The clarinet family is the largest of all instrument families, presently with 14 sizes of clarinets, and a few cousins that have strong similarities to the clarinet, but are distinctly different. Why so many sizes? Read on to find out!
I have had the pleasure of playing many of the clarinets in the clarinet family, each having its own unique set of challenges! Here, I will briefly cover each of the clarinets, including some more history.
Although I covered some of the history in my last post, I would like to go into a bit more detail about the clarinet’s development. However, this is still a brief history, as there is much more detail that I will not be including. My point is to give you a little insight and an idea of how the clarinet came to be.
The modern clarinet evolved from a simpler instrument known as the “chalumeau,” which was a simple woodwind instrument. A very simple instrument with only one key, the chalumeau was played with a mouthpiece much like today’s clarinet mouthpiece, but upside-down from the way we play on it now, with the reed against the upper lip.
Around 1690, Johann Christoph Denner made some changes to the chalumeau, which included adding a register key that allowed the instrument to play in a higher register, earning it the name “clarinetto,” which translates as little trumpet. This is due to the shrill quality of the sound that was produced in that upper register. At this point, the clarinet consisted of only two or three keys and was still played with the mouthpiece inverted.
The clarinet had only five keys for the longest time, eventually gaining a 6th key, but it stayed at that point until the early 1800s. It is surprising that clarinetists were able to play some of the technically demanding music written for it with such limitations that resulted from so few keys. This is part of the reason there are various sizes in the soprano clarinets, as they were able to play only one scale. At this time the keys were made with a flat piece of metal with felt or leather attached to cover the tone holes and did not always create the best seal.
Improvements of the Mechanics
Clarinetist and instrument maker Iwan Müller began working to improve the mechanics of the keys on the clarinet in 1806, adding seven more keys by 1812 with a new cup-style key with a pad made of leather or gut that was stuffed with wool to make it more flexible and create a better seal. The French Conservatory initially rejected his innovations because they were more interested in the specific timbres of each clarinet and were afraid these would be lost by making the clarinet into a fully chromatic instrument.
In the meantime, while clarinets only had the 5 or 6 (sometimes unreliable) keys, it was required of clarinetists in the late 18th century to own multiple clarinets so that they could play in all the required keys. They existed in practically every key!
Hyacinthe Klosé developed the Boehm system clarinet (based on the Boehm flute) in the 1830s, and by 1843, the French company Buffet was building the clarinet Klosé had designed. His design included 17 keys, specified measurements for the tone hole and their placements, and rings on the tone holes (which he invented). The Boehm system has been adopted worldwide. Some modern clarinets have 18 keys.
The German-speaking countries developed their own clarinet system, basing their innovations on the improvements made by Müller, creating the Albert system clarinet. The Albert system is technically just as good as the Boehm system, but does use some cross-fingerings. It is still in use today.
Throughout the 18th century, the clarinet mouthpiece remained somewhat small and was part of the clarinet itself. There were not exact dimensions for the mouthpiece (nor the clarinet itself) initially. Reeds were much softer, sometimes made of cane, and other times of pine or fir. The mouthpiece eventually became a separate part of the clarinet, allowing for it to be made custom to the player.
The modern orientation of the reed placed on the lower lip was experimented with during the early 1800s, but did not become the official orientation until around 1831 when the French Conservatory decided it so. At this point, a thumb rest became necessary to balance the clarinet into the position that would allow the best tone to be produced. Iwan Müller is credited with the addition of the thumb rest.
Use of the Clarinet
The clarinet was first known to be used in the orchestra in 1716, and gained popularity somewhat quickly. The clarinet sound attracted composers such as Vivaldi, who provided for a few concerti grossi featuring the clarinet in 1748. In 1760, the Mannheim Orchestra (the leading orchestra of the time) employed clarinet players and the clarinet was established in Paris the same year. W.A. Mozart completed the famous Concerto for Clarinet in A (originally for the basset clarinet in A) in 1791, which is very technically demanding. By the end of the 18th century, the clarinet had its own identity and was being used in practically every genre of music as an independent part.
