Karl Henning plays his extended solo clarinet piece, "Thpreau in Concord Jail." (image from video still)

An EarRelevant Interlude, #2: Thoreau in Concord Jail

Mark Gresham | 27 MAY 2020

Number 2 in a series of audio and video presentations curated by by EarRelevant’s publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham as part of his “Composer’s Notebook.” Several of our writers are also composers, and in this preocess we’d like to introduce you to some of their music during this time in which we are absent live concerts.

Karl Henning: Thorerau in Concord Jail, Op. 109

Clarinetist and composer Karl Henning performs his “Thoreau in Concord Jail,” an extended work for unaccompanied clarinet on April 19, 2018 for video in the Parish Hall of Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church in Danvers, Massachusetts.

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Of all the music of Boston-based composer/clarinetist Karl Henning, I thought it most appropriate to present, in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, his Thoreau in Concord Jail, the longest of his several remarkably extended works for unaccompanied clarinet.

Originally intended to be about 25 minutes duration, performances have ranged between 20 minutes to almost a half hour, in which the composer allows himself to relax as performer and let the piece pace itself. The sense of physical isolation and the patient, contemplative spirit of the work not only reflect the image invoked by the title, but also speaks well to the experience of sheltering at home and its physical limitations.

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Two earlier performances by Henning of his Thoreau also appear on YouTube, both from live performances: The first was the audio from the world premiere by the composer at King’s Chapel in Boston on March 12, 2013. The second, also performed by the composer, was part of The 9th Ear at the Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church in Somerville, Massachusetts on June 6, 2014.

Henning made his first Atlanta appearance as a composer/clarinetist
on November 17, 2009 in a concert with flutist Nicole Randall-Chamberlain at Emory Presbyterian Church. He performed Thoreau in Concord Jail in Atlanta for the first time on November 12, 2014 at Eyedrum.


Seven months after the 2018 YouTube recording, Henning suffered a stroke which left him unable to play clarinet. He has been on a long nut positive road to recovery ever since. Henning has been writing CD reviews for EarRelevant since April 2029.

Henning offers the following program notes for the piece:

Refusing to pay his poll taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and to slavery, Thoreau spent a night in Concord Jail. As Thoreau played the flute (I know not how well), I felt that the perfect scoring for a piece reflecting on his experience that night, would be a single unaccompanied wind instrument.

What I thought (and I understand that Thoreau was of a somewhat irascible character, so I realize that I engage in some emotional poetic license) was, here is a chap imprisoned out of principle, so he is there because he has reason, in which he is firm.  In a sense, a man comfortable in his own skin, so that although his body is confined, his soul is free, and he declines to regard the cell as a “punishment,” and this spiritual liberty is indeed a victory over his captors.

I conceived of my piece as an exhalation from that plane of the unfettered spirit.

I composed most of the piece on my way to and from work on the MBTA Commuter Rail.  Part of the discipline in composing this piece, was to resist the tendency to be too lavish with ideas . . . instead, to find ways to “reduce, re-use, recycle” a contained repertory of ideas.

Playing this piece is perhaps a way in which I practice Zen.  I enjoy the devotion to the half-hour, the experience, the activity of playing, listening to the clarinet’s tone.