Delicacy, sentimentality and intimacy: the chalumeau as 'signifier'

Pearson, I. E. (1998) Delicacy, sentimentality and intimacy: the chalumeau as 'signifier'. ClarinetFest 1998


The Viennese fondness for the chalumeau is confirmed by the prominent role it played in the repertory throughout the 18th century. These composers were amongst the most innovative in writing for the instrument in all its four sizes. In music for the stage, the chalumeau was most often used to accompany pastoral and romantic scenes. Its treatment at the hands of Fux, the Bononcini brothers and Joseph I is particularly exquisite in their anticipation of Mozart’s use of the clarinet in Così fan tutte. Gluck chose the chalumeau for the Vienna versions of Orfeo and Alceste. Florian Gassmann, who settled in Vienna after studies in Italy, was amongst several composers still writing for the chalumeau at a time when clarinets were readily available. In chamber and orchestral music too, the chalumeau made its mark. Václav Pichl wrote for the instrument in the 1770s, and only later did he develop an enthusiasm for the clarinet. Further proof of the instrument’s survival into the pre-Classical era is found in the divertimenti by Florian Gassmann and Carl Dittersdorf. An important concertante work is the concerto for soprano chalumeau by Franz Hoffmeister. Mozart was aware of the chalumeau, as his father’s copying of Joseph Starzer’s Musica da camera testifies. This work was later attributed to Mozart as K.187/159c and exerted a clear influence on Mozart’s own divertimento, K188/240b, for a similar combination. This paper traces the development of the chalumeau repertoire in 18th century Viennese opera, chamber, orchestral, and solo literature. In the actual delivery, live illustrations enabled listeners to gain a greater insight into the sound world of the various chalumeaux. Issues unique to the performance of chalumeau repertoire such as reed-position and instrument size are also discussed.

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