Want to know more history? Clarinet history and much more in this great resource, which is where most of my information came from:
The Family Members
The members of the clarinet family are presented in order from smallest to largest, followed by the clarinet cousins. If you would like to view a video of my clarinet choir performing on and demonstrating (most of) these instruments, check it out! Otherwise, read on for now.
Ab sopranino clarinet
This is the smallest clarinet in the family and there are few of these in the world. I have had the distinct pleasure of playing one, though I’m not sure exactly how pleasurable the experience truly was! This tiny clarinet looks more like a toy and is very difficult to play. I made my own reeds for it from trimmed Eb clarinet reeds that I reshaped to fit the mouthpiece.
The clarinet fully assembled is a mere 14 inches tall. It has a shrill timbre, intonation that is difficult to control, and technique is awkward due to the fingers being so close together.
This piccolo clarinet is the only survivor of its class and it has relatively no use in modern music. it is very rarely used outside of European wind bands. It has been used in Austrian military bands and is sometimes seen in Spain and Italy. I am aware of one clarinet choir transcription that uses it (though there may be more): The Marriage of Figaro by W.A. Mozart, transcribed and arranged by Cailliet. If you’d like to hear it in action on this piece, check out my video.
Eb Soprano Clarinet
The Eb clarinet is the smallest of the standard clarinets (and my favorite) at 19 inches long. It was in common use by 1820. It has a bright timbre and finds its place in a number of wind band pieces, military bands (where it was intended to replace the high trumpets), clarinet choirs, and orchestral works. The Eb clarinet was made very prominent in the orchestra in 1830 by Hector Berlioz in the Symphonie Fantastique. The lengthy solo is well-known and the Eb clarinet perfectly captivates the character of the music.
When used in wind bands, the Eb clarinet is often used as a solo instrument, but also frequently adds color to the clarinet section or doubles the piccolo part. In orchestra, it is almost always a featured solo instrument.
D Soprano Clarinet
The D Clarinet is slightly longer than the Eb clarinet and very similar in timbre. It was commonly used in the early 18th century, but almost disappeared in the 1780s. There are a few D clarinets around (I know someone who owns one, in fact), and I have managed to get my hands on one of these and play it! It uses the same mouthpiece as an Eb clarinet.
There is little music that exists for the D Clarinet, but in 1740, Johann Melchoir Molter wrote six concerti in the late Baroque style for it. Two of these are in publication and I have performed one of them (no. 3) with a small string orchestra and harpsichord. Unfortunately, I played it on the Eb clarinet, which proved to be a quite difficult transcription!
C Soprano Clarinet
The C Clarinet is a bit longer yet, measuring at just over 20 inches (without the mouthpiece). The C clarinet was used in the orchestra as early as 1726 (possibly 1730) by Vivaldi, who wrote three concerti for the clarinet. The very bright sound of the C clarinet made it desirable for use in the orchestra, where it was used often in the 1800s, but its use diminished greatly by 1900.
Hector Berlioz made use of the C clarinet in the Symphonie Fantastique, which most players just transpose to the Bb clarinet. It is still relatively easy to buy a C clarinet, but most clarinet parts are written for the Bb or A clarinets.
Bb Soprano Clarinet
This is the clarinet as most people know it. One of the earliest concerti written for the Bb clarinet was composed by Johann Stamitz in 1757 in the Baroque style. I have not found a specific date as to when it first appeared or became the prominent clarinet, but it seems to have taken the title of “standard” some time in the late 1800s-early 1900s. The Bb clarinet has become the standard clarinet due to its intonation (it is the best of all the clarinets) and the timbre that blends best within ensembles. It measures at about 23.5 inches without the mouthpiece.
