|Bb- and A-Clarinet, German System|
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The clarinet family are some of the most expressive instruments in any orchestra, woodwind ensemble, or jazz band. They have a very distinguishable sound spanning all of the ranges: low, medium, and high. We are so attracted to the sound of clarinets because they sound so much like us. The "licorice stick", as it was once called, can express a full range of emotions from serious, happy, sensuous, exhilarating, sexy, dark, loving, dreamy, or melancholy.
The Beginning of the Clarinet Family
Clarinets were not invented, per se, but originally existed as folk shawms. Shawms can be dated back to the 1400 and 1500's and were known in France as "bombardes" or "chalameux" and in Germany as "pommern". They were slightly conical, had a narrow bore, 6 fingerholes, an open key inside a protective cylinder for the small finger, and a double reed like the oboe. In the late 1600's the renowned woodwind maker Johann Christian Denner of Nuremberg turned the chalameux into the clarinet when he made them into the shape of an oboe.
Clarinets were the first reed instruments to have a cylindrical versus a conical bore and were made of boxwood. Wooden tubes were cut into several joints with a separate bell. Early clarinets were played with the reed tied to the mouthpiece with twine and against the player's top lip, which often produced a shrill sound. It wasn't until 1831 in Paris that the reed was switched to the lower lip providing for a more pleasant tone.
The first clarinets in the clarinet family had a key above the front holes to produce a' and another key on the opposite side for b' and were pitched in C. In 1720 Denner's son modified the clarinets by moving the b' hole towards the top. With the vent hole at the upper end of the cylinder, the scale of fundamentals could sound a 12th higher. The hole was covered by a speaker key. When the third key was added, the range was extended down a semitone to make it possible to play the missing b. During this time it was difficult to play in different keys, so the body of clarinets were divided into 3 sections so the player could use interchangeable joints of different lengths.
In 1750 the fourth (Ab, Eb) and fifth (F#, C#) keys were added and clarinets were no longer just solo instruments, but were now accepted into the orchestra. Further refinements came in 1790 when the sixth (C#, G#) key was added and the pear-shaped barrel disappeared. Although, the mechanics improved with the addition of keys, there continued to be ongoing difficulties with fingering, correct embouchere, and intonation, so different clarinets were made for playing sharp keys and flat keys. Finally in 1809 Iwan Muller developed the prototype of what became the modern Bb clarinet with 13 keys. In 1817 this model was improved upon by using pads over the countersunk tone holes and the metal ligature was invented. In the mid 1800's the final major modification was made by Hyacinthe Eleanore Klose' who used ring keys like those that Boehm had used for flutes in order to make the fingering system more simple.
The first bass clarinets in the clarinet family were developed in 1772 by Giles Lot in Paris. They were called basse-tubes. They are in the keys of Bb, C, and A, have an Eb key, and are an octave below the clarinet with the ability to span 3-1/2 octaves. Between 1772 and 1836 different musicians in various countries constructed bass clarinets, including Adolphe Sax in 1836. The bass clarinet is similar in appearance to the saxophone in that it has a curved bell and the mouthpiece is attached to a curved neck. Their tone is full and deep and are more popular in free jazz or avant garde versus jazz.
Within the clarinet family the alto clarinet in the key of G existed in 1792 and was later changed to the key of F and Eb. It never acquired a role in the orchestra, but was used as a tenor clarinet in British military bands since the saxophone was not in existence yet. Its best quality was its ability to project sound extremely well.
Another member of the clarinet family was the Bb contrabass clarinets which were in existence since the 1800's. They are an octave below the bass clarinet, have a rich tone, and are easily blown. Leblanc of France made a collapsible model with a mechanism which straddled the double tube. It was used in the London Symphony Orchestra.
Double Bass Clarinets
Playing at two octaves beneath the clarinet, double bass clarinets have a tone that is solid and full. Beginning in 1808, different versions were developed, but it was not until 1890 that finally an excellent one was made by Fontaine-Besson of Paris. The downside of this music instrument is that it was very expensive, so it was not used much.
Cousins To The Clarinet Family
Basset horns were first made in 1770. They were made out of wood which was split lengthwise, then the two halves were hollowed out, and then glued together to form a crescent shape. This was then covered with leather. In 1800 the horn shape was changed to being sharply bent to an almost right angle. It underwent another shape alteration a few years later when Heinrich Gresner in Dresden tried to give it a straight form as it is today. Basset horns are basically an alto clarinet, but with a narrower bore, thinner walls, and four semitones below the low e.
Contrabasset horns were first developed in the beginning of the 1800's by Georg Streitwolf in Gottingen. They are in the key of F and one octave below the basset horn. From the 1880's into the 1900's some musicians tried to revise them, but they were not used much and are rare.
Even though the clarinet has been quite popular, especially during the early jazz years, not everyone knows that it has taken quite a long time for the clarinet family to evolve since its early beginnings as a shawm in the 1400's. It has many family members that are unique in their own way, yet very similar to the clarinet, just like any human family members. The sound of clarinets has also developed from a shrill, unpleasant sound to a tone that that is pleasant and captures a full range of emotions of the human spirit.