinet is transformed from the voice of despair to that of the Master of Ceremonies. In this movement, an exploration of musical humour, I have drawn from the melodic and rhythmic characteristics of various Yiddish dances including the Terkishe (a fast tango) and the hora, which is characterised by a rocking rhythm in triple time. The movement ends with a group of nine soloists defiantly playing a freylachs, (a fast dance in duple time) over which a long melody rises up from the depths of the orchestra to the work’s largest climax, at the start of the final movement.

The soloist now adopts the role of comforter as the orchestra gradually subsides. A gently repeating phrase heralds the return of the more lyrical material from the first movement before being cut short by a brutal outburst from the lower reaches of the orchestra. There are more savage interjections that attempt to undermine the mood of increasing tranquility. In the final epilogue I have tried to depict the idea of meeting Mahler in the afterlife; there are many quotations from his works and the mood is now cool and detached, although an undercurrent of danger remains. The work ends with intimate chamber music textures.

The Clarinet Concerto is dedicated to Nicholas Cox, who gave the first performance and last about thirty minutes.