A Soprano Clarinet
The A clarinet is the other “standard” clarinet, and anyone who plays professionally certainly owns one. At about 25 inches in length, the A clarinet plays just a half step lower than the Bb clarinet, so the timbre is very similar (just a bit darker) and matches well in ensemble use. It is used mostly in orchestras to “eliminate” the tricky keys on the Bb clarinet, and is also indicated to be used in a number of solo works.
F Basset Horn
A clarinet that will certainly challenge anyone, this sensitive version of the alto clarinet is not exactly an alto clarinet, as the size of the bore is more narrow. It uses the same size mouthpiece as the Eb alto clarinet. The F Basset horn was used by W.A. Mozart in several orchestral and chamber works and even some solo music. This lovely-timbred instrument has an ill temper however; the F Basset horn requires much sensitivity from the clarinetist, as the slightest bit too much air or any shift in the embouchure will most definitely result in an ugly squeak! I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to perform a Mozart Symphony on one of these.
Eb Alto Clarinet
This larger clarinet plays one octave lower than the Eb soprano clarinet. The date of its “birth” is somewhat unclear, as it first appeared in the key of F around 1809, with Iwan Müller and Heinrich Grenser working together to build it. It was used very little at that time, but has since found its place in many bands and clarinet choirs. It has slowly been disappearing from the modern school bands, but it still plays an important role in the clarinet choir.
Bb Bass Clarinet
Invented around 1770, the bass clarinet in Bb plays an octave below the Bb clarinet. The Bass clarinet is an important instrument in modern bands, clarinet choirs, and even the orchestra. It has a dark, rich timbre. Most bass clarinets extend to one half-step lower than the sopranos, reaching down to a concert Db, but they are commonly built to extend down to the Bb concert below that (frequently used in orchestral music). The length of the bass clarinet requires that it either props up on a peg that attaches to the upturned bell or it is played with a neckstrap to support the weight.
A Basset Clarinet
The A Basset clarinet is like an extended version of the A clarinet, with several keys allowing it to play down to a written C one octave below middle C. Due to the small amount of repertoire in existence for it, the A Basset clarinet is not an instrument seen often in performance. I found a video of a performer named Vincenzo Casale who plays the Mozart Clarinet Concerto on a period Basset clarinet, which is quite lovely. Or if you prefer, view a modern version of the Basset clarinet performed by Sabine Meyer.
Eb Contra Alto Clarinet
This large clarinet that plays an octave lower than the Eb Alto Clarinet was invented during the first half of the 19th century. It is rather tall, appearing like an oversized bass clarinet with a long neck that reaches down to the player. It is a wonderful addition to the low woodwind section in wind bands and plays a very important role in the clarinet choir.
Bb Contra Bass Clarinet
The size of this clarinet has resulted in it being constructed out of metal rather than wood. It plays two octaves lower than the Bb soprano and one octave lower than the Bb Bass. The Bb contra bass comes in two shapes: long and straight, requiring the player to sit on a stool, and the “Paper Clip” style, which is much easier for the player to manage, and places the bell at the top of the instrument (this allows the sound to project out better). It is commonly used in wind bands and clarinet choirs, and occasionally finds its way into the orchestra.
Eb Octo-Contra Alto and Bb Octo-Contra Bass
These two gigantic clarinets play extremely low and are very rare due to their size and limited usage. There are few in existence and it seems that at this point in time they are more for novelty than anything else. Their tones are so low that it is difficult to discern pitch through the reedy buzzing quality they produce.
Ab and G Soprano Clarinets
These were among the harmony clarinets used in the late 18th century, but have fallen out of use (and knowledge to most). The G clarinet can still be found in the form of the Turkish clarinet, but it is different from the modern soprano clarinets that we are most familiar with.
There are a few instruments that are cousins of the clarinet, including the Turkish G Clarinet Saxonette and the Hungarian Tárágato. Look for a blog on the cousins in the near future!
Want to see all the clarinet sizes demonstrated? Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Go ahead. Click the link.
One day, you may have the chance to try out some of these clarinets, so…
Remember to practice with patience and perseverance.