SONATA op. 16

for Clarinet Solo (1976)




Elena Firsova (Елена Олеговна Фирсова; b. 1950, Leningrad) belongs to the progressive Moscow composition school around Edison Denisov. Firsova is one of the composers who were later collectively called “Khrennikov´s Seven” (see Chapter 7). Firsova has been living in Great Britain since 1991. Her vast oeuvre includes another work for clarinet solo, Alone (2004), various chamber music works with the clarinet, for example the Verdehr-Terzett (clarinet, violin and piano, 1990) and two Clarinet quintets with strings (2006, 2016). 

Firsova composed the Sonata op.16 for clarinet solo (in B-flat) in 1976, shortly after finishing her studies at the Moscow Tchaikovsky conservatory, yet she had already been accepted as a member of the Soviet Composers' Union. The Sonata op.16 is dedicated to clarinetist Lev Mikhailov, a pioneer of his time in the field of contemporary playing techniques in Russia. Edison Denisov, Vyacheslav Artyomov and others also dedicated compositions to Mikhailov. The work was first published in 1978 by Sovetsky Kompozitor Moscow. Sikorski Music Publishers obtained the international rights and published a reprint of the Soviet edition (Firssowa 1996).

Sonata op.16 consists of one movement, Rubato. The tempo of the Sonata is marked ♩ ≈ 65. Throughout the composition, the performer has great freedom in the use of time, due to the numerous fermatas and commas in the composition. The Sonata is notated without time measure and has no bar lines. The duration of the work depends to a great extent on the performer: Firsova marks 10 minutes in the score, the publisher Sikorski marks 6 minutes, and my performance is about 8 minutes. 

Firsova uses quasi-serial composition techniques in the Sonata, forming repeated groups of notes, but never all twelve notes in one row. The Sonata is built around frequently the repeating note A in the clarinet part (sounding G). The Sonata can be divided into three main sections. The first section, until system 12, introduces and develops the motivic material around long notes and appoggiaturas. The vivid middle section highlights the unmistakable "FE"-motive. The final section, from system 27 on, recalls the motivic material of the introduction in an extended manner.

Firsova challenges the perception of clarinet sound in the Sonata op.16 for clarinet solo. Firsova herself said, ‘To compose means to express beauty in music’ (Kholopov 2002, 247). The Russian musicologist Yuri Kholopov characterizes Firsova's music in his article "Russians in England" with the following elements: Stile dolce, filled with lyricism; "crystal- clear" and "luminescent" sound forms, transparency of the sound colours; inner calm, moderate and slow tempi, a pastoral quality of the general mood; chamber style, traditional genres (Kholopov 2002, 248–250). These characteristics and the quoted expression of beauty can also be found in the Sonata op.16.

Firsova's Sonata op.16 is stylistically close to Denisov´s Sonata for clarinet solo from 1972 (see 7.2), though both composers have very individual musical identities. The following elements are in common in the two solo clarinet works: serialism; musical letter thematic; very detailed dynamics; large interval jumps; glissando, frullato, trills; grace notes and groups of fast, hushing notes; rubato as time signature; the title Sonata, though it does not represent a classical Sonata form. 

It is also possible to see the musical resemblance of Firsova´s Sonata to another main work for clarinet solo, to Abîme des Oiseaux by Olivier Messiaen from the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps (1941). The melancholic, somewhat mysterious atmosphere in the beginning of both compositions is created by long notes with fermatas, performed in crescendo from very soft dynamics. The use of breath, the sound control in long lines while building up dynamics and musical tension, and rows of dissonant, large legato intervals can give a similar performing perception to the clarinetist (Video ex.10.3.1: Legato Intervals).

Video ex.7.3.1:  Legato Intervals (Firsova, Solo Sonata, systs. 5-6)


Elena Firsova uses her initials as musical letters in the Sonata op.16, as it was in fashion among composers of Khrennikov's Seven (Kholopov 2002, 241). To most clarinetists, the well-known example of this practice is the beginning of the first movement of Denisov's Sonata for clarinet solo, D-enisov-E-dis-on (transposed for the Bb-clarinet e - g flat - f). In the Sonata op.16, F-irsova E-lena gives, transposed for the clarinet in B-flat, the notes g - f sharp. These two notes appear throughout the composition frequently, either openly or interwoven in surrounding texture, yet clearly present (Video ex.10.3.2: F-E). 

Firsova frequently uses glissandi and frullati in the Sonata. Also, the groups of grace notes with half- and whole-tones, and passages of fast staccato jumps in big intervals are close to Denisov’s style of composition. Unlike Denisov, Firsova rarely uses micro-intervals. But she did explore some playing techniques for the clarinet that were new at that time in the Soviet Union (albeit already established in Western countries), such as multiphonics. These multiphonics are notated according to the charts in the book New Sounds for Woodwind (Bartolozzi 1967).  Occasionally Firsova´s Sonata has the tendency to exaggerate the simultaneous use of extended playing techniques when superimposing multiphonics, trills, frullato and glissando in the highest register at the same time, which is practically very difficult to perform in a well-balanced way. 
To the performer, the importance of creating a serene atmosphere is an essential undertaking in this work. The most important element in this context is the breath: using the right amount of air, saving enough to endure long passages, but without taking up unused air – the air flows naturally and in a relaxed way. The performer needs patience to keep the fermatas in full length, even in combination with the numerous commas. The element of silence is highly important as well, both in breaks and in the commas, marking tiny stops within the music flow. Also, it is challenging to find the right balance of speed between the groups of grace notes and the groups of tones notated as thirty-second notes: both are very close, but the difference should be audible. Despite the lack of a performance tradition, the Sonata op.16 is a fine repertoire piece, both for professional study and for concert performance. The score is available as an archive copy (print-on-demand) only. This unedited reprint brings along practical challenges to any performer who does not not know/read the Russian language. In particular, a missing translation for the Cyrillic fingering marks and lack of explanation for the fingering charts of the multiphonics are impractical – thus, a new, edited edition is in order. 

Video ex.7.3.2: F-E (Firsova, Solo Sonata, systs. 12-14)



Anne Elisabeth Piirainen, clarinet

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2nd doctoral concert "Between Love and Hatred" 

12.05.2015, Helsinki Music Centre