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3. The Clarinet Today

Nowadays most clarinettists play either a Boehm or a German system clarinet. Almost all clarinets are transposing instruments. Orchestral and solo performers play on both Bb and A clarinets, often using the same mouthpiece (and possibly the same barrel) for both as needed. On the Bb (the most played of all the clarinets) and the A, the compass is from written low E to potentially as high as the E four octaves above, though most performers will only be expected to reach the C just below that. The range can be divided into three registers. The lowest is the chalumeau, from low E to the Bb an octave and a half above. The four notes at the top of the chalumeau register are known as the throat notes (G, G#, A and Bb). The clarinet, or clarino register is from written B above middle C, to the C just over an octave above. Still higher notes (from C# upwards) form the altissimo register. Clarinets are constructed in five parts: the mouthpiece, barrel, upper and lower joints and the bell.

The fingering system makes it easier to play on Boehm clarinets but these have slightly conical bores (in the barrel, the upper and lower joints), which are not ideal for sound production. German clarinets have a cylindrical bore which produces a more intense, darker and rounded (therefore better) tone. The Reform-Boehm clarinet is a hybrid: the Boehm key system with a German bore. In theory this should produce a ‘super’ clarinet but is generally felt to be a compromise rather than an improvement.

Other clarinets in use include the Eb which is high in pitch and produces a very bright tone, heard to great effect in Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring. The C (non-transposing) clarinet is less often played now than in the 19th Century but still has an orchestral role, as in Brahms’ 4th Symphony (1885) and Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (1911). The alto (in Eb and used in concert bands), the contra-alto (an octave below the alto), bass and contra-bass clarinets are also heard in concert halls around the world. There are other clarinets in existence which are rarely, if ever, played, including three octocontra-alto and one octocontra-bass, the latter having a range down to low C, sounding at Bb below the lowest note of the piano!

The clarinet is an integral member of any orchestra or concert band, featuring prominently in many pieces. It has a divinely haunting solo in the second movement of Rachmaninov’s second Piano Concerto and an extended solo in Sibelius’ tone poem En Saga; two clarinets open Tchaikovsky’s fifth Symphony and the bass clarinet features heavily in Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen. There is a wealth of solo repertoire including concertos by Mozart, Weber, Finzi and Copland, sonatas by Brahms and Bax, Fantasiestücke by Schumann, quintets and trios by Mozart and Brahms and the Three Pieces by Stravinsky.

In the swing era (1930s-40s), the clarinet was one of the dominant solo instruments, with clarinettists Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman leading successful big bands. Since then, players such as Eric Dolphy, Eddie Daniels, Don Byron and Tony Coe have maintained the clarinet’s role in jazz.

The clarinet is also used in folk music around the world, notably in Klezmer (a form of Jewish music) and many Eastern European folk traditions.

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