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The Clarinet Curse: Composers Who Died After Writing for the Clarinet

Updated September 7, 2021

If you’re thinking about composing a piece for clarinet, you might want to consider choosing another instrument. Here are some famous composers whose final pieces or last substantial works were written for clarinet. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Perhaps the most famous piece in our repertoire, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622 was written in October 1791. Mozart died two months later.
  • Carl Nielsen – Nielsen wanted to compose a concerto for every wind instrument, so he started with flute then created his devilishly difficult clarinet concerto in 1928…and that was as far as he got before his death in 1931.
  • Francis Poulenc – Poulenc’s beloved clarinet sonata was composed in 1962, and the manuscript was found among Poulenc’s papers after he died suddenly of a heart attack in January 1963.
  • Johannes Brahms – Brahms originally intended to retire from composition in 1890, but after hearing clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, he composed his Clarinet Trio, Op. 114 and Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115 in 1891 and later his two clarinet sonatas (Opus 120)  in 1894. After writing his Op. 121 and Op. 122, Brahms died in 1897.
  • Franz Schubert – A prodigious composer, Schubert created numerous works during his short life. His Shepherd on the Rock for clarinet, soprano, and piano was composed months before his death in 1828.
  • Camille Saint-Saëns – Like Poulenc, Saint-Saëns composed his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 167 in 1921 before dying suddenly of a heart attack later the same year.
  • Max Reger – Reger nearly beat the curse – he wrote a couple of clarinet sonatas and incidental pieces, but ten days after submitting his clarinet quintet to the publisher, he died.
  • Alexander Zemlinsky – Zemslinsky graced us with his Trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, Op. 3 towards the beginning of his career. About four years before his death, Zemlinsky began writing a quartet for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello, but there are only 21 pages of manuscript containing rough sketches and incomplete sections.
It’s also rumoured that Tchaikovsky and Dvořák were working on clarinet quintets before their respective deaths in 1893 and 1904. The music is now lost or potentially destroyed. Although this curse appears to primarily affect composers, there have been some clarinetists who died shortly after writing books or other pieces for the clarinet:
  • German clarinetist and scholar Oskar Kroll wrote his book Die Klarinette – ihre Geschichte, ihre Literatur, ihre grossen Meister, which was intended for publication in 1944. According to the book’s preface written in 1965 by Oskar’s wife Ilse, “The intention of Bärenreiter-Verlag to publish this book in the winter of 1944 was frustrated by events during the last months of the war and the sever damage suffered by the firm. My husband did not return from the war.” Kroll’s book was published in 1965 with additions made by Diethard Riehm.
  • English clarinetist Frederick Thurston (1901-1953) died before completing his book Clarinet Technique, and it was completed and published posthumously by his wife Thea King.
Beware the clarinet curse!  

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