Monday, October 24, 2011

More Aware of the Bass Clarinet

Since so much of what I write on my sites seems to be about sonority, I realize that I have been paying more attention to which instruments are actually being played in the course of an instrumental performance.  This was particularly the case at the BluePrint concert this past Saturday evening, which required both reduced and diverse ensembles during the first half of the concert.  I also realize that I usually have a good view of the wind section when I am in Davies Symphony Hall;  and, as a result, I am frequently visually aware of when the instrumentation calls for double bassoon, English horn, or bass clarinet.

All of the low winds have interesting sounds.  Having tried to play both bass clarinet and baritone saxophone, I know from personal experience that they require considerable personal control.  At the same time I used to sing baritone in a choir, which means that I am very favorably disposed to bass lines.  However, beyond the visceral qualities of low frequencies, I have developed a particular sensitivity to the bass clarinet, especially since, like its B-flat and A cousins, it yields different sonorities in different pitch ranges.  Naturally, the bass range overlaps the “treble;”  and that is where variations in the acoustic spectrum have the greatest impact on the listener.  With enough listening one becomes familiar enough with these “spectral signatures” to recognize and respond to them relatively quickly.

So it was that, while reviewing the CDs in my Wilhelm Furtwängler:  The Legacy collection, I found myself (finally) in the second act of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.  There, in the orchestral representation of dawn that begins at the end of Hagen’s dialogue with Alberich (who may be appearing to him in a dream, since Alberich begins by asking Hagen if he is asleep), I discovered that the first rays of light are represented by the bass clarinet.  This should not have surprised me.  The idea of phenomena originating in low frequencies is so much a part of the rhetoric of the whole Ring cycle that it is there at the very beginning of Das Rheingold.  Still, perhaps because of the fateful nature of the day that is just beginning to dawn, this instrumentation has an other-worldly character.  It is nature’s daily miracle of a new day, but this day will be fraught with tragedy that stretches beyond the mortals portrayed on stage to the entire pantheon up in Valhalla.

Did Wagner really express all of that in fifteen measures for the bass clarinet?  That would be exaggeration.  However, those of us who know the Ring respond to every event (including instrumental sonorities) with an understanding of how the immediate present is tightly bound to what has been and what is yet to be.  Thus, we know that this particular dawn is (depending on your interpretation of how much time is taken up by the second and third acts) either a “last” or “penultimate” dawn, perhaps for all of mankind.  (It is certainly the last musical depiction of dawn.)  We may not associate that directly with the bass clarinet;  but we are not surprised that, at this particular moment, Wagner chose sonorities that were decidedly alien.

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