‘Among all musical instruments, a clarinet tone seems to be the closest in quality to the human voice’.
That is what Mozart, one of the greatest and most influential composers of the Classical period, once said about the clarinet. Almost a decade before clarinets became a standard and indispensable fixture in orchestras, Mozart wrote many pieces exclusively for that unique woodwind instrument.
Today the clarinet is an extraordinary, pliable musical instrument. It is widely used by the classical orchestras, marching and military bands, klezmer (musical tradition of Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe), popular concert bands, jazz and many other musical styles.
Specialists believe that the origins of the clarinet may be found in the Baroque era and the Renaissance.
In those times multiple variations of the word claro (clarino, clarin, clarion, etc) were commonly used to refer to an early form of a trumpet, which is an ancestor of the clarinet. Later those words developed into the French clarinette, German Klarinette, and clarinet itself, a word used in modern English worldwide.
The clarinet comes from the woodwind instruments family. It has a single-reed mouthpiece, a straight cylindrical tube (including the barrel joint, the upper joint, and the lower joint), a quasi-cylindrical bore, a flared bell, and the tone holes.
The clarinet produces a fluid sound by blowing air between the reed and the mouthpiece. By pressing metal keys on the instrument’s body with the fingers of both hands the player can create a rich variety of notes.
The clarinet timbre varies between the three main registers that the instrument provides. They are the chalumeau (the lower register inheriting its name from the clarinet’s direct predecessor), clarion (the middle register prevailing for most woodwind instruments), and altissimo (the top register).
Played on the clarinet, the highest notes create a shrill and piercing sound. They might seem difficult to tune in an appropriate manner, but trying alternate fingerings and different embouchure techniques usually helps to tune these top notes properly.
It is also worth mentioning that defining the actual clarinet top register may be difficult. The capacity of the instrument depends on numerous factors such as the instrument’s material, its keywork organization system and the clarinetist’s skill level. Moreover different types of clarinets, and therefore schools of playing, had been developing in isolation from each other for centuries. These circumstances added to the richness of the variety of the clarinet's sounds, although the 21st century’s technical capabilities smooth those differences out and modern musicians may now take advantage of all existing styles.
Nowadays the most prevalent type of clarinet is the B♭ clarinet. However the clarinet in A, performing a semitone lower, is also in high demand in orchestral, chamber, and solo music.
Even though the early clarinet’s predecessors – simple single-reed woodwind instruments, such as albogue or double clarinet – date back to the Middle Ages, one can choose to focus on the Baroque era. The woodwind instrument called the chalumeau is suggested to be the clarinet predecessor, though the exact date of its invention is uncertain.
The chalumeau had a single-reed mouthpiece, a cylindrical bore, eight finger holes, and just two keys adjusted to its two highest notes. The most notable distinctive feature between the chalumeau and the clarinet is the register key. The chalumeau lacked one, and thus it was only capable of being played in the fundamental register and provided a limited span of around one and a half octaves.
It was the beginning of the 18th century when a German woodwind instrument maker called Johann Christoph Denner turned the chalumeau into the first clarinet (it is also speculated that the actual inventor of the clarinet was Jacob Denner, Herr Denner’s son). Herr Denner modified one of the chalumeau keys so it would serve as a register key.
First clarinets did not perform well in the lower register, so musicians used to keep and play both instruments, the clarinet, and the chalumeau, to produce the whole spectrum of notes. Later the clarinet developed into a more flexible instrument, capable of producing rich and velvety lower notes. Eventually, that lower register was called the chalumeau register, and the chalumeau itself was no longer a necessity and fell into disuse.
The next notable improvement in the clarinet design was the invention of the new pad. The first clarinets’ pad material was felt, but this was not a practical solution. When covered with the felt pads, the clarinet tone holes leaked air. It required a clarinetist to keep as many holes uncovered as possible, so the instrument would produce an appropriate melody.
