Music Spotlight: Rhapsody by Willson Osborne

One of the great unaccompanied clarinet solos is Rhapsody by Willson Osborne. The difficulty is rated medium to medium difficult (grade 4-5), and is definitely approachable by a high school player. Osborne keeps the music very interesting and there is plenty of opportunity for expressive and technical playing.

The Rhapsody is very enjoyable to play and listen to. At only 4 1/2 minutes in length, it works well as a recital piece and it is a good audition piece as well. It is written for the B-flat clarinet.

I’m going to talk through the piece in detail, giving some advice on how to approach some of the tricky spots.  If you don’t already own this piece, you will have difficulty following what I am talking about in the analysis. Make sure you have your music handy for full understanding! If you don’t yet own a copy, you can click on the link below and purchase it.

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Rhapsody For Clarinet
Composed by Willson Osborne. For Bb clarinet (unaccompanied). 20th Century. Difficulty: medium to medium-difficult. Clarinet solo single. 4 pages. Duration 4.5 minutes. Edition Peters #EP6006. Published by Edition Peters (PE.P06006).

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Quick Overview

Appropriately marked “Rhapsodically” at the beginning, the opening tempo is marked “quarter note = 60.” The tempo changes multiple times throughout the music, ranging from the opening tempo at 60 to “quarter note = 100” at the least, since there is a stringendo near the end that allows the performer to take some liberty with the speed.

There is not a shortage of markings and instructions in the music, which give the player much direction in performing the piece. Osborne made it very clear what he wanted.

The style begins in a very subdued mood, rising and falling in intensity throughout. The piece is very moody, and it allows the player to showcase their best interpretation of the music through all the markings that seem to dictate exactly what to do.

The meter changes that occur somewhat frequently should not be a problem: they are nearly all quarter note meters, with the exception of a few 3/2 bars and a lone 16/8 bar. The feel rarely changes, as the quarter note is carrying the beat most of the time.

There is no key signature and the tonality shifts continually, resulting in numerous accidentals.

The range covers all of the chalumeau and clarion registers, just barely touching the altissimo, touching on a Db/C# a few times in the final A section.

Terminology

This is a list of the verbal instructions used in the Rhapsody with their translations and/or definitions. It is imperative that you know these terms in order to perform the piece with accuracy.

1. Rhapsodically: extravagantly emotional
2. sost.: short for sostentuto, which means in a sustained or connected manner.
3. incalzando: vehemently. Impetuous and violent. Forcefully and with emotion.
4. poco ritenuto: immediately a little (poco) slower
5. a tempo: the original tempo
(sometimes the exact tempo is marked next to this instruction, but not in every instance)
6. incalzando ed agitato: vehemently and agitated. (A double-dose of fury?)
7. poco slentando: become a little slower, more relaxed
8. movendo: moving
9. leggiero: light, swift, delicate
10. poco più mosso: a little more motion
11. cantabile: in a singing style
12. molto sostenuto e rubato: very sustained (full value notes) and somewhat free: this marking is slightly confusing because rubato means “to rob” from one note while giving its value to another whilst keeping tempo.
13. string.: abbreviation for stringendo, meaning to press forward, accelerate, quicken the tempo.
14. poco ten. (tenuto): a little more sustained than the usual note value
15. molto rubato: much liberty
16. poco slen. (slentando) see #7
17. poco rall. (rallentando): a little slowing
18. più rall. (rallentando): more slowing
19. con esitazione: with hesitation
20. come prima: return to the original tempo (indicated here by the tempo marking also)
21. con gran expressione: with grand or great expression
22. agitato e string. (stringendo): agitated and quickening
23. lento: very slow
24. fiero: fire or fury
25. patetico: moving, with feeling
26. più mosso: more motion
27. tranq. (tranquillo): tranquilly
28. retrospettivamente: retrospectively; reflecting back

Now that you’ve read through that list, it’s pretty clear that you need to make this music as emotional as possible. If you aren’t comfortable with expressive music, this may be how you can break out of your shell!

Structure and Form

Rhapsody is in ABA form, with the repeat of the A section highly elaborated and expanded. The A section opens with a clear statement that is only clearly repeated in measures 10-11, and is otherwise elaborated upon.

The B section begins with a pickup note in measure 19 and seems to be much more clear in its basis of melody and seems to have more direction and drive, though starting out rather song-like. The melody is clung to much more tightly in this section than in the A sections.

After a short 2 1/2 bar transition, the A section returns with a near-repeat of the very first phrase of the piece. The second phrase is varied drastically from the original version if itself, but it can be seen and heard if you really look (or listen) closely. Measure 13 is varied several times throughout this second A section, which I will point out more clearly in a deeper analysis.

Analysis

This piece can be difficult to understand for a young performer, but upon a deeper analysis, you should be able to understand the connections in the material. I have already touched on the basic form and melodic structure, and now I will dig in and discuss the music in depth and relate that to actually performing the music.

As mentioned in the terminology above, the Rhapsody should be played “rhapsodically,” or with much emotion.

Section A1

The first 4 1/2 measure phrase should be learned well before proceeding, as this phrase is the foundation for the A section. This phrase, which ends in the first 3/2 bar, should be kept in a relatively subdued mood, carefully keeping control of the dynamic range, so as to leave plenty of room for the more powerful moments to come. The second phrase should be more forceful, but again, not overdone, so as to save room for the climactic moments to come.

