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When reviving Bernhard Crusell’s clarinet, which way is up?

This week, at various area venues, the Society for Historically Informed Performance presents Ensemble ad Libitum in a program featuring Thomas Carroll, performing late-18th- and early-19th-century works spotlighting the clarinet and its early practitioners, by way of the Op. 2 Quartet of the Finnish-born composer and virtuoso Bernhard Crusell (1775-1838). And, in Crusell, the program touches on an enduring controversy in clarinet playing, growing out of a simple question: up or down?

The clarinet’s sound is produced by a single reed, held against the lip, and vibrated with the breath. Performers today keep their lower lip against the reed — but that is the opposite of how the instrument was originally played. Early clarinetists kept the reed against the upper lip, at least until the late 1700s. It was, possibly, German and Austrian clarinetists who flipped the mouthpiece around; certainly the practice became associated with Germanic styles of playing. (One of the more notable clarinet-based mysteries is whether the virtuoso Anton Stadler, the dedicatee of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, was a reed-up or reed-down player.)

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In 1831, the Paris Conservatoire switched to teaching reed-below technique, as close to an official shift in the musical winds as there was. But reed-above held on, particularly in Italy, such that the style was sometimes called “la scuola Napoletana” — the Neapolitan school. (Gino Cioffi, the Naples-born principal clarinetist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1950 to 1970, first mastered the instrument reed-above, and would sometimes demonstrate that unorthodox facility to his students.) Crusell embodied the evolution: He made his reputation playing with the reed up, but, sometime in the early 1800s, made the switch to reed-below.

The transition paralleled a change in the clarinet’s stereotypical musical character. The advantages of reed-above playing — a brilliant, even strident tone; easier access to the highest notes; agility across widely-separated registers — are echoed in the instrument’s name, which derives from “clarino,” the clarion, the highest of Renaissance trumpets. But the subtle gradations of tone-color and smooth, singing lines facilitated by reed-below playing are the qualities by which the clarinet asserted its own identity among the woodwinds.

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Today, the divide is between those players who grip the top of the mouthpiece with their teeth, and those who curl their upper lip under — a reed-below imitation of reed-above embouchure. But, one suspects, a full revival of reed-above among period instrumentalists is not far off. In music, everything old is, eventually, new again.

Matthew Guerrieri

SoHIP presents Ensemble ad Libitum at St. Anne’s in the Fields, Lincoln, July 12; the Chapel at West Parish, Andover, July 13; and First Lutheran Church, Boston, July 14. All concerts 8 p.m. Tickets: $15-$20. sohipboston.squarespace.com


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.