The History Of The Clarinet

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Instruments have always played an essential role in music since their advent, tens of thousands of years ago.

As much as music can be done with simply the human voice, there is just a magic about instruments accompanying the human voice that only your heart can understand. 

Much of the knowledge behind older instruments is shrouded in mystery, as we see images in old books and paintings, and have little to no knowledge about what exactly they are. 

It doesn’t help that these odd instruments are being played by mythical (and dare we say fictional) creatures.

We can only postulate that certain instruments of today somehow trace back to these ancestral instruments, and we need to dig deep into the dustiest of history books, to find out more details on just what these instruments were.

Today, we will be talking about the history of the clarinet, a unique instrument from the woodwind family, and the result of a revolutionary development that was built upon another instrument called the chalumeau (pictured below).

Difference between a clarinet and a chalumeau

Although the clarinet and the chalumeau are somewhat similar in appearance and, to an extent, the way they are played, they are two separate instruments.

The chalumeau, which is nearly identical to a recorder, was in existence before the invention of the clarinet.

The sound of chalumeau, at lower registers, worked fine, but it lacked vibrancy at higher registers. 

Another instrument, called the Baroque clarinet and sometimes called a “mock trumpet”, could cover the higher notes.  Both had a limited number of notes they could play.

The development of the clarinet created a high-quality sound at both high and low registers.  In this way, the arrival of the clarinet was born out of a certain need for a fuller range of notes.

Here is a quick video review of the chalumeau and the Baroque clarinet to hear their respective sounds.

In addition to the tone holes of the chalumeau, their distance for the lower octave is similar for the upper octave.

The first clarinets (once the instrument was invented and its structure was decided upon) also had two extra holes as compared to the chalumeau.

Due to certain practical and theoretical restrictions, the instrument makers prior to the 1700’s could not manufacture the particular effect the clarinet producesd, and had to rely on these other instruments to get those sorts of sounds.

Who invented the clarinet?

Johann Christoph Denner, an instrument maker from Nuremberg, together with his son, invented the clarinet. 

Denner was experienced with making whistles and hunting horns, and just 10 years prior to 1700 is when he moved towards oboes and recorders, and, in time, came up with something new and exciting – the clarinet!

A few of his originals still exist today, dating back over 300 years now and demanding hefty sums at auctions.

The arrival of the clarinet came after a long period of experimentation with the chalumeau, which Denner was busy examining with and working on improving.

As a maker of instruments, he knew what instruments had and also what they lacked.  You can be sure, in speaking to the players at the time, that he often heard an earful in regards to whatever issues they were experiencing with their instruments back then. 

It was the time of music which involved many huge concerts, and all of the big names in what we now call “classical” music were living and breathing like Haydn, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Bach, and so many more, and so there was an emphasis on producing the utmost quality instruments at the time for these composers, and the players who supported their works.

Denner wanted to build an instrument that could play both the upper and the lower registers without much sacrifice in terms of clear intonation. Two extra holes were added to the duodecime key to achieve this.

The first clarinets to be invented were very simple and had a similar look of a great recorder.

These early clarinets had two keys, and, with time, another key was added to make three keys.

With this addition, the newly minted clarinet instrument had a wide tonal range as compared to trumpets and oboes of that particular time. 

Being relatively loud and able to perform difficult jumps, the clarinet had an ease of playing which could not be obtained on other instruments like the trumpet, due to its various mechanical restrictions.

The fact that the word “clarino” was used to mean a small trumpet is an interesting twist on things, and, it so happens, that the word clarinet may have originated from it.

With enough small tweaks, and the addition of the two holes to the chalumeau, this new instrument basically became what is now known as the clarinet. 

With time, and more tiny alterations, the clarinet became more and more itself.

The sensational sound that the clarinet produced made it find usage in the orchestras of the day sooner than expected.

In the year 1740, Vivaldi had written a concert and Händel had composed an overture in 1748, both of which demanded the use of the Clarinet.

The development of the clarinet attracted various instrument players looking to try this new and exciting sound. The most widely known instance is from the Mannheim Orchestra, where two oboe players transitioned into clarinet players.

Further development of clarinet

Just like any instrument, the clarinet had its challenges and technical difficulties as it evolved.

The clarinet had only five primary keys by the 1760’s.  People of the time wondered if it was even possible to play music with that kind of instrument?

Clarinet players, loyal to working with this new instrument because of its entrancing sound, found ways to play this new instrument even with the limitations of developing models.

With each new technological jump and musical challenge, craftsmen and clarinet players strived to improve the instrument, and, if possible, to achieve perfection. The progression was in small steps which sometimes could lead to dead ends.

Eventually, however, the demand for greatness was at hand and entire concertos were being produced with the clarinet at their center.

Types and versions of clarinet over the years

Many clarinet types emerged, over the years, but only a few have survived to date. The development of these particular varieties of clarinets were as follows.

In the year 1710, the Denner’s was the first type of clarinet to be established in any way as a standard.  After all, it was his invention, so people looked to Denner for the template of how the clarinet was to be made.

Iwan Müller’s Clarinet

As time progressed, Iwan Müller’s version of the clarinet was established as a new benchmark for the instrument.

Being an instrument maker and a clarinet player himself, Iwan Müller developed a spoon-key with sunken holes, a conical ring, and an airtight pad.

