for Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano (1932)




Little is known about the life and work of Mitya (Michel) Stillman (1892, Il’intsy, Ukraine–1936, New York, US). He studied composition with Reinhold Glière and viola at the Kiev Conservatory. He was active in the Kiev department of the Society for Jewish Folk Music until his emigration to the US around the time of the Russian Revolution. Stillman worked thereafter as viola player in the CBS Orchestra in Detroit. He composed diverse symphonic and chamber music works. In 1936, he was chosen to receive the NBC composition prize for his 7th String Quartet as the best chamber music work of the year, but he died shortly before then at only 44 years old. His heritage is kept in the New York Public Library (Nemtsov 2008 , 335). Nevertheless, it remains largely unknown even today. 

Stillman composed the Fantasy on a Chassidish Theme for clarinet (in B-flat), piano and string quartet in 1932 as a commission from clarinetist Simeon Bellison. Bellison´s previous ensemble, Zimro, for whom Prokofiev composed the famous Overture on Hebrew Themes, was dissolved in 1920. Bellison, who was by 1932 clarinet soloist at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, continued to encourage composers to write works on Jewish themes and arranged traditional Jewish music for the clarinet in various instrumentations. The Fantasy on a Chassidish Theme is Stillman’s only work for the clarinet. It was published the same year he composed it but remained his only published work (Stillman 1932). Stillman himself played the viola in the first performance.
The Fantasy on a Chassidish Theme is a colourful composition, based on a traditional Jewish melody with a duration of approximately 11 minutes.[1]


The work consists of one movement in a free and rhapsodic form, which can be divided into three sections:

1.    Moderato assai, quasi Andante
2.    Adagio (mm.94 ff.)
3.    Allegro (mm. 168ff.)

At first sight, Stillman´s Fantasy shows several similarities to Prokofiev´s Overture: the particular instrumentation of clarinet, piano and string quartet; the topic of Jewish themes; the one-movement form and approximate duration. But besides the surface level, the two works are fundamentally different. The texture of the Fantasy is complex and dense. All performers have equal roles in the composition, creating constant musical dialogues. The piano part is highly elaborated, which leads at moments to challenges in questions of balance for the performers. The viola has an exceptional role in Stillman´s composition, endowed with several solo passages, which is most probably due to Stillman’s being a viola player himself. The clarinet interacts actively with the piano and the strings. The overall atmosphere of the Fantasy is emotionally intense, with quickly changing and contrasting moods. A number of distinctive playing manners originate from the Klezmer music tradition, for example, various ornamentations such as sobbing grace notes and trills, and an enhanced expressivity. Also, the oriental modes with the characteristic altered seconds are easily recognizable. The clarinet playing alone introduces the Chassidic theme, interrupted only by fragile flageolets in the strings. The soft dynamics and breaks enhance a pensive impression, as if posing a rhetorical question (video ex.7.2.1 Chassidic Theme).

[1] Chassidish, Chassidic, Hasidic: a Jewish religious group that originated in Ukraine.

Video ex. 4.2.1: Chassidic Theme (Stillman, Fantasy, mm. 1-6)


The first section continues with a faster part alla breve, featuring the Chassidic theme in various modified forms (video ex. 4.3.2: Variations). Due to the vivid movements and the thick texture, it is especially challenging for the performers in this section to draw out the main lines and keep the instruments well-balanced. The atmosphere changes quickly back and forth between triumphant and, again, calm and hesitating, questioning.

Video ex.7.2.2: Variations (Stillman, Fantasy, mm. 70-93)


In the middle section, Adagio – più Allegro – Adagio, the clarinetist changes from the B-flat to the A clarinet. The instrument change is not only due to practical reasons such as the tonality, but also serves as a change in the sound character to a darker colour. The clarinet meets plenty of characteristic ornamentation such as grace notes and trills in this intense section (video ex.4.3.3.: Ornamentation). The final section, Allegro, employs rhythmically accentuated melody fragments in changing bar measures. The Fantasy on a Chassidic theme concludes with the reprise of the Introduction: the clarinet plays the theme softly and dreamily, as if again posing a rhetorical question.

Video ex.7.3.3:  Ornamentation (Stillman, Fantasy, mm. 131-158)



Anne Elisabeth Piirainen, clarinet

Kirill Kozlovski, piano

FINESTre string quartet: 

Kati Tuominen-Heroja, I-violin 

Heidi Kuula, II-violin 

Heili Hannikainen, viola 

Elina Sipilä, cello

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4th doctoral concert "Echoes of the Past"

03.10.2017, Helsinki Music Centre