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The Consort

David Golby

No. 63, Summer 2007

François Devienne
Sonata in C minor for clarinet and keyboard
Edition HH, Bicester, 2006 (pbk, £9.95)
ISMN M 708059 32 5

available from Schott & Co.

I must confess to having a soft spot for the Bicester-based publisher Edition HH, who should be applauded for their willingness to seek out rare but wholly worthwhile repertoire, and their knack of bringing it to our attention through extremely high quality and usable editions. This Devienne sonata, edited by the renowned clarinettist and teacher Nicholas COX, is another little gem.
Devienne (1759-1803), a French flautist, bassoonist, composer and teacher, spent much of his adult life in Paris, where most of his works were published. A prolific and successful composer of French operas comiques, he also produced orchestral works (in particular wind and brass concertos) and chamber music in which wind instruments feature prominently. Devienne soon established a strong reputation as a teacher: he joined the military band of the Paris National Guard in 1790, where teaching was among his duties, and this continued as the band became part of what became the Free School of Music of the National Guard. The Free School eventually became the Paris Conservatoire in 1795.
Devienne is perhaps best known today as the author of a method for the one-key flute (Nouvelle méthode théorigue et pratique pour la flute). This had been published in the previous year, and numerous editions soon followed, including a version in English. With such achievements and experience behind him, it is easy to see how Devienne came to be appointed one of the first professors of flute at the Conservatoire; one of his own Music pupils became professor in 1816.
The Sonata in C minor is an example of how his composing and teaching skills were often combined to great effect. It is the first of a set of three sonatas published for Clarinette et Basse with, as was common at the time, an unfigured bass line for an unspecified bass instrument. The set was dedicated to his friend, the clarinettist and fellow professor Charles Duvernoy. The exact date of composition of this and similar material, evidently intended for didactic use, is far from clear, but Devienne's teaching activities would seem to suggest some time between the early 1790s and the turn of the century. The instrument which was taught to the large number of military musicians in Bonaparte's regimental bands was the six keyed clarinet. The source gives no indication of the type of clarinet to be used in this instance and so, in the interests of accessibility, the editor has decided, quite reasonably, to write the solo line in D minor for clarinet in B flat.
This piece shows Devienne to be a far more significant and accomplished composer than his modem day status might lead us to believe. It is not surprising to learn (from the excellent Introduction to this edition) of the Frenchman's possible ties with Mozart and his music through the Concert Spirituels and Anton Stadler's performance of his music. Naturally, much of the interest and importance of Devienne's music lies in its treatment of the wind instrument. Texturally it is very simple and homophonic; typically a clarinet melody with accompaniment. However, the melodies themselves are very appealing, with virtuosic flourishes and effective, dynamic passagework.
There are three movements: an Allegro con espressione in sonata form (in which a second exposition replaces a development section), an Adagio in binary form, and a final sonata rondo. Cox provides a sensitive and straightforward keyboard realisation of the unfigured bass line and gives careful consideration to page turns (for example, in the solo part, the second movement is printed on the back page). There are clear and succinct textual notes on the back page, with welcome suggestions for further reading, and additions to the text follow standard editorial conventions. Articulation marks and ornamentation are retained from the first edition. The presentation is clear and unambiguous, although some suggestions for the performance of the large number of ornamental turns in the solo part in the first movement would have been helpful.
Playing this piece through with my wife performing the solo part, we were both pleasantly surprised by the quality and memorable character of the melodic ideas and their immediate appeal. The material is organised within an uncomplicated structure, which is entirely in keeping with the classical simplicity of its content. There is a little too much repetition in places, and an over dependence on melodic formulae, especially at cadences, reminding us that this is very attractive but not great music.
The shadow of Mozart's clarinet quintet and concerto is often perceptible, especially in the semiquaver passagework, and although this sonata does not demand the same interpretative maturity, it does require technical accomplishment. This is certainly true of the rondo, which is far more of a study, or conservatoire test piece, in its demands on fingering and embouchure. In general, the range of all the movements is rather limited in that it lies predominantly in the higher clarino tessitura, with very little requiring the chalumeau register or even mid?range 'throat' notes.
There would be little to be gained from looking to the Mozart and Stadler connection, and performing the sonata on a basset clarinet. It seems likely that the consistently high register employed by Devienne relates to the instrument used by most, if not all, of the pupils who would have played this kind of piece in Paris, and their future employment in the army. Clarinettists in military bands would have needed most proficiency in a high tessitura since they would, one presumes, have been required to emulate or supplement trumpets for much of the time.
Despite its limitations, there would be much to be gained from using this piece as an unusual but valuable choice for study or concert performance. In both cases it could serve a very useful function in providing a fascinating context for Mozart's masterpieces. I very much share the editor's wishes that this and similar works will find favour with players of both the modern and the classical clarinet, and with anyone interested in gaining further insight into classical style. Fortunately, should one wish to investigate further, Devienne's Sonata in Bb for clarinet and keyboard is also available from the same publisher. The appeal of the C minor example examined here gives cause for us to deeply regret that so much of Devienne's music was destroyed by fire in the early 1800s.

We are grateful to the editor of The Consort for permission to reproduce this review.
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