Getting to Know Clarinetist Colin Lawson

This November’s Mozart and Beethoven Quintet concert brings us a great opportunity to invite four world-class performers to join us. We’ll be featuring them here over the next several weeks leading up to the concert so you have a chance to get to know them before hearing them perform!

If you don’t have your tickets yet, you can find them on our website:

Mozart & Beethoven Quintets

This week, we’d like to introduce you to historical clarinet expert Colin Lawson.

Colin Lawson is Director of the Royal College of Music, London. He has an international profile as a period clarinetist and has played principal clarinet in most of Britain’s leading period orchestras. Described as ‘a brilliant, absolutely world-class player’ (Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung) and ‘the doyen of period clarinetists’ (BBC Music Magazine), he has appeared as soloist in many international venues, including London’s major concert halls and New York’s Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. His discography comprises concertos by Fasch, Hook, Mahon, Mozart, Spohr, Telemann, Vivaldi and Weber, as well as a considerable variety of chamber music.    

In addition to his performing, Colin has published widely on performance practice and the history of the clarinet, especially for Cambridge University Press. He is co-editor of a series of Cambridge Handbooks to the Historical Performance of Music, for which he co-authored an introductory volume and written a book on the early clarinet. He is also editor of the Cambridge Companion to the Orchestra (2003) and co-editor of the Cambridge History of Musical Performance (2012) and Cambridge Encyclopedia of Historical Performance in Music (2018). 

Colin was kind enough to take some time share a bit more information about himself, his path to where he is today, and his thoughts on the Mozart and Beethoven pieces that make the centerpiece of this concert.

How did you end up specializing in early music instead of something else?  Was there a person or a particular piece that set you on this path?

I played clarinet in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain as a teenager, then studied music at Oxford.  The Bate Collection of Early Instruments came to Oxford while I was an undergraduate and I developed an academic interest in the early clarinet.  I wrote a master’s thesis on the eighteenth-century clarinet and a PhD thesis on its close cousin, the chalumeau.  While undertaking the research it seemed an obvious idea to find out first-hand what the old instruments actually sounded like.  I’ve always been interested in the interaction of theory and practice.

What do you think is the best thing about your instrument?

As many early commentators observed, the clarinet comes close to emulating the human voice.  Of all the wind instruments, it inspired a large number of leading composers such as Mozart, Weber and Brahms to write concertos and chamber music, a tradition that continues to this day.

What do you think is the most challenging thing about your instrument?

Playing in tune is always a challenge for clarinetists.  Indeed, the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music (1879) remarked that in this respect it was the most difficult of all the orchestral instruments.   It takes a great deal of work to discover the character of each individual clarinet.  I have a collection of about 40.   Finding a responsive reed is always a challenge.

Have you played the Mozart or Beethoven quintets before?

I undertook a UK tour some years ago with the late Christopher Kite (fortepiano); since when I have given occasional performances on both modern and period instruments.

What are you most looking forward to in these performances?

These are great pieces and there’s always plenty to learn more about them, especially when playing with new colleagues.   I’m hoping that we can move beyond the notes and produce a really special result.  I love the particular blend of period instruments.   It’s good to immerse oneself in the historical evidence and then apply one’s own musical personality in the language of the time.   I like the definition of early music by the celebrated British clarinet collector Sir Nicholas Shackleton, who suggested that the enterprise was essentially  ‘in order to gain a better feeling for what classical music actually sounded like when it was first heard in favorable circumstances.’

How would you describe either of these pieces to someone hearing them for the first time?

Mozart regarded his Piano Quintet as his finest work to date.  He achieved a wonderful conversation piece for the five instruments, with the oboe taking a lead within the wind ensemble.   The quality of invention is of course always at a very high level.   Beethoven was heavily influenced by Mozart and produced a less mature but highly engaging work.  The dialogue here is to a greater extent between wind ensemble (generally led by the clarinet) and fortepiano.

What should people listen for?

On each of the period instruments the basic chromatic scale produces a kaleidoscope of tonal colors.  The stopped notes on the horn are matched by the cross-fingerings of the woodwinds.  There are constant and subtle shadings to listen out for – and the inner parts within the overall ensemble make a greater impression than with modern instruments.

What do you think it is about these composers that still speaks to modern audiences so strongly?

Mozart is an ideal antidote to our troubled times, reflecting a whole range of human emotions.  Indeed, his instrumental music is often closely related to the operatic stage.   His music speaks to the heart.   Beethoven was a revolutionary, his achievements truly awesome.   In different ways their music still sounds as fresh as when it was conceived.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Colin!  We’re looking forward to seeing you soon!

Mozart & Beethoven Quintets