for Clarinet Solo (1972)




Edison Denisov (Эдисон Васильевич Денисов; 1929, Tomsk–1996, Paris) is considered a real pioneer in Russian avant-garde composition.  He is one of the most influential Russian composers of the 20th century. In clarinet music, Denisov was the first Soviet composer to use contemporary playing techniques for the clarinet, while in western compositions, micro-intervals, glissandi or frullati had been in use for decades.  Denisov composed the Sonata for clarinet solo in 1972 and dedicated it to clarinetist Lev Mikhailov. Denisov maintained active connections with the western European contemporary music scene, and his compositions were well known abroad and performed regularly in Europe and the US. At home in the Soviet Union, however, Denisov’s musical career was not without obstacles. Tikhon Khrennikov, leader of the official Composers’ Union, denounced Denisov and six other composers (Sofia Gubaidulina, Alexander Knaifel, Vyacheslav Artyomov, Viktor Suslin and Denisov’s students Elena Firsova and Dmitry Smirnov) in a public speech in 1979 (Kholopov and Tsenova 1993, 35). These composers were artistically and personally affected by repression and defamation. A number of the compositions of the so-called “Khrennikov's Seven”, however, are among the most interesting and oft-performed clarinet repertoire pieces from the Soviet period (see Chapter 7).

The Sonata for clarinet solo is unequivocally the most performed solo clarinet work from the Soviet Union and one of the few works from this field which has found its way to the standard clarinet repertoire. Characteristic for this piece are the micro-intervals, the repeated use of large intervals and staccatissimo passages, as well as quick, extreme dynamic changes. 

There is a wealth of specialized literature on Denisov and his compositions, including the Sonata for clarinet solo, so I am limiting myself in this context to a few performance observations in the context of other compositions discussed in this chapter, especially in comparison to the Sonata for Clarinet Solo op. 16 by Firsova (see 7.3). Denisov´s Sonata for clarinet solo is a serial composition and consists of two contrasting movements with a total duration of approximately 7 minutes:

1.    Lento Rubato
2.    Allegro giusto

Video ex.7.2.1: Letter theme (Denisov, Solo Sonata, mvt. 1, systs. 1- 3)


The first movement, Lento rubato, is slow and improvisatory, creating a mysterious and somewhat lamenting atmosphere. The first theme consists of the letters of Denisov´s name: D-enisov-E-dis-on , transposed for the Bb-clarinet e - g flat - f (Video ex.7.2.1: Letter names). The use of initials was popular among the composers of the Khrennikov´s Seven; Firsova also uses her initials in her clarinet sonata. Another very popular gesture are fast legato passages built on the serial row of the movement (Video ex.7.2.2: Serial Row).


Video ex.7.2.2: Serial Row (Denisov, Solo Sonata, mvt. 1, syst. 11-15)


The second movement, Allegro giusto, is fast and strongly rhythmical. Like a thread throughout the entire movement, fast staccato notes in soft dynamics of the b-flat (sounding a-flat) appear repeatedly. The impression is nervous and hectic, somewhat insecure: like an old-fashioned Morse-signal, calling for help (Video ex.7.2.3: Morse signal). Other main characteristics of this movement are the repeated use of large intervals and fast staccatissimo passages, as well as extreme dynamical changes within shortest time (Video ex.7.2.4: Wild). 


Video ex.7.2.3: Morse (Denisov, Solo Sonata, mvt. 2, syst. 8-14)


The Sonata for clarinet solo is technically demanding for the clarinetist, especially the fast staccato passages in the second movement. There is a wide performance tradition for this work, including manifold recordings, and it is often a piece of choice in clarinet competitions. In that sense, Denisov´s solo sonata differs from all other clarinet compositions from the former Soviet Union.


Video ex.7.2.4: Wild (Denisov, Solo Sonata, mvt. 2, syst. 21-23) 



Anne Elisabeth Piirainen, clarinet

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1st doctoral concert "Abandoned Melodies"

15.05.2014, Helsinki Music Centre