That was the case until 1812 when Baltic-German clarinetist and composer Iwan Müller invented the new air-tight pad. This pad was made with leather or the fish maw, and allowed musicians to play the clarinet with many covered holes and still produce an amazing sound.
The Iwan Müller’s modified clarinet had seven finger holes and thirteen keys. Crucially, Müller did not only design the pads, but created his own key organization system as well, which served as a base system for future modifications, such as the Albert system or the Oehler system.
There are three modern clarinet keywork organization systems. They are
The Böhm system is the most common of all modern keywork systems. It was designed by French clarinetists and composer Hyacinthe Klosé but named after German flute designer Theobald Böhm.
There is another Böhm system designed by Theobald Böhm himself, but this system is designed for the flutes and should not be confused with the clarinets Böhm system.
The Oehler (also spelled Öhler) system was invented by German musician Oskar Oehler and is specifically favored by Austrian and German clarinetists. In comparison with the Böhm system, the Oehler system clarinet has more keys (there are 27 keys in a full Oehler system), a narrower bore, and a longer and narrower mouthpiece.
The Albert system is the rarest of the three clarinet keywork organization systems. It has yielded to either the Oehler or Böhm systems in most parts of the world. Today, the Albert system is used primarily by jazzmen, klezmorim (professional klezmer musicians), and Eastern European (Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian) clarinetists only.
Besides these three systems, many more variations of the clarinet keywork system were developed throughout the history of the instrument. Numerous inventors and musicians tried to improve the clarinet’s ‘weak’ spots, but none of their modifications gained popularity within the clarinetist community.
Throughout history, different materials have been used in the manufacture of clarinets.
Ivory was used for clarinets in the 18th century, but it never became massively popular. This material has proven to be quite fragile and it also holds the instrument’s shape poorly.
Clarinetists widely used clarinets made of metal at the beginning of the 20th century. Later, metal was superseded by plastic.
Today metal is mostly used to make the instrument’s ligatures, but not the bodies.
Plastic (plastic resin)
As a material, plastic gained popularity in the 20th century. It is relatively cheap, which makes plastic clarinets competitive in price.
Hard rubber has been used in the clarinet production since the late 19th century, but nowadays there are few instruments made solely of that material. Normally, hard rubber (including ebonite) is compounded with other materials to make it more durable.
The biggest advantage of hard rubber is that it is not affected by humidity, and in fact, hard rubber is still a common material for clarinet mouthpieces.
It is safe to say that wood is the most common clarinet material of the 21st century. Today wooden clarinets are the best choice for many professional clarinetists.
Clarinets producers import most of the wooden material from Africa (African hardwood, such as grenadilla or mpingo) and Central America (rare rosewood from Honduras and cocobolo).
Clarinets are an essential part of classical music, including orchestras and concert bands.
In the orchestra, it is a common practice to keep two clarinetists. Each musician possesses a clarinet either in B♭ or A and plays an individual part in the course of a piece.
However, one could rightly note that it was not unusual to hire a third, fourth or even ninth clarinetist on occasion during the course of the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Such notable composers as Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss and Olivier Messiaen could extend the clarinet section of their orchestras significantly by inviting musicians playing the soprano, alto and bass clarinet. This tradition still remains alive up to this day.
In concert bands the E♭, B♭, alto, bass, contra-alto and contrabass clarinet are used widely.
Moreover, the clarinet is extensively popular as a solo instrument.
It is fair to say that the clarinet sound is entrenched into the very heart of jazz music.
The B♭ soprano was the most widespread kind of clarinet at that time. There also were several noticeable early jazzmen that preferred the C soprano and numerous New Orleans bands that used the E♭ soprano clarinet.
The clarinet played the starring role in the jazz era between 1910-1940. Later the clarinet was displaced by the saxophone, an instrument that produced a more powerful sound and was easier to operate.
Besides classical and jazz music scenes the clarinet can also be heard in Eastern and South European (Albanian, Bulgarian, Romani, Greek, etc) folk music, Brazilian choro and samba, klezmer, and even rock music.