The Complexity Of The Clarinet Family

As mentioned in my previous post, the clarinet family is quite extensive and therefore it requires a bit more explanation. Clarinet manufacturing has been developing throughout history trying to achieve the most perfect and refined instruments.

In the early days clarinets were manufactured in many different keys, much more than we have today, the main reason being the restricted amount of keys those early clarinets had (only two keys to start with). In this way clarinettists could cover all the chromatic notes of the scale and play pieces in different key signatures by just changing from one clarinet to another. The following link states all the existing clarinets from the early 18th century up-to-date. I have taken the liberty of highlighting the ones that are still in use today.

Click here to view my chart: Chronological chart of clarinet origins

This chart is merely a chronological description of each clarinet invention. However, we should bear in mind that each of these instruments had its own evolutionary process. In order to get a clearer picture of this I have created galleries below. The first one shows Eb, Bb and A clarinets, second one bass clarinets and contra-bass clarinets. Then finally a version of these clarinets as how they are known today.

Click each image for a full description.

Clarinet family Leblanc I

Interestingly enough, Bb clarinets were not the most predominant of the family in the early days. The two clarinets mentioned at first by Jacob Denner were pitched in C and D (even though they had the same bore as a Bb). In the 1740s J. A. Molter composed six concertos for D clarinet – what are believed to be the first pieces using a much wider clarinet range.

Clarinets became easier to play with the development of more keys and airtight pads. Although the selection of an A, Bb or C clarinet was made on the basis of key signature, it was about 1800 that the tone-colour of each instrument began to take on well-defined characteristics, and in particular the tone of the C clarinet became rather distinct from that of the Bb.
Between 1930-1950 there was an attempt to standardise to the Bb instrument. Tutors were teaching to transpose orchestral parts in A and C to Bb. Even manufacturers added an extra key for the low Eb in the Bb instrument to match the range of the A. This attempt failed however in the orchestral world as composers still had preferences in the sound of each one of these instruments.

Parallel to their evolution, each clarinet became better suited to fulfilling the role that had developed with them and some others fell into disuse after a while. This was mainly because of inaccurate intonation between registers. In military bands, F and C clarinets were gradually replaced by Eb and Bbs between 1815 – 1825.
Orchestra repertoire today includes mainly Bb, A, Eb and bass clarinets. C clarinet parts are rarely played on a C clarinet but transposed from Bb.
On the other hand, piccolo clarinets in Ab, C clarinets, basset horns in F, alto clarinets Eb and contrabass clarinets are still in use within chamber music and clarinet choir repertoire. In jazz music, Bb and bass clarinets are the main ones used for this purpose today, as A clarinets became extinct within this style and wind bands.

To finish I would like to share this video by Cyrille Mercadier, where he shows the pitch and tone of each instrument by playing the same musical passage. Also, clarinet choirs tend to use as many instruments of the family as possible. As an example one of the most complete picture of the clarinet family I have been able to find from Clarinet Fussion‘, a clarinet choir in San Francisco.



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