by Keith Northover
Arranging and transcribing pieces for the Novacane Quartet has been quite fun! Because I like and specialize on the Tenor Clarinets (Basset Horn and Alto Clarinet), I love to play pieces that are just as challenging and fun as the rest of the parts. However due to many reasons including pedagogical, publishing optimization, and less than adequate instruments, the current repertoire catalog featuring these tenor instruments is often boring, a “chop buster”, or not idiomatic. Thus, every time I write for Novacane, I try to incorporate the Tenor clarinet in a unique and challenging way.
This may or may not be a secret when arranging for the Novacane Quartet, but I write with myself in mind. I’ve been playing the Alto Clarinet since my junior year in High School (2002) and first played a narrow bore Basset Horn at the Maryland Clarinet Connection in 2005 for a performance of Mendelssohn's Concert Piece No. 2. When I started attending the University of Florida in 2007, I made my acquaintance with the larger bore Buffet Basset Horn that was more akin to its cousin the Buffet Alto Clarinet. Since that initial fondness, my love for these quirky instruments has only blossomed. To date, I have since purchased 3 alto clarinets, one being a Buffet Prestige, a Noblet, and an old Moennig Brothers, and 3 basset horns, 2 Buffet Prestiges and a Selmer narrow bore. With over 10 years of experience as a soloist and in an ensemble, I have grown quite familiar with the advantages and limitations of the tenor clarinet.
One of the roles I love playing in ensembles is bridging the gap between the soprano and bass. I can be in 4ths or 5ths with the Bass Clarinet creating a really cool physical and extrasensory exemplification of the old or antique. I can also support the melody by being in octaves or in 3rds/6ths to the primary motion. Lastly, just as everyone does, I enjoy being featured in playing the primary melody.
Contrary to the great positive elements, I have some very strong dislikes with the writing out there. Most of these originate from the preconceptions and stereotypes that one may have about the Alto Clarinet or Basset Horn. I really dislike seeing long passages of long-valued notes (tied whole notes, half notes, etc.) that only support the harmonies. Equally distasteful are long stretches of only off-beats patterns. I also dislike the notion that the 3rd voice is only subservient to the melody and bass lines.
Although I understand the need for optimization in publications with flexibility in instrumentation or a quest for bigger sales marketing, the most egregious flaw is seeing parts that are scored only with the 3rd Bb clarinet part in mind. Meaning that even though these composers or arrangers have utilized the alto clarinet, they scored only with the 3rd Bb Clarinet’s range in mind. Thus in these parts, the alto clarinet rarely utilizes one of its best ranges, the lower chalumeau register. It is this register, that I can play similar to the bass clarinet, and without it the ensemble sound is hollow. Historic legend of the Clarinet Choir, Harvey Hermann said it best, just like the String Quartet has the Viola, the clarinet choir needs the Alto Clarinet/Basset Horn to fulfill the balance in registration, harmony, and timbre.
Although there are some duds in the repertoire, there are some iconic and inspirational composers out there that have featured the tenor instruments to true iconicity. In Mozart’s time, the Basset Horn was featured in the Requiem, the Gran Partita, and many smaller chamber music works including the 25 Divertimenti and Noturni with voices. Later on the Basset Horn is continued to be featured by Alessandro Rolla in his Concerto, Mendelssohn in the Concert Pieces and Harmoniemusik, and Strauss in his Operas Der Rosenkavalier and Daphne and his own Harmoniemusik (the Happy Workshop and Invalid’s Workshop). The Alto Clarinet in F, is featured by Stravinsky in his Wind Symphony and Elegy for JFK. Early 20th century band pieces featured the Alto Clarinet in Eb to great effect, including Hindemith, Schoenberg, Holst, Grainger, and Dahl, which even features the alto clarinet in a cadenza in the 2nd movement of the Sinfonietta.
The clarinetists Lucien Cailliet, Donald McCathren, and Harvey Hermann also made great strides to write or commission works featuring a unique and challenging alto clarinet part. Cailliet’s and Hermann’s clarinet choir arrangements feature the tenor clarinets, often employing both Alto Clarinet and Basset Horn in soloistic and virtuosic roles. Donald McCathren was an auxiliary specialist that spearheaded in 1960’s a renewed sense of the virtuosic capabilities of all the auxiliary clarinets. As a part of the University of Florida Clarinet Ensembles, I got to become quite familiar with the music of these legends.
These inspirations and experiences allow me to write music with certain elements in mind. First of all, each member is valued and important. I write with a sense that every member will wear many different “chamber music” hats including melody, supporting/counter melody harmony, and bass. I’m also not afraid of changing the “key” to suit the clarinet or range in mind. Lastly I love writing parts that are fun!
Although some instruments have tuning challenges, I like to turn these challenges into advantages. When writing for duets between the Eb soprano and Eb Alto clarinets, I know that some of the tuning tendencies are similar in both instruments. This helps me write knowing which notes might be easier to tune or omit. When playing in 5ths with the Bass Clarinet on Basset Horn, again I know that the tuning tendencies on both horns make tuning the chords sometimes mysteriously easily and remarkable. Although sometimes changes have to be made, and since the arranger is present, changes are made with ease… ;)
Lastly, let’s dissect one of my most popular arrangements, the Intermezzo, Op. 188 No. 2, by Johannes Brahms. I made this arrangement for 2 Clarinets, Alto Clarinet, and Bass Clarinet. By utilizing the clarinet family, my intention was to reform the innocent piano piece into a sublime sounding wind/reed organ. In the “A” sections I take the outer instruments and give them the melody and bass line. The inner voices weave in and out of chordal or melodic accompaniment, and moving counterpoint. It was a little risky to have clarinet 2 and alto clarinet parts sharing the same sounding notes at times yet because the tuning tendencies for some of the shared notes are similar, it is easy to blend the phrases and timbres. In the “B” section, I really try to showcase the capabilities of the clarinet quartet. Instead of doing a simple repeat as marked in the original score, I alternate the roles of Clarinet 1/2 and the Alto/Bass Clarinet. The first time through, the 1st clarinet has the melody with the Bass Clarinet having a supporting rhythmic role. The second time through, the 2nd clarinet has the melody with the Alto Clarinet having the supporting rhythmic role. After the music moves into a rich sounding soft reed organ chorale that a piano would not be able to sustain as well. I finish the “B” section by giving the Alto Clarinet a juicy and melancholic melody before returning back to the “A” section. Other clarinet arrangements of this intermezzo do exist, but none feature the tenor clarinets so profusely.
As one can see, I am a little biased towards the Tenor Clarinets, and am actively seeking new works to arrange or transcribe for clarinet quartet. Some of my other works include, Debussy’s Girl with the Flaxen Hair, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, and Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium (featuring Basset Horn as the first part).