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A Very Quick Guide to . . . The Clarinet

The clarinet
The clarinet

What’s it all about?

The clarinet, the most versatile and perhaps most popular of all wind instruments.

When did it all start?

The modern clarinet is a direct descendant of the old chalumeau, a popular instrument back in the middle ages and Renaissance – basically a type of recorder, but with a reed.

In about 1700 German instrument maker Johann Christoph Denner (or possibly one of his sons – the details are fuzzy) designed a new version of the chalumeau adding a single key to the instrument to expand its range – effectively, the first clarinet.

Over time new keys were added to the instrument and other changes made to improve its range and power. Mozart helped put the instrument firmly on the map with his beautiful late Clarinet Quintet K.581, Clarinet Concerto K.622 and Kegelstatt Trio K.498, still amongst the most celebrated pieces ever written for clarinet, and by the beginning of the 18th century it had established itself as a standard member of the modern orchestra.

New kid on the woodwind block then?

Very much so. The clarinet supplemented and occasionally even supplanted its much older woodwind colleagues, particularly the oboe. Mozart’s famous Symphony no. 39, for example, uses clarinets but omits oboes entirely, as does his Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major.

He must have really hated the oboe?

Not so much hated the oboe as loved the new clarinet (and if he disliked any particular instrument, anecdotes suggest that it was most likely the flute). As he wrote to clarinettist Anton Stadler, “Your instrument has so soft and lovely a tone that no one can resist it.”

No one ever says stuff like that to me . . .

Sorry about that. Although to be fair Mozart’s clarinet was considerably more mellow than the modern version, being made of wood and with far fewer keys. The instrument we know today continued to evolve during the 19th century as increasingly complex keywork was added. The clarinet couldn’t even play the full chromatic scale until 1812, and it wasn’t until the 1840s that the clarinet acquired the modern Böhm “ring”-style keys typical of today’s instruments. Even today there’s no “standard” clarinet, with different models (the Böhm, Oestler and even the rare Albert) still in use.

Sounds confusing . . .

That’s nothing compared to the crazy array of different clarinet sizes out there.

The type you’ll most commonly encounter (and the typical beginner’s instrument) is the B-flat clarinet, although the fractionally larger clarinet is A is also commonplace. Then there’s the bass clarinet, popularized by composers like Berlioz and Wagner, and the shrill treble E-flat clarinet, whose upper register is capable of shredding through even the densest orchestral textures. Wind bands might boast a contrabass clarinet (so big some people play it standing up), and there’s also the basset horn (a kind of alto/tenor clarinet) which Mozart also composed for and which enjoyed an unexpected 20st-century revival in the works of Richard Strauss. Clarinets have actually been manufactured in just about every key and range available – have a look at Cyrille Mercadier’s video featuring some of the weirdest clarinets you’ll ever hear.

So, why should I learn the clarinet?

The clarinet is the most versatile and varied of all wind instruments. It boasts the widest range of any woodwind, while its contrasting registers (from the rich lower “chalumeau” notes through to the piercing “altissimo” range) give the clarinet a far more varied tonal palate than the oboe or flute. It’s been a key instrument in classical music since Mozart’s day but also plays an essential role in wind bands and other non-classical genres, ranging from jazz to klezmer. Plus if you can play clarinet you’ll also have a massive head-start if you want to take up the saxophone, which shares many similarities with the clarinet, opening up an whole new world of musical possibilities.

Is it hard?

Well, for beginners it’s certainly a lot easier than the oboe, although maybe a bit harder than the flute. Unlike the flute, the clarinet uses a reed, which presents certain challenges, although it’s a “single-reed” (one piece of wood) rather than the rather more challenging “double-reed” used on the oboe and bassoon.

What’s not to like?

Nothing really. Apart from the fact that as one of the most popular of all musical instruments you’ll have plenty of competition from other aspiring performers if you want to make your musical mark or score a place in an orchestra or ensemble.

Cool. So what are some good pieces to listen to?

All the Mozart pieces mentioned above. And be sure to listen to the clarinet pieces by Brahms, another composer who developed a late-life love affair with the instrument, coming out of compositional retirement to write the two op.120 sonatas, the Clarinet Trio op.114 and, best of all, the unforgettable Clarinet Quintet op.115. There are also Weber’s Clarinet Concertos No.1 and No.2, through to those by Finzi and Copland, plus of course the very opening of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, perhaps the single most iconic moment in the entire clarinet repertoire.

Official Line

“The most versatile and expressively varied of all woodwind instruments.”

Out of Line

“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: oboe hater.”

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