This is because the old keys were unreliable, since they had a felt pad simple pivot-mechanism. Müller developed a ligature and changed the reed to what is commonly used today.

Altogether, Müller’s clarinet had 12 keys.  His development was not accepted by the Paris Conservatorium, as they believed in the characteristics of each specific scale not be tampered with.

Clarinets by then were only able to play one scale, and an introduction of a clarinet that could play chromatically would destroy this particular characteristic of each scale that they wanted to see upheld.  Also, they were a little bit snobby.  

In 1939, another development was made and was attributed to the name Bhoelm.

Theobald Boehm’s Clarinet

Theobald Boehm, a flute maker and composer from Germany, brought changes in the instrument world by making two changes.

The first change that he made was able to create a mathematical basis that could be used in determining the exact construction of the tone holes. This applied to the concert flute as well as the up and coming clarinet.

The ring key was his second invention. Covering of a hole that may have been larger than the finger that lies on it, the ring key was made possible through his creativity.

Here is a sample of the man’s work – a beautiful flute piece.

Hyacinthe Klosé

Hyacinthe Klosé, a Frenchman, developed a model of this clarinet and, being a Frenchman, he knew how to deal with the finicky nature of the Parisian Music Academy because he himself was a composer and also professor at the Conservatoire de Paris.

As one might expected, his fellow Parisians were convinced of his assertions about the clarinet.  Hence, his instrument was accepted and is currently played worldwide today.

But the progress didn’t stop there.  In 1900, a new German system was developed by improving Iwan Müller’s system. This type of clarinet is attributed to the name Oehler.

Although the German system did not make the Bhoelm system its standard, the Oehler standard is just as good as the Bhoelm system.

Although, in their opinion, any German will tell you that the Oehler system is far much superior to the Bhoelm system.

Although the two instruments look similar, there exists a difference between the two instruments. The significant difference can be seen in the keys that are meant for the little finger.

The Oehler system has a half-round key ends with a wooden roller and flat two levers, where the Bhoelm system has four levers.

What are clarinets made of?

The Clarinets can be made using different materials.

Classical instruments are commonly known to have been made from boxwood.  To send notes far and wide that are part of difficult passages, the instruments have undergone a dynamic change.

Grenadilla has become the most widely used material in making the clarinet. Grenadilla is commonly used because it has a higher density than boxwood.

The use of grenadilla makes it more comfortable during the performance to support the clarinet with body hence allows more air volume. This makes the sound to be more gentle and soft.

Here is a video by Yamaha talking about the difference between ABS resin and grenadilla.

The clarinet family

The family of clarinets is made up of similar instruments, although the sizes vary.

This includes bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, alto clarinet, and piccolo clarinet. 

The bass clarinet can trace its origin to France. 

There are also instruments in this family that differ slightly in construction, such as the basset horn. 

The clarinet and jazz

Since 1910, the clarinet has continued to play a central role in the jazz music.  It could be said that jazz music was made for this instrument moreso than classical, but that would be splitting hairs.  

The attraction between jazz music and the clarinet is not surprising, in retrospect.  Jazz music has a mysterious sound that is quite beguiling, and that same description could be used for the clarinet’s tone itself.

The Bb soprano clarinet is one of the most commonly used instruments by jazz pioneers such as Sidney Bechet and Johnny Dodds.

Here’s the best of Sidney Bechet, just to give you a taste of his incomparable clarinet styles in the old New Orleans jazz mode.

A number of bands have actively used clarinets from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, but this is generally found outside of the realm of the the rock, pop, and blues genres that dominated the radio starting in the 1940’s.

The usurping of the clarinet from the jazz ensemble by the saxophone, made the clarinet seem to disappear partially. This is because the saxophone was a louder and more forceful instrument, that did not have as complicated of a fingering system.

Also, modern jazz required an increase in speed and this did not also favour the clarinet, which was not built for the same blinding ferocity as the sax. 

That said, you can rock out on a clarinet (examples below) and it can be played quite fast.  But, if you look at a saxophone, you can see that by design it is designed to really wail if you push it, whereas clarinets are a more demure instrument by nature.  

As you can hear, it is possible to “riff” on a clarinet, but at the same time, it always has that “nice” and rather calming breath-y sound that basically precludes it from being a full-on rock instrument.

Now, you might say, “Why don’t they just electrify a clarinet like you would a guitar?”  Well, they have.  If you are interested in this concept, please check out the following video on the subject of electric clarinet.

Because it is naturally a rather lively instrument, clarinet is found everywhere in a wide variety of musical styles.  Modern styles, older more obscure styles – clarinet has a wide berth in terms of appeal.

Samba and choro, both of which are Brazilian music style, use clarinets quite liberally.

Clarinets have also been featured in the folk music in Macedonia, klezmer music and Bulgarian wedding music.

In conclusion, the clarinet is one of the instruments that is indispensable to the vocabulary of music, due to its exotic and unique nature, ability to play speedy runs, chromatic embellishments, and generally lighter touch.

The uniqueness of the clarinet still stands today as its prime feature, and we can’t imagine that the clarinet is going anywhere anytime soon.  All hail the clarinet!  Leave us a comment if you also love this instrument, or if you know about something that we may have missed!

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