The Timeless Bernstein: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1941-42)

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Leonard Bernstein's early work, the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, with performance example by Sabine Meyer and Fazil Say. An analysis and history of an early success.

Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1941-42) (“For David Oppenheim”)

There have been very few figures in the arts who have been as well-rounded as Leonard Bernstein. He was truly a Renaissance man who wore many hats: in addition to his obvious position as a composer, conductor, pianist, and recording artist in all three categories, he was also the author of numerous books and essays. He appeared in trailblazing television programs of his own writing, and was an inspiring teacher. Additionally, he delivered numerous lectures at universities and conservatories. Providing yet another aspect to his multifaceted persona, Bernstein was also involved with numerous civil liberties and humanitarian concerns throughout his life.

The list of awards Bernstein received in his lifetime is astonishing; it includes: 21 Honorary Degrees; 13 foreign government decorations from eight countries; 13 Grammy Awards out of over 30 nominations; 16 platinum/gold and international record awards; 25 television awards, including 11 Emmy Awards; 44 arts awards of various natures; 23 civic awards in the form of Keys to the City and State Proclamations; and honorary memberships or offices in over 20 societies and orchestras, including Laureate Conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1969) and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (1988), and President of the London Symphony Orchestra (1987).


Leonard Bernstein, the day after his 1943 debut with the NY Philharmonic.

The Sonata for Clarinet and Piano is divided into two movements. The first is a concise, linear grazioso which is comprised of both natural growth combined with tender lyrical reflection, with a hint of Hindemithian harmony. Following the work's first performance, one Boston critic referred to the second movement, Andantino, "Choc-a-block full of jazzy, rocking rhythms." The Andantino, with its walking basses and syncopations is an exciting mix of jazz, dance and the plainsman style of Copland and Harris. Since Bernstein's death, several alternative arrangements of the Sonata have appeared, including a concerto arrangement by Sid Ramin (the orchestrator of West Side Story) and a transcription for cello by Yo-Yo Ma.

Author's addendum:

  • There aren't any examples currently on YouTube that I'd suggest as recommended listening for this work.  However, here is a link to a file of a colleague's superb performance  This is a very good representation of this work from Bernstein's early composition, recorded live in performance in 2009. Right click on the link to open the file in a new tab or new window. Please support working artists by purchasing music and art legally. Thank you.
  • The article cover photo is Bernstein's debut with the NY Philharmonic at the podium, 1943, one year after the Clarinet Sonata was composed..


Posted on Jun 2, 2011
Posted on Mar 26, 2011