Here at Concentus VII we branch out into the more obscure instruments of the Baroque from time to time. One of these is the chalumeau, basically a clarinet without its high register, which Louise plays for example when we do our Beyond the Court programme in a piece by Hasse for bassoon, viola da gamba, oboe, chalumeau and continuo.
Despite existing alongside its close relative the Baroque clarinet, and with a range of only a twelfth, the chalumeau moved in exalted circles. It was used at the Viennese court in the very lavish operas there and this has meant we have a repertoire of florid obbligati for the soprano instrument by composers such as J.J. Fux (1660-1741). There is even a chalumeau part in one of the versions of Gluck’s Orfeo (1762) and Vivaldi wrote a stunning obbligato for soprano chalumeau in his oratorio Juditha Triumphans (1716) which depicts a turtle dove. There are also many cantatas for trios of chalumeau (alto, tenor, bass) by Graupner and some rather beautiful suites for this combination too. One of the jewels in the repertoire is undoubtably Telemann’s Concerto for two chalumeau (alto and tenor) with its unbeatably pastoral affect. The eighteenth century writer Daniel Schubart wrote of the instrument that “its tone is so interesting, so individual and so endlessly pleasant that the whole world of music would suffer a grievous loss if the instrument ever fell into disuse.”1
For the 21st century Baroque fan the chalumeau is a very accessible instrument – it’s affordable, easy to transport and because it has minimal key work is capable of subtleties that are not always easy to produce on later clarinets.
1 D. Schubart, Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst [1784-5] (Vienna, 1806), p326 quoted in C. Lawson, The Early Clarinet, A Practical Guide (Cambridge, 2000), p. 11