Home > Clarinet, teaching > An E-flat clarinet story & clip

An E-flat clarinet story & clip

During my formative years studying music at Saint Petersburg
Conservatory, I was fortunate to have been admitted to the studio of
legendary Nikolai Kiryuchin, former Principal Clarinet of the famed
Mariinsky Theater Orchestra. This amazing musician and pedagogue
extraordinaire has had a tremendous influence on me as a clarinetist
and a person. By the time I entered his studio, he had long retired
from performing, and was focusing his enormous energy exclusively on
teaching. Nevertheless, his musical war chest was full of amazing
stories from his more than 30 years of making music with some of the
brightest stars of the Soviet classical music scene. A talented
raconteur, he generously shared his stories with his students.

One of my teacher’s stories involved the E-flat clarinet, perhaps the
most capricious and hard-to-play instrument of the clarinet family.
The Mariinsky Orchestra was recording one of Dmitry Shostakovich’s
ballets. Present in the studio, the composer was closely monitoring
the recording session, at times gently steering the conductor on
issues of tempos and interpretation. When the session was over,
Shostakovich walked over to the clarinet section and placed a sheet
with hand-written music on the Principle Clarinet’s stand. The
composer then gently inquired:
“I couldn’t sleep last night and ended up writing a clarinet solo part
for the “King Lear” movie score I have been composing. I hope that the
part makes sense, and I am really curious how it actually sounds.
Would you be so kind and play this solo for me right now?”

My teacher examined the score carefully, paused for effect, and
replied with utter seriousness: “I am afraid it would be impossible
Dmitry Dmitrievich.” Dead silence fell over the recording studio.
Everyone was utterly shocked that one of the city’s most versatile
clarinetists could not play a piece composed by the country’s most
prodigious composer. Has Shostakovich made a major orchestration
mistake, making the solo unplayable on the intended instrument?

“Is something wrong with my score?”—asked Shostakovich with a bit of
tremor in his voice.

“Not at all, Dmitry Dmitrievich!”—cheerfully replied my teacher. “The
issue at hand is that you wrote the piece for the E-flat clarinet,
which I currently don’t have in my possession. And if I were to
transpose the part on my B-flat clarinet, I’m afraid the part would be
outside of the instrument’s range. However, if you don’t mind waiting
for 15 minutes, I can run back to the Mariinsky Theater and grab the
E-flat I have stashed away somewhere in my locker.”

“You have scared me, funny man! I can use a smoke break right now.
Please, by all means, go and fetch your E-flat in the
meantime.”—replied the composer, visibly relieved.

Fifteen minutes later, my teacher brought his E-flat to the studio. He
sight-read the part flawlessly, after which Shostakovich said: “You
know what—your interpretations of this solo is exactly what I had in
mind! If you do not mind, let’s record it right now!”

This clip is this historical recording. One of my conservatory
classmates, now employed by the St. Petersburg music archives, was
able to locate this recording and share it with all of my teacher’s
numerous students. (The human voice in this clip was later
superimposed through some recording magic).

Categories: Clarinet, teaching
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