Goddess of the clarinet: Sabine Meyer

Sabine Meyer talks about making a background instrument centre stage

Goddess of the clarinet Sabine Meyer talks to Time Out Shanghai about her life, her career, and making a background instrument centre stage


Some instruments are born to solo status, others have solo status thrust upon them. Big Band musicians may see clarinets as staples, but in orchestras they languish behind the conductor, knocking elbows with the oboe and making stars out of the strings. However under Sabine Meyer, a new solo instrument was born. This month, the first lady of clarinet comes to Shanghai.


Born in Crailsheim, Germany, a four-year-old Meyer started playing piano and organ in the village church, but at eight, her clarinettist father decided she should diversify. ‘I kept playing all the instruments, but it became clear that I had more talent and also more fun playing the clarinet,’ she recalls. ‘Between me and the clarinet, it was love at first sight.’


Along with her brother Wolfgang and her now-husband Reiner Wehle, she started studying at Hannover’s prestigious Hochschule für Musik und Theater; she then made international headlines when conductor and music director Herbert von Karajan defied the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s unofficial ‘no oestrogen’ policy by bringing her on board.


The members eventually voted against giving her permanent status; they blamed her tone, von Karajan and other observers cited her gender (Meyer refused to comment). Nevertheless, the best revenge is a brilliant solo career. Meyer has collaborated with over 80 orchestras in Germany alone, as well as a Who’s Who of international ensembles; she has raked in awards, churned out quality CDs and changed the instrument forever.


As for her role as clarinet saviour, she demurs. ‘It wasn’t my purpose to [reclaim] the instrument, it [was] about making good, honest and serious music,’ she says. ‘I played nice programmes and tried to develop new things both in solo concerts and chamber music.’ In 1983, she formed the Trio di Clarone with her brother and husband. ‘It is a wonderful thing to play with other musicians, to work and discuss music with them,’ she says. ‘Working with my husband and brother is special; we know each other well and value each other as people and as musicians,’ she continues. ‘We do not need much time rehearsing as we often sense what the other is thinking without talking about it.’


The couple also developed a popular training programme designed to go beyond fancy fingering. ‘We also train breath control, sound shaping, articulation and intonation,’ she explains. ‘[We want] students to develop a body-conscious, cantabile (like singing) playing.’ Her husband’s book Clarinet Fundamentals (Schott, 2005) is also available in Chinese.


For her part, Meyer concentrates her creativity in programming. Her Homage to Benny Goodman (EMI, 1999) is half classical, half jazz. 

‘Every clarinettist worships [Goodman] as an excellent musician and personality,’ she says. ‘We thank him for commissioning and inspiring Bartok, Hindemith and Copland to write for the clarinet.’


However, she insists she is not imitating anyone. ‘I am a classical musician and I don’t see myself as a jazz musician at all,’ she says. ‘Benny Goodman was a jazz musician on the first hand, but always had this desire for classical music. The idea of this CD was to draw a connection between classical and jazz.’


Her Shanghai programme is classical but not mainstream, being devoted entirely to Carl Maria von Weber. A German composer, conductor, pianist, guitarist and critic whose short life spanned from 1786 to 1826, Weber is best known for Der Freischutz, arguably the country’s first nationalist opera. Weber also influenced other composers and broke new ground himself; in composing incidental music for Gozzi’s Turandot, he was the first Western composer to utilise a genuine Asian melody. A brilliant pianist, it seems he was no slouch when it came to the liquorice stick.


‘Weber’s clarinet concerto is one of the most beautiful and important works of clarinet literature,’ says Meyer. ‘It was deeply affected by Weber’s friendship with the German clarinettist Heinrich Joseph Baermann. Weber had a good knowledge of the instrument,’ she continues. ‘He lets it shine and sparkle in all its facets.’ Better than anyone, Meyer would know.


Sabine Meyer is at Shanghai Concert Hall on Friday 15 March