The Case of the Vanishing Wagner

August 31, 2017

Once upon a time there were 3 Baermanns – no, not bears - Baermanns. If it’s any consolation, the name literally means “bear man.”  Anyway, Papa Baermann was named Heinrich. He, his son Carl and his grandson Carl were musicians. There are no chairs, beds, porridge or anyone named Goldilocks in this story. There is a reference to a “wolf” of sorts, even though a wolf is not a part of the story you probably have in mind.

Clarinetists and music written for the clarinet are a part of this story. Indeed, this isn’t the bedtime story you heard as a child, though if you grew up in a family in which somebody played the clarinet, you might have heard it. Even at that, you probably wouldn’t have heard it at bedtime.

Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847), whose name you’ll sometimes see listed as Bärmann, was a virtuoso clarinetist. He played the oboe as a child, but learned the clarinet while serving in the Prussian military. He was in great demand as a performer in his time. Though he wrote music too, composers including Carl Maria von Weber and Felix Mendelssohn wrote works for Baermann that have lived happily ever after in the repertoire of clarinetists.

Now before you decide that this isn’t a memorable story, know that I haven’t gotten to the end just yet. Heinrich Baermann died in 1847. By then it still was too early for him to be justified in grumbling like a Baermann and uttering the line: “Someone’s been ripping off one of my compositions!”  But in 1926, the slow movement – the “adagio” – from one of Baermann’s quintets for clarinet, 2 violins, viola and cello (which had appeared in print in 1821) was published as a separate work: an adagio for clarinet and strings. The publisher indicated that the music was written in 1833 by Richard Wagner, who would have been 20 years old at the time.

According to the Swiss clarinetist and music historian Harald Strebel, Richard Wagner had presented the adagio to either Christian Rummel, a clarinetist and contemporary of Baermann, or to Rummel’s son back in 1833. Christian Rummel played in the orchestra in Würzburg, where the young Wagner was serving as opera rehearsal director and working on one of his own early stage works. Apparently, it was that version of the adagio, discovered in a Würzburg library in 1922, which was published in 1926.

I understand that the publisher of the adagio was the same one that had published Baermann’s quintet just over a century before, yet didn’t notice the deception. It wasn’t until 1964 that it was determined the “Wagner adagio” was Baermann’s adagio, note for note.

There are recordings out there with Wagner’s name still attached to the piece. We have one of them in the Friends of WILL Library. It features the late English clarinettist Jack Brymer with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by Felix Prohaska (Vanguard 8090).

For a long time, I wasn’t aware of the story behind the adagio and presented it as a work by Wagner.  It was the only recording we had of the work, with no indication that Heinrich Baermann had anything to do with it. The recording was made in 1966, a couple of years after the discovery of the actual composer, and re-issued as a CD in 1995, still with no mention of Baermann. It seems those connected with the recording didn’t get the news for quite a while either.  I have noticed in the past few years that the recording has been re-issued with the correct attribution.  And Wagner’s name has faded from the adagio, even though it may have helped to bring attention to it.

As soon as I learned that Baermann was the composer of the adagio, I began to present it as such, with or without the story.  But there was a happy ending I never could present along with the story, namely the adagio in its original context. I wanted to play it as an excerpt from Baermann’s clarinet quintet. We never had a recording of the quintet.  We have one now.

A new recording includes 3 clarinet quintets by Heinrich Baermann, including the one with the famous adagio. As it turns out, Baermann also provided the option of adding 2 horns to a performance of the work, though it’s played as a quintet on the CD. On Classic Mornings, I played not only the adagio from the Quintet in E flat major, op. 23, but the lively finale as well, which is a lot of fun.

There’s another bit of fun associated with the new recording. We’re introduced to clarinetist Rita Karin Meier from Switzerland, joined by the Belenus Quartet (MDG 903 1988).  Rita Karin Meier obviously is no relation to the famous clarinet-playing Meyers from Germany, namely Sabine Meyer and her brother Wolfgang (he’s the “Wolf” I said was part of this story at the outset). Nor is she related to the French clarinetst Paul Meyer. Albrecht Mayer’s name came to mind too, though he’s an oboist from Germany.

From the 3 Baermanns to a handful of woodwind players, mostly clarinetists, from different places but with a similar sounding name. There’s probably a great children’s story in all of this. Already I can imagine little ones having a good time making their way through the mire of the various spellings.


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