How the “King of Swing” Became my Pilot Study for Commissioning Classical Music

Some years ago, when I more often played the clarinet myself, I put Aaron Copland’s clarinet concerto on my music stand. “For Benny Goodman,” it read on the top of the first page. What hasn’t really attracted my attention before, now distracted me from practicing the challenging cadenza: When, how, why was this piece created? I started reading and researching, and soon learned that Goodman commissioned Copland to write a concerto for him in 1947/48 for 2,000 US dollars.

But what further stories can be told – about Goodman’s motivations, his relation with classical music, the collaboration with the composer?

Photo of composer Aaron Copland from a 1962 television special (retrieved from Wikimedia Commons)
Benny Goodman in rehearsal with the New York City Symphony Orchestra 1946 (William P. Gottlieb, public domain, retrieved from the Library of Congress)

Listen here to the first performance of Copland’s clarinet concerto in 1950 (radio première on WNBC, with Goodman and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner).

In the late 1930s, clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman (1909–86) represented the epitome of swing music and the American entertainment industry. Around the same time, he also added classical repertoire to his performance and recording portfolio. At the suggestion of his producer at Columbia Records, John Hammond, Goodman played Mozart’s Quintet in A major for Clarinet and Strings for the very first time at a private gathering at Hammond’s house in 1935. Three years later, he recorded this piece. Since then, he also constantly took lessons with teachers to work on his skills in the classical genre.

Contemporary pieces attracted Goodman’s interest as well, and he became known for his interpretations, for instance, of Nielson’s clarinet concerto or Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto. The general lack of modern soloist repertoire for the clarinet, however, is one reason why Goodman also engaged in hiring composers – and almost only established ones! – to write for him and his instrument. This idea emerged during the late 1930s, probably due to Goodman’s aquaintance with the violinist Joseph Szigeti, whom Goodman held in the highest esteem as a respected authority in the classical genre. It was Szigeti’s friend Béla Bartók who was granted the first commission: Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano.

Next Goodman addressed Paul Hindemtih and Darius Milhaud with commissions for concertos for clarinet and orchestra. Those projects were mediated by a certain Eric Simon, a Viennese-born clarinetist and conductor who fled the Nazi regime in 1938 and who, along with multiple other activities in the New York music scene, became Goodman’s teacher in classical clarinet technique in 1940. While Milhaud delivered a clarinet concerto together with a clarinet arrangement of his piano piece Scaramouche in 1941, the project with Hindemith was postponed until after the war. Eventually, a remarkable number of “classical” collaborations (in the broadest sense) can be counted to Goodman’s list:

  • Béla Bartók, Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano (1938-40)
  • Darius Milhaud, Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, op. 230 (1941)
  • Benjamin Britten, Concerto for Clarinet (1941/42; not completed; only sketches for a first movement)
  • Alex North, Revue for Clarinet and Orchestra [1946]
  • Henry Brant, Concerto for Clarinet and Full Dance Orchestra (1946)
  • Paul Hindemith, Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (1947)
  • Aaron Copland, Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (1947/48)
  • Ingolf Dahl, Double Concerto (c. 1950?; not completed; joint commission with Reginald Kell)
  • Morton Gould, Derivations for Clarinet and Band (1955/56)
  • Malcolm Arnold, Clarinet Concerto no. 2, op. 115 (1974)
  • Gordon Jenkins, Clarinet Concerto (1977)
  • William Walton, The Grand Goodman Style (1982?; outcome unknown)
  • Alan Shawn, Concerto for Clarinet, Cello, and Orchestra (1983)

As mentioned above, on Goodman’s side, a general interest in the promotion of a new clarinet repertoire is crucial, but also a certain sense for business. The second manifests in the fact that Goodman almost exclusively approached established, well-known composers and demanded clear contractual agreements from them. From the composers’ perspective, as becomes clear in the negotiations with Milhaud and Hindemith, commissions by a famous performer such as Goodman were not only considered a welcome economic income but more importantly, a promotion of their work’s distribution and further perception.

However, the exchange and direct cooperation between Goodman and the composers were reduced to a minimum. After signing the contract, the next interaction usually was the composer sending the final manuscript, which Goodman sometimes annotated and commented on. He hardly made any concrete suggestions to the composers, nor did he ask them to follow a specific model. They were absolutely free in how to realize the commission as long as they delivered the result within the set time frame. With regard to Goodman’s specific performance background and stylistic characteristics, compositional references manifest not so much in the inclusion of jazz or swing elements, but rather in extremely high technical demands from the performer, such as in Contrasts by Bartók, who had studied recordings by Goodman and discussed with Szigeti the feasible technical level. Such technical challenges generally characterize the compositions made for Goodman and might have to be counted among the reasons why only a few of them continued to be performed regularly by other artists.

Clarinet cadenza, Contrasts: I. Verbunkos

Listen here to the 1940 recording of Contrasts with Goodman, Szigeti, and Bartók.

The broader perception of the “King of Swing” as a classical performer appears quite ambiguous. His status as an icon of the American music industry (regardless of the genre) was never questioned, while diverse flaws in his actual performances of the classical repertoire, such as stiff interpretations or the questionable shift to a double-lip embouchure after his lessons with Kell, were indeed criticized. However, Goodman’s activities as commissioner undeniably enriched the repertoire for solo clarinet in the twentieth century. Some of the pieces have entered the regular stage and recording repertoire, such as Copland’s concerto and Bartók’s Contrasts. Others, such as the ones by Milhaud and Hindemith, still await rediscovering by performers.

Scholars haven’t yet paid much attention to this section of Goodman’s career, but for a brief overview I can recommend Maureen Hurd’s two-part article “Benny Goodman – The Classical Clarinetist” in the magazin The Clarinet (34 [2007] & 35 [2008]) as well as the unpublished D.M.A. thesis by John A. Snavely: Benny Goodmanʼs Commissioning of New Works and their Significance for Twentieth-Century Clarinetists (University of Arizona, 1991). Some foundational work on Contrasts has been done by Vera Lampert: “Benny Goodman and Bartók’s Contrasts: An Extraordinary Collaboration,” The Musical Quarterly 101/1 (2018), 6-34). My research about Goodman essentially bases on the Benny Goodman Papers, preserved in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University, where I spent some productive time during my postdoc residency in the US – read more about this in an upcoming post!


And now, enjoy Goodman’s legendary version of Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing,” live at Carnegie Hall 1938, featuring Gene Krupa’s iconic drum parts!


Cite this article as: Elisabeth Reisinger, "How the “King of Swing” Became my Pilot Study for Commissioning Classical Music," in Performers as Patrons of New Music, 01/09/2020, https://ppnm.hypotheses.org/64.

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