Whereas in earlier orchestral music (symphonies, concertos, operas) the clarinet was an occasional participant in the orchestra, by the early nineteenth century it was fully integrated. Throughout the century its popularity as a solo instrument exceeded that of other woodwinds. But, as Colin Lawson reminds us, for performing musicians “before the enthusiasm for virtuosity as an end in itself during the nineteenth century … the communication of emotion was an absolute priority.” Alongside the instrument's other capabilities, clarinetists playing in nineteenth-century opera can often enjoy rapid passagework, especially ascending arpeggios, like those that occur profusely in concertos, but they do not have obbligatos in the fashion of Floquet (Hellé) or Mozart (La clemenza di Tito). Sometimes such figuration can be interpreted from a simple musical standpoint, as textural enrichment, but at other times it may be intended to contribute to the collaborative dramatic whole that, ideally, is an opera. The opera composer responds to action, establishes atmosphere, and enhances characterization, by orchestral means; and the communication of dramatic emotion and insight is of paramount importance. The palette of woodwind colors was greatly enriched by the regular inclusion of clarinets and, later, the bass clarinet.
What follows cannot be comprehensive; the repertoire is too large to cover every important opera composer in equal detail, never mind every opera. I hope that by studying certain sections, and even operas, in sharper focus, I shall at least indicate how much composers from Weber and Berlioz to Tchaikovsky and Puccini valued the instrument, and how they made effective use of its particular qualities. To those whose favorite clarinet passages are not mentioned, I can only apologize.
The form of this essay is first, and primarily, to consider the clarinet as a kind of voice, in which the “clarion” or “cantabile” register, above the break, is most used; then to review its use as part of an ensemble, and as a frequent contributor to dark, even tragic, coloring, where the middle and especially the lowest “chalumeau” register are likely to be employed. The latter discussion leads naturally to the operatic use of the bass clarinet.
The Clarinet as “Voice”
The clarinet was integral to the sound-world of composers such as Spontini, Spohr (notably in Faust), and Weber.