The Bb clarinet and the bass clarinet are the two most popular clarinets within the clarinet family. But did you know that the clarinet family actually has eleven clarinets total?
Many of the clarinets in the clarinet family are quite rare, but they are still used in ensembles as color instruments.
This article will discuss each clarinet's development, sound and color, and its role in ensembles.
What is a Clarinet?
The clarinet is a woodwind instrument. It is played with a single-reed and a mouthpiece. It is a straight, cylindrical tube with a cylindrical bore.
You will see that each clarinet has its own key that it is pitched in. This means that the note played on the clarinet will not sound like the note on the piano, even if the note names are the same. For example, if the piano plays a concert Bb, the Bb clarinetist has to play a major second higher which is a C in order to sound the same pitch. This is called clarinet transposition. It is a very important skill for clarinetists to learn and understand, especially if you are playing more than one clarinet in different keys.
History of the Clarinet
The clarinet was invented around the 1700s by instrument maker Johann Denner.
The precedor of the clarinet is the chalumeau, a peasant pipe with a single reed and a tapered mouthpiece. The chalumeau instrument had no barrel or bell. It also had only seven tone holes which made its range only one octave plus one note.
Denner and his sons developed and experimented with the new invention of the clarinet.
The clarinet was under constant experimentation. Instrument makers experimented with the size of the bore, diameter, taper, and the undercutting of the tone holes.
Theobald Boehm had made an incredible new key system for the flute. Boehm added key rings that circled the finger holes. When pressed down, the keyrings covered an additional hole at a distance from the tone hole.
Hyacinthe Klosé and Louis Buffet adopted Theobald's new invention for the clarinet. Together, they produced a clarinet with seventeen keys and six rings that were in charge of 24 tone holes. This Klosé-Buffet clarinet is the instrument that clarinetists use today.
Parts of the Clarinet
The mouthpiece has five main parts: the mouthpiece, barrel, upper joint, lower joint, and the bell.
Important clarinet accessories are clarinet reeds, a clarinet reed case, clarinet ligatures, cork grease, a swab, and a neck strap (optional). You will also want to secure your clarinet with a good quality clarinet case.
Sopranino clarinet in Ab
The sopranino clarinet in Ab is the smallest in the clarinet family. A sopranino clarinet is also called an octave clarinet and piccolo clarinet. The Ab sopranino clarinet was used in Italian military bands during the first few decades of the 20th century.
Verdi and Bartók were the two famous composers that used the Ab sopranino clarinet in their music. Bartók features the Ab sopranino clarinet in his Scherzo for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 2. Verdi features the clarinet in his operas. Taverner features this clarinet in his Celtic Requiem.
The Ab sopranino clarinet is just over a foot long, its mouthpiece is the size of a medium thimble, and the size of the reed is the size of a large paperclip. The Ab sopranino is pitched a perfect fourth higher than the Eb clarinet and a minor seventh higher than the Bb clarinet.
The sound of the Ab sopranino clarinet is very high and shrill. It takes a lot of oral cavity and embouchure strength and control to play this instrument beautifully.
In this video, Alessandro Marcello plays a Giovanni Di Lorenzo piece on the Ab clarinet.
Sopranino clarinet in Eb
Sopranino clarinet in Eb, also known as the Eb clarinet, is another small clarinet. The Eb clarinet is pitched a perfect fourth higher than the Bb clarinet. The Eb clarinet sounds a minor third higher than written.
The Eb clarinet has a sharp and shrill sound that can pierce through the ensemble very well. The Eb clarinet usually plays in unison with the piccolo, flutes, and oboes.
The Eb is rare in high school bands. It is most commonly seen in college and upper-level ensembles. The Eb clarinet is usually played by only one clarinetist in the ensemble. In some cases, like Holst's First Suite in Eb major, there are two Eb clarinets.
The Eb clarinet may be small, but it is a very challenging clarinet to play. It is hard to control the intonation on this clarinet. It is also difficult to play technically because the tone holes and the keys are extremely close together.
Eb clarinet is most commonly found in only concert bands, especially military bands.
In this video, Ayako Oura plays Rondo Caprice on the Eb clarinet.
Sopranino clarinet in D
The D clarinet is slightly larger than the Eb clarinet. The D clarinet was more common in the early and mid-eighteenth century but is now very rare in ensembles. Composers that used the D sopranino clarinet are Molter and Strauss. It is not quite clear why composers chose either the Eb clarinet or the D clarinet in their scores.
Clarinet in C
The C clarinet is pretty much non-existent in European and American orchestras. The C clarinet was more popular during the classical era through the early 20th century. Mahler, Beethoven, and Schubert used the C clarinet in their scores.
The C clarinet became less popular after the early 20th century because it was difficult for clarinetists to switch between the A, Bb, and C clarinet. Instead, composers transposed C clarinet lines so Eb clarinetists could play the line instead.