Measure 10 begins a repetition of the first phrase, transposed into the clarion register and at a faster tempo. Measure 13 should be learned well, as it will appear later on in the second A section. In fact, it is well elaborated upon in the measures that follow it immediately.

Look at the first part of the measure: (G) A Bb G. If you examine the runs in the following measure, you may notice that you see the A-Bb-G pattern happens in both runs (with a few extra notes and varied accidentals) in the antecedent phrase.

Also, be aware of the relationship of the first three notes in measure 13: G-A-Bb = whole tone-semitone. Now look at the third beat in measure 15: the G-A-Bb whole tone-semitone pattern from measure 13 is repeated in a descending line in retrograde rhythm.

Measure 13-14 are the climax of this first section. Be sure to build up to it and settle well at the end to set up for the B section.

Section B

The B section begins with a pickup note in measure 19. The song-like melody should be played with a sense of ease and never pressing. The first phrase is eight bars long, with the antecedent phrase ending in measure 24 on beat 2; a clear repetition of this sub-phrase occurs transposed in measure 29 (with a pickup in 28). The consequent phrase is also 4 bars long in the initial phrase, but is reduced to less than two measures in its return–it’s essentially an “de-elaborated” version of the phrase. I find this particularly interesting since this is usually done the other way around.

Through the more technical part of the section, the opening phrase can still be heard, most clearly in measure 35, where the opening statement is applied in variation. Even through the altered rhythms and change of intensity in the climax of the B section, this melody should be recognized and made aware of to the listener!

The B section winds down gradually, using repetition of a short fragment reminiscent of the melody before moving into a short two-measure bridge section that reflects back to the first phrase of the piece, easing us right back into the return of the A section.

Section A2

The return of the A section begins with an exact repetition of the first phrase of the piece and should be performed exactly the same, as it is marked identically. Phrase 2 is also the same as in the beginning, with the exception of the 5-note figure in measure 50. This figure should be played as marked: slowing and relaxed at the end of the phrase. (TIP: Try stretching the A-natural a bit.)

The third phrase begins as it did previously, but now syncopation with its rhythmic “conflict” gives more opportunity to be expressive, as indicated. The integrity of the phrase must not be lost here, however!

Don’t be distracted by the rhythm and ornaments in measure 58 and 60–the line is nothing more than an elaborated chromatic fragment (TIP: play it slowly without the grace notes). These two measures should be played fervently!

If measures 64 to the end seem vaguely familiar, it is because they are based on the idea presented in measure 13. If you examine the music carefully, you will see the G-Ab-Bb recurring multiple times in this last section, all the way to the last few notes of the work.

Technical Tips

Some of the technique can be a little on the challenging side in the Rhapsody, and it is important to mark fingerings in some places to be sure you solidify this technique. There are several places where you will need to use the forked F#, but there are other places where the forked fingering would be preferred, but the passage will simply not allow. These MUST be marked for maximum efficiency.

I strongly suggest marking your Right-Left pinky specifications in places where you may get tripped up with the technique. Whenever I have a third-space C preceding fourth space Eb, for example (this happens a number of times in this piece), I always mark “L” on the C.

Unfortunately, the numerous Gb to F occurrences are often forced to be executed with the “flippy finger” technique, as the forked fingering is impractical in so many places due to the other notes adjacent to the G-flats. Mark these “flippy finger” G-flats with a small circle above the G-flats, and the forked ones with some sort of symbol (“FK” or a mini fork) so you don’t have to rethink it every time it occurs. Spend time perfecting your “flippy finger” spots so you don’t get that extra note in between. It really just takes a lot of focus on the energy and precision of the finger movement–you cannot be lax at all in this unfortunate technique.

The stringendo passage in measure 61 (which is a false 4/4 bar!) should start very slowly and deliberately, then quickly accelerating to as fast as you can play the technique cleanly, then gradually settling back down. This should be one of the most intense moments in the piece.

In the 5-note figures that appear in measures 64 and 65, work to make the C# speak smoothly–avoid using the Eb/Ab speaker key (unless your intonation is very flat on this note), which will help the note sound less bright and is easier technically.

Making the 5-note figures rhythmically even is easier that you might think. Avoid playing as a pair and a triplet (2+3), and instead think this: 5-4-3-2-1. Work to play evenly, without accenting the 3rd or 4th notes.

Whatever you do, don’t let the technique in the music hinder you from creating beautiful music–instead look at the technique as a means to the expression. They work exceptionally well together to create both intense and calming moments.

Summary

Willson Osborne’s Rhapsody is an enjoyable study that is a wonderful introduction to unaccompanied clarinet solos. Take the time to study the terms so that you properly execute the music. Although it seems there is little left to interpret, you will find the moments in the music that you can make your own.

Osborne’s Rhapsody can become a beautiful expression of multiple emotions. Let yourself express these emotions freely!

Comments and questions are always welcome! Leave those below.

Now, go forth and practice with patience and perseverance!

Cover tiny file
look inside
Rhapsody For Clarinet
Composed by Willson Osborne. For Bb clarinet (unaccompanied). 20th Century. Difficulty: medium to medium-difficult. Clarinet solo single. 4 pages. Duration 4.5 minutes. Edition Peters #EP6006. Published by Edition Peters (PE.P06006).

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