A Collaborative History of the Clarinet: Spohr / Hermstedt

In 1808, Duke Günther Friedrich Karl I of Sondershausen commissioned a concerto for the director of his wind band, Johann Simon Hermstedt (1778-1846), to be written by Louis Spohr (1784-1859). He wrote of his reaction to the commission, and of his admiration for Hermstedt’s playing, in his Autobiography:

‘To this proposal I gladly assented, as from the immense execution, together with the brilliancy of tone, and purity of intonation possessed by Hermstedt, I felt at full liberty to give the reins to my fancy. After, that with Hermstedt’s assistance I had made myself somewhat acquainted with the technics of the instrument, I went zealously to work, and completed it in a few weeks. Thus originated the Concerto in E-minor, published a few years afterwards by Kühnel as the op. 26, with which Hermstedt achieved so much success in his artistic tours, that it may be afrmed he is chiefy indebted to that for his fame.’ (Spohr 1865/1969; 124)


Weston, in her 2002 work, Clarinet Virtuosi of the Past, explains that while Spohr believed that it was the success of the clarinet concertos that made Hermstedt famous, in all likelihood, the Duke of Sondershausen, Hermstedt’s patron, would have commissioned works from an equally well-respected composer, ‘…for he fully appreciated the man in his midst.’ (77)

Before writing the concerto, Spohr visited Sondershausen, where Hermstedt invited him to hear the wind band that the clarinettist of which he was director. Impressed, Spohr invited them to participate in a concert that he was giving the following day. Hermstedt performed as clarinettist in Mozart’s Quintet to a numerous and ‘spellbound’ audience. ‘The success of this concert helped to cement the friendship between the two musicians and they worked amicably together on Spohr’s concerto.’ (Weston 2002; 82)

The concerto Spohr wrote was exceedingly difcult and while this was not unusual for his work in general, it required a technical facility not previously asked for in the repertoire for clarinet; he asks for extreme control of dynamic, and the excecution of chromatic scales, large leaps and arpeggios (Rice 2003; 168). What is particularly relevant to their collaboration is the way he praises Hermstedt in the preface to the 1810 edition of the Concerto. He writes that initially, he had taken too little consideration of the functionality of the instrument. He confesses that his only knowledge of the clarinet was its range. The result was such that he wrote passages that might have seemed impossible to the clarinettist of the time. ‘…However, Mr. Hermstedt, far from asking me to alter these passages, sought rather to perfect his instrument and by constant application soon arrived at such mastery that his clarinet produced no more jarring, mufed or uncertain notes.’ (qtd Rice 2003; 168)

Rather than asking Spohr to change difcult passages, Hermstedt instead was determined to push the possibility of the instrument and his own playing. It was his attitude toward these challenges that made their collaboration as successful as it was, and no doubt what led Spohr to choose repeatedly to work with Hermstedt.

The relationship between Spohr and Hermstedt was one founded on a deep friendship and they had a lasting commitment to each other; Hermstedt was still playing Spohr’s music more than twenty years after the first concerto was written (Weston 2002). His fourth and final clarinet concerto was written in 1828, making abundantly clear their long and productive collaboration.


Rice, A. (2003) The Clarinet in the Classical Period. OUP USA

Spohr, L. (1969) Autobiography. New York: Da Capo Press

Weston, Pamela. (2002) Clarinet Virtuosi of the Past. UK: Emerson Edition

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