Clarinet in Bb
The clarinet in Bb is the most popular clarinet from the clarinet family. Beginner clarinetists will start on the Bb clarinet. From there, they can learn how to play the other clarinets in the clarinet family.
The Bb clarinet was invented first by instrument maker Johann Denner. The Bb clarinet evolved from the chalumeau instrument, a peasant pipe.
Denner's sons and other instrument makers continued working on the Bb clarinet.
Bb clarinets are used in concert bands, marching bands, orchestras, clarinet choirs, and some jazz ensembles.
A popular clarinet company for Bb clarinets is Buffet-Crampon. A Buffet clarinet is very high-quality and they have clarinets for all levels.
This is a video of John Kurokawa playing the main theme song from the movie Viktor's Tale on the Bb clarinet.
Clarinet in A
The clarinet in A is pitched a semitone lower than the Bb clarinet. A college or professional clarinetist playing in the orchestra must either have access to or own an A clarinet and a Bb clarinet. A Clarinets are most commonly used in orchestras to make clarinet transposition less messy.
Basset Horn in F
The basset horn looks different than the typical Bb clarinet, but it is still considered a clarinet. The basset horn was invented and developed by clarinet virtuoso Anton Stadler and instrument maker Theodor Lotz.
The basset horn is a single-reed instrument with a cylindrical bore. It has a bend between the mouthpiece and the upper joint, as well as a curved bell. It is pitched in the key of F. The basset horn has additional keys to extend the lower range down to a written C which sounds an F at the bottom of the bass staff.
The basset horn's tone is similar to a Bb clarinet's tone, but it's a bit darker.
Mozart's Clarinet Concerto was originally written for the basset horn. At a concert, he had heard Anton Stadler on the basset horn and fell in love with his playing and the sound of the basset horn. From there, Mozart wrote his clarinet concerto for Stadler and the basset horn.
Alto Clarinet in Eb
The alto clarinet is in the key of Eb. The alto clarinet looks similar to the basset horn because it also has a curve between the mouthpiece and the body, as well as a curved bell. However, the alto clarinet is pitched a tone lower than the basset horn. It also does not have the lower range and has a wider bore.
The alto clarinet's body is made out of Grenadilla wood or ABS plastic. Its neck and bell are made out of metal.
The alto clarinet ranges from a written Eb3 to G6. Parts for the alto clarinet are written in treble clef. The key system of modern alto clarinets is the Boehm system and the Oehler system. The alto clarinet has an extra key that allows the player to play a low written Eb. It also has a half-hole key that is used for the altissimo register.
Alto clarinets are used in concert bands. In the Sinfonietta: II Pastoral Nocturne by Dahl, there is an alto clarinet part that adds a unique color to the concert band.
This video showcases the sound of the alto clarinet. This is Mark Wolbers playing Solfeggieto by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach on the alto clarinet.
Bass Clarinet in Bb
The bass clarinet is in the key of Bb. The bass clarinet sounds an octave lower than the Bb clarinet.
The bass clarinet is fairly heavy, so the clarinetist holds up the instrument with either a neckstrap or a floor peg.
Modern Boehm-system bass clarinets have an extension key that allows the clarinetist to play a written Eb.
There are advanced and professional models that have a key extending down to a low C, a sounding Bb, that is two octaves below the written middle C.
One main difference between the bass clarinet and the Bb clarinet is that the bass clarinet has a key played by the left-hand index finger with a vent. This key can be uncovered to play specific high notes.
The upper range of the bass clarinet is more difficult to play. For beginners, this range will be difficult to play.
The bass clarinet can be found in orchestras, concert bands, and clarinet choirs. It is more common in concert bands than orchestras.
The tone of the bass clarinet is very rich, deep, and full.
Buffet-Crampon sells a fantastic student bass clarinet.
In this video, Marcelo Maldonado is playing Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 on the bass clarinet.
Contralto in Eb and Contrabass in Bb
The contralto and contrabass clarinets are the two largest clarinets in the clarinet family.
The contrabass is pitched in Bb. The contrabass clarinet sounds two octaves lower than the soprano Bb clarinet and one octave lower than the Bb bass clarinet.
The contra-alto clarinet is pitched in the key of Eb which is higher than the contrabass clarinet. This clarinet plays an octave lower than the alto clarinet. It is larger than the bass clarinet but smaller than the contrabass clarinet.
The contralto and contrabass clarinets can be found in concert bands and clarinet choirs. The contrabass clarinet is more common.
In this video, Jason Alder is playing Rose etude #20 on a Selmer rosewood contra-alto clarinet.
In this video, Paolo Ravaglia is playing the controbass solo from Le Streghe Di Venezia by Philip Glass.
Joining a clarinet choir ensemble is an excellent opportunity to see the different types of clarinets, as well as hear how beautifully the clarinet family sounds together.
Below is a video of a clarinet choir playing Irish Tune From County Derry.
I think it is so cool that each clarinet has its own "personality". Each one can bring something different to the ensemble in terms of tone, timbre, and sound.