The Clarinet Family
Clarinets are transposing instruments, and are made in several keys, some of which are quite rare. The most common key is B♭. The B♭ clarinet is about 24 inch (60 cm) long and has a range of three octaves, although it is possible to play higher. A clarinet in the key of A, slightly longer than the B♭ clarinet and pitched a half-step lower, is often used in orchestral playing. Clarinets are also made in the key of E♭, pitched a fourth higher than the common B♭ clarinet, and even in D, although this instrument has become uncommon.
The bass clarinet, usually pitched in B♭, has a tube twice as long as that of a standard clarinet; because of its unwieldy length, it doubles back on itself with the bell pointing upwards at the bottom, and can only be played while sitting down. The clarinet family even includes an enormous contrabass clarinet, pitched in either of two keys: B♭ or E♭, there were some folded all metal contra-bass clarinets that were pitched in F(rare and practically useless). This instrument is most often found in large orchestras, wind ensembles, or concert bands.
Parts of the Clarinet
The shafts of the most sought-after clarinets are sculpted from hard, dark, African wood, traditionally grenadilla or M'Pinga. Other models are constructed from South American woods, rosewood or cocbolo. These woods are very hard and hold a high polish well. However, some cheap clarinets are made out of plastic, particularly those used by students learning to play in school. These students are generally encouraged to "move on up" to hardwood once it becomes clear that they are serious about playing.
Some mid-18th century clarinets were made of metal. In the mid-20th century, it was popular for marching bands to practice with them but due to poor quality of sound they are rarely used anymore, following the advent of plastic clarinets. The same is true of Contrabass clarinets.
The B♭ clarinet is made of 7 main parts:
- The Mouthpiece is where the musician blows to cause the reed to vibrate.
- The Reed vibrates against the mouthpiece to set up vibrations within the instrument.
- The Ligature holds the reed in place on the mouthpiece. (European clarinets do not use ligatures, rather the reed is held in place with wound string.)
- The Tuning barrel is used to make fine adjustments to the tuning of individual instruments to counteract changes in pitch caused by moisture and temperature.
- The Upper joint contains roughly half of the keys.
- The Lower joint contains the other half of the keys.
- The Bell improves the sound and projection of the instrument.
These parts all fit together via greased cork-lined joints. The tuning of the instrument is adjusted by sliding the mouthpiece (or the barrel) toward or away from the body. Generally speaking, it's easier to lip a pitch up rather than down, so in tricky passages, pulling out leads to greater control for longer durations.
The clarinet was first heard in the late Baroque period, however W.A. Mozart was the first to feature the instrument in works still known today. His Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Concerto are two of the most popular works in all music. Carl Maria von Weber, in the early 19th century, was the first to write an extensive body of works for the clarinet, with concertos and a concertina; and various chamber pieces. The Swedish master, Crusell, at about this time, was writing a number of clarinet works, both orchestral and chamber, that had a lot of popularity but have languished in recent years. Through much of the 19th century the clarinet seemed to vanish as a feature instrument in works still popular, although it was used extensively in wind ensembles; and had become a necessary part of the orchestra.
In 1891 Johannes Brahms was enraptured by the playing of the clarinetist, Richard Mühlfeld at a concert and came out of retirement to write his Clarinet Trio (Op. 114), Quintet (Op. 115) and the two Clarinet Sonatas (Op. 120). These are ranked with Mozart’s as high points for the instrument.
The 20th century gave us major concertos by the Dane, Carl Nielsen; the Englishman, Gerald Finzi; and the American Aaron Copland (a commission from Benny Goodman). Sir Malcolm Arnold, the English composer who died in 2006, wrote numerous works for the clarinet as a solo instrument, as a feature in ensembles and with orchestra. Though classical, they have many jazz elements in them.