Why Beethoven’s clarinet parts are so challenging

Almost every orchestral and chamber music piece written by Beethoven has passages which go against the natural tendencies of the instrument. The difficulties are numerous. Staccato passages at a very slow tempo and a piano dynamic abound in Beethoven’s op. 11 Trio and op. 20 Septet. Soft staccato in the high register with a diminuendo can be found in the Sixth Symphony and the op. 20 Septet.  Very fast articulation? The Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. A diminuendo while moving into the altissimo register? The Eighth Symphony. Awkward sforzandi, forte piani, and strange crescendi from piano resulting in a subito piano are ubiquitous. The forte piani, in particular, seem to take away all the air support right when you need it. Despite all these difficulties, the sound can never become ugly or harsh.

No one sound is appropriate to Beethoven. The clarinet parts in the outer movement of the Second Symphony resemble trumpet parts, and perhaps he expected the clarinet to play a similar role. The solos in the slow movement of the Fourth Symphony are incredibly legato and delicate and transparent. The solo in the A-major section of the Seventh Symphony’s slow movement calls for a rich and full sound. In many of the scherzo movements, the clarinet must appropriate a bassoon-like style of articulation. In Beethoven’s chamber music, the clarinet must aspire to something more intimate that does not overpower the solo string instruments.

There are often many passages in which the clarinet plays very short phrases, sometimes just to provide color for a mere measure of a longer phrase. The clarinetists’ time in the limelight is over no sooner than it began. The first note has to speak on time and the tone must be resonant and beautiful for the entire duration of the phrase. Pieces by composers like Brahms or Schumann, in which clarinetists play much longer phrases, are much more forgiving of a dull note here and there. In addition, Beethoven’s chamber music with clarinet has little of the tempo flexibility that Brahms’ works have. This makes them difficult for clarinetists who naturally sneak in and often play a bit late.

Despite all these challenges, we have to learn how to play Beethoven well in order to get a job as an orchestral or chamber musician.

Here’s one strategy I have for practicing those dastardly subito piani. Let’s use the trio from Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony as an example of how to work. To practice the phrase from bar 60 to 64, start in bar 63. Play it at a comfortable dynamic (mf or f, in my case). Once you can play it the way you like at a loud dynamic, start playing it softer until you get to an acceptable piano dynamic. Then play only bars 61 and 62. Make sure to do a big crescendo, but don’t play the downbeat in bar 63. Once you are happy with measures 61 and 62, you can play mm 61-64, but place a quarter rest before the subito piano in bar 63. If this goes well, you can eliminate the pause. Then play bars 60 and 61 but with a quarter rest again before the subito piano. Finally, eliminate the rest and play the entire phrase as written. The principle is to master the piano sections through playing them at a comfortable dynamic before playing them softly, and then to master the transitions by placing a short rest before the subito piano to ensure that your air, embouchure, and tongue are set. 

 


It is not only clarinetists who find Beethoven difficult. Many violinists and cellists say that Beethoven’s sonatas are awkward, both for technique and for phrasing. It takes a lot of knowledge and time to think your way through a Beethoven sonata and develop a convincing interpretation. Beethoven is challenging for orchestras and conductors, too. Many orchestras can blow an audience away with Strauss’s Don Juan, but far fewer can give a great performance of a Beethoven symphony. Listen to the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen play Beethoven, and one is immediately wowed. There must be something really special about their conductor, Paavo Järvi.  

I can identify three reasons for difficulty in Beethoven’s music, although there are probably many more. The greatest challenge lies in a contradiction, that Beethoven was both a Viennese Classicist and a rejecter of Viennese Classicism. Sometimes the rejections take the form of mockery. This is what the Eighth Symphony is about. All throughout Beethoven’s music, but especially in the Eighth Symphony, the dynamics and articulation markings interrupt the natural phrasing of a Mozartean line and make it feel awkward and clunky. Understanding when Beethoven is writing a simple Mozartean line, and when he is calling into question the presumptions of Mozartean phrasing with an unexpected crescendo, subito piano, forte piano, or unusual sforzando takes a lot of knowledge and practice. Playing the phrase in such a way that the audience understands that this is a mockery of Viennese classicism is even more challenging. 

Another reason Beethoven is difficult lies in what his music expresses. Many composers after Beethoven, such as Liszt and Wagner, imported external ideas from literature, myth, philosophy and art into their music. This makes it easy to figure out what the music is about. All you have to do is put yourself in the shoes of the character the composer is describing, and you can give a rousing performance. Beethoven’s music is a little different. There is no program, and the music usually does not tell a story. But it is about something. Beethoven’s music is deeply psychological. There are periods of brooding, of playfulness, of tragedy, and jubilation. Conveying these emotions without a story to help the performer is challenging.

Lastly, Beethoven is a particularly uncompromising composer (although he is not alone in this aspect). Beethoven fit the instrument to the idea, rather than the idea to the instrument. Works by composers like Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky leap off the page in part because these men composed in such a way as to take advantage of the unique qualities of the instruments they wrote for. For Beethoven, the musical material would not be limited by the instruments, and so instruments have to struggle more in order to play his works. The solution is not to learn to adjust, but rather to grow up with Beethoven, playing it constantly so that his musical language becomes intertwined with your way of performing. Eventually his idiosyncrasies will become a part of your musical vernacular.