By Martin Harlow

Modern clarinet players owe a debt of gratitude to Iwan Müller (1786–1854), whose developments to the clarinet in the early nineteenth century served to shape many of the features found in the instrument that is used today. A native of Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia), by 1807 Müller had left a court position in St. Petersburg and commenced restless travel: through Austria and Germany to Paris by 1811, and then to London, where he stayed between 1815 and 1820. In all places he sought to promote himself as a clarinettist and to develop the mechanism and function of his instrument. Müller added seven new keys to the “classical” clarinet to eliminate cross-fingered pitches that lacked resonance and had problematic intonation. He invented stuffed pads that covered counter-sunk tone holes, enabling better sealing and more reliable production. He developed the metal ligature and experimented with new reeds, thinner and more tapered. His work transformed the classical clarinet. Although other early nineteenth-century instrumentalists and wind makers worked, often in collaboration, to improve the clarinet, Müller’s contributions were distinctive and innovative and have been particularly long-lived.

Müller had come from Paris to Vienna by April 1809, performing in a self-promoted concert in the small Redoutensaal on a basset horn that he had developed with the Dresden maker Heinrich Grenser. Napoleon’s clashes with the Austrians led to the invasion of Vienna in the following month. The court abandoned Vienna on 4 May 1809 (famously resulting in Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” sonata), and the city fell to Napoleon’s troops on 13 May 1809. Subsequent Austrian defeats led to the signing of the Treaty of Schönbrunn, on 14 October, precipitating a peace of sorts. It is bizarrely opportune that Müller’s stay in Vienna was coincident with Napoleon’s siege and invasion. With little option other than to remain in the city, he sought out a fine wind instrument maker to work on developments to his clarinet: the highly regarded but little-known Johann Baptist Merklein (1761–1847). On 22 October 1809, barely a week after the signing of the Treaty of Schönbrunn, Müller gave a concert in the Saale zum römischen Kaiser, in which he premiered a new concerto by Philipp Jakob Riotte (1776–1856), written expressly for a clarinet of his and Merklein’s design. This was Riotte’s Clarinet Concerto in C minor, op. 36, the first-known work for Müller’s thirteen-keyed instrument.

When researching Viennese clarinet music in the 1990s, it was with some dismay that I read in Gernot Spengler’s 1972 study of Riotte—a published doctoral dissertation—that Riotte’s op. 36 was reported as “verschollen.” Fortunately, however, some diligent (pre-internet!) archive hunting traced a source for the first edition to Modena, thus enabling the recent publication of this important work in A-R’s Recent Researches in the Music of the Classical Era series.

Riotte was associated with the clarinet and clarinettists from early in his composing and performing career. In his debut concert in Frankfurt in 1804, he played one of his own piano concertos, and Johann Georg Gottfried Hoffmann (1781–1814), clarinettist in the Nationaltheater orchestra in Frankfurt, performed a new Riotte concerto. After working in Gotha, Danzig, and Magdeburg, and at the Erfurt Congress in 1808, where he directed the French opera, Riotte moved to Vienna. He lived and worked there for the rest of his life.

The composer Adalbert Gyrowetz, who held a kapellmeister position at the court theater, provided a footnote in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (AmZ) to a review of the October 1809 concert. He championed the new Müller-Merklein clarinet for its ability to play without the pièces de rechange, the inserted sections of a clarinet of different lengths that permitted the same instrument to perform in different keys (C, B-flat, A, etc.). With the new instrument, Gyrowetz felt it would be possible to use a single instrument for performance in all tonalities. The implications of this development were huge, in that it gave scope to compose a single piece in a range of tonalities that the classical clarinet could not have previously accessed. Müller, later touting this instrument to the Paris Conservatoire in 1812, would call this the clarinette omnitonique.

Müller stayed over in Vienna in the winter of 1809–10, leaving the city for Dresden in spring 1810, after a last concert on 1 April 1810 in which he once again performed Riotte’s op. 36 concerto. In July 1810 he travelled on to Munich, where he gave a concert in which he performed his own first concerto, in D minor. This work was published by Nikolaus Simrock in Bonn, around 1811. It was probably Müller’s first piece of published music.

A fascinating letter from Riotte to Simrock, dated 1 October 1816, describes two clarinet concertos already published by Simrock’s house. One was Riotte’s Clarinet Concerto in B-Flat, op. 26, dedicated to Hoffmann, who had probably first performed it in 1804, and the other was Müller’s first concerto. Riotte describes the Müller concerto as being “wholly mine,” suggesting that Müller provided only “the idea for passages in the first part of the first Allegro.” Riotte further states that it was Hoffmann who offered Simrock Riotte’s op. 26, “for which he never gave me [Riotte] a kreuzer.” The letter offered Simrock two more concertos, one of which was clearly his Riotte’s op. 36; it would be published in 1818.

A lengthy review of Simrock’s edition of op. 36 appeared in the AmZ soon after, in which the reviewer urged “distinguished masters of the instrument” Simon Hermstedt, Bernhard Crusell, Joseph Friedlowsky, and Heinrich Baermann to speak out and endorse the Müller clarinet used in the concerto. The piece was taken up by these important clarinettists: Baermann had performed the concerto first in 1813, before its publication, and Friedlowsky, a clarinettist with close connections to Beethoven, performed it in 1817.

Close comparison of op. 36 and Müller’s first concerto certainly reveal some striking similarities in terms of structure, duration, musical idiom, and technique. Müller’s instrument, combined with his own technical facility, clearly opened the possibility for a greater range of expression, aptly described in the AmZ: “many things which were very hard to achieve on the earlier instruments become easy on this one, and that many things can be attained with this one which previously could not be attained at all.”

While modern clarinettists are well acquainted with the concertos of Spohr, Weber, and Crusell, Riotte’s name is hardly familiar. The prospect of the 1809–10 collaboration between Riotte, Müller, and Merklein, in a Vienna under the control of Napoleon’s forces, fashioning new expressive and technical possibilities for the clarinet in the concerto genre, is both tantalizing and important. Though no Müller-Merklein instrument survives, Riotte’s op. 36, and Müller’s first concerto—likely a collaborative compositional project, muddying the concept of “authorship”—offer a new perspective on the clarinet’s development at a seminal point in its history.

Martin HarlowMartin Harlow is a musicologist specialising in classical wind repertories and historical performance practice. His initial interest in wind music came from his professional performance career as a clarinettist, when he was active both as a chamber musician and orchestral player. He has worked with many of the UK’s leading orchestras and ensembles. His edited volume of essays Mozart’s Chamber Music with Keyboard was published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press. Articles have appeared in scholarly journals, including the Musical Times, Acta Mozartiana, and the Galpin Society Journal. Editions have been made for various publishers, including Bärenreiter, Ut Orpheus Edizioni and A-R Editions. He is currently editing the seven violin sonatas of Anton Eberl for Edition HH. He is Vice Principal (Academic) at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, UK.