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Adagio from Quintet in E Flat Major Op.23,`The Wagner Adagio'

Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847)

Adagio from Quintet in E Flat Major Op.23 - formerly Attrib. Wagner

One of the minor mysteries of music was the identity of the real composer of the so-called Wagner Adagio for clarinet and string orchestra. The mystery persisted until the l960's, when it was finally established that it came from the Quintet for Clarinet and strings in E Flat Major Op.23 by Heinrich Baermann.

Born in l784, Baermann first studied the oboe, and eventually became bandmaster of the Prussian Life Guards in his home city of Potsdam. But the most remarkable side of his musical talent emerged after he switched to the clarinet. Captured at the Battle of Jena by the French, he managed to escape and make his way to Munich, which would remain his home base until his death in l847.

In Munich, Heinrich soon found employment in the court orchestra as a clarinetist. His flawless technique, combined with his sound, which reputedly was a combination of brilliance and velvet smoothness, soon made him the most widely admired clarinet player in Germany.

He was also gifted with high intelligence and a genial personality. He became friends with many composers, including Brahms, Mendelssohn, and particularly, Weber, who wrote two concertos and the popular Concertino for him. In l8ll and l8l2, Weber and Baermann went on an extended tour of Austria and Germany; and in Berlin, it was generally acknowledged that Baermann's performances of the new concertos helped to establish Weber as a serious composer.

Baermann later went on to appear at every major capital of Europe, and was everywhere received with phenomenal acclaim. In l8l9, he gave six months of concerts in England, where he also introduced some of his own compositions. One English critic wrote, "...in the hands of Baermann, the clarinet is brought under complete subjection."

Heinrich Baermann wrote concertos, sonatas, fantasias on popular operas of the day, and numerous chamber works featuring the clarinet. The Adagio comes from his third quintet for clarinet and strings, and was written in l82l. At that time, Wagner was an eight-year-old schoolboy who had not shown any particular talent for music, and who wouldn't write his first serious piece of music for another ten years.

No-one has yet discovered why this brief, gentle adagio was published under Wagner's name for so long. Perhaps, because of its beauty, the Adagio was extracted and played on its own. Possibly someone from the publishing firm of Breitkopf and Härtel mistook the flowing harmony of the introduction as the work of a young Wagner. But all this is speculation.

Incidentally, if we stretch things a bit, there is a small connection between Baermann and Wagner: as we mentioned before, Heinrich Baermann was instrumental in establishing his friend Weber as a well-known composer.

And who was it that paid regular visits to the Dresden Kreuzschule and who helped ignite a burning passion for music in the young Richard Wagner? Indeed, it was Carl Maria von Weber.

ŠAndrew Michael Simon


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