Henri Joseph TOBI (1741-1809)

A forgotten virtuoso clarinettist from Antwerp 

This recording is part of the Terra Nova Antwerpen project about a contemporary of Mozart who lived in Antwerp, the composer and virtuoso clarinettist Henri Joseph Tobi (1741-1809). 

The wider project is aimed at recording his compositions, publishing his scores and the production of a book about his life, work and the musical climate in Antwerp in Mozart’s times. 

Tobi was first placed on the musicological map by Godelieve Spiessens, writing in the arts yearbooks of the province of Antwerp. Indeed the lifetime of research Spiessens has devoted to this period has been invaluable to this project, particularly as information about other composers has come to light as well. 

During a visit to the Austrian Netherlands the renowned musicologist Charles Burney wrote in his diary: Out-of-tune instruments, uncouth musicians and second-rate performances. Despite this resounding condemnation by Burney a growing number of studies have revealed that musical activity in Antwerp reached a high point at the end of the eighteenth century. The fact alone that round 1760 four of the six appointed and certified town musicians four were already playing clarinet is in itself remarkable. Indeed the instrument had made its European breakthrough around 1750, hardly ten years earlier. During the 

Austrian period two important clarinet makers were active in the Southern Netherlands. These were the Tuerlinckx family of Mechelen and the De Rottenburgh family of Brussels and both enjoyed a reputation that extended far beyond the borders of the Empire. 

In this recording I play a clarinet built according to a design by Tuerlinckx, a wind instrument such as would have been played by Henri Joseph Tobi in the eighteenth century. 

The music on this disc consists of a set of six trios for clarinet, violin and bass. The combination of clarinet and violin is quite unusual. This is charming music that was probably intended for playing in the gilded salons of Antwerp’s grand houses. The sole surviving copy of the score was published in Paris and is currently on display in the Butchers’ Hall Museum in Antwerp. The work is dedicated to Baron Charles de Proli, the musical patron and sponsor of the Antwerp, Brussels and Paris opera. 

Vlad Weverbergh 

...make this disc a very attractive candidate for library purchase - especially given the very lovely performances and sterling sound quality of the recording.”


First Print of the Six Trio, part of the permanent collection of the museum Vleeshuis Antwerp, loan from the Library Royal Conservatoire Antwerp

Six Trio pour une clarinette, un violon & une basse  

Henricus Josephus Jacobus Tobi (1741-1809), who played bassoon, horn, oboe and clarinet, was probably the only composer to emerge from the Tobi family of musicians, who lived in Antwerp in the eighteenth century. All that survives of his oeuvre are two sets of chamber music and a number of religious works. As poorter and member of the Gilde van Sint-Job en Sint-Maria-Magdalena, the musicians’ guild, he qualified in 1764 to be considered for acceptance as one of the six “sworn” town musicians of Antwerp, a lifetime appointment. The six town musicians were required to play music every day on the square in front of the town hall, accompanied dignitaries on their journeys about town, performed at joyous entrances, in cavalcades, processions and at pageants. They would also be heard in the churches during the many masses and days of prayer.  

The post of town musician was regarded as highly desirable, as one was then one of the town’s senior officials. This situation continued until 1795, when the French administration suppressed the guilds. Subsequently the official duties of the town musicians gradually diminished, partly because the growing success of concerts, opera performances, and balls. Our composer clarinettist could often be heard playing with the almoner’s orchestra in the Tapissierspand, the most popular venue for musical performances of that time in Antwerp.  

Even after the suppression of his post as musical official in 1795, Tobi proved to be perfectly capable of supporting himself. In the French period he successfully used his contacts to become a sort of musical impresario, and was able to win numerous lucrative jobs for both himself and his fellow musicians.  

The patron for whom Tobi composed his Première oeuvre and the musicians he performed his trios with remain a mystery. No doubt in keeping with the customs of the day, the trios will have been performed in the homes of the wealthy. Trios for clarinet combined with violin are somewhat unusual. It is likely that Tobi himself would perform the clarinet parts. Tobi’s immediate circle of acquaintances included several violinists such as Joannes Franciscus Redein, Jan Baptist Van Hoof and Simon Gautier, a.k.a. Dargonne, a freemason, and who was well known during the French period.