Aaron Copland’s lyrical and jazz-influenced Clarinet Concerto was commissioned by the legendary swing musician Benny Goodman. The piece’s structure and instrumentation are far from conventional. It is written in two movements, rather than the traditional three-movement concerto form.The first movement, marked “Slowly and expressively,” uses the clarinet’s lyrical and expressive capabilities, showcasing the way the instrument can blend with the strings in a very introspective way.The virtuosity that audiences expect from a piece called a Concerto doesn’t appear until the cadenza that links the two movements. One can hear hints of Leonard Bernstein’s musical style in the cadenza (in fact, Copland and Bernstein were very close). The second movement is clearly influenced by jazz and Latin American music. Inspired by Goodman’s unique background of playing both classical and swing music, as well as Copland’s own travels to Brazil (Copland spent 1947 in Rio de Janeiro as a lecturer, when he was starting to work on the Clarinet Concerto), the composer manages to incorporate a Brazilian popular tune into the movement’s texture.
Copland explained his choice of instrumentation this way: “The instrumentation being clarinet with strings, harp, and piano, I did not have a large battery of percussion to achieve jazzy effects, so I used slapping basses and whacking harp sounds to simulate them.” The Clarinet Concerto ends with a fairly elaborate coda that finishes with a clarinet glissando—or “smear” in jazz lingo. Goodman played the premiere of the Concerto in 1950, a little over two years after Copland had begun writing it, in a radio broadcast with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Copland, who was pleased to write for Goodman and admitted he never would have thought of writing a clarinet concerto had it not been for the commission, did not consult with Goodman during the work’s composition. In the end, Goodman made some adjustments to the score, changing certain passages to make them slightly easier to play.