Clarinet

The clarinet is sounded by a single on a mouthpiece , and was developed at the beginning of the 18th century. The five-key and six-key instruments were used for over a century until more complicated mechanisms were developed in the 19th century to enable musicians to play more demanding repertoire.

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An example of individual keys (left) versus mechanised keywork (right)

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To cope with music in various keys, players used clarinets of different sizes. In the early 19th century, a set of clarinets in C, B flat and A was the basic equipment of the orchestral player: today a pair (B flat and A) are standard. The music is transposed to enable the same fingering to be used.

Video: Lesley Schatzberger talks about the 5-key clarinet by Thomas Collier, 1770.

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With markedly larger and smaller sizes, both compass and sound are distinct. The clarinet in Eb often shrill and exciting, is the small clarinet most commonly used today. The bass clarinet is pitched an below the standard B flat clarinet. The basset horn is nearly always pitched in F below the standard clarinets. Its extended length, going far beyond the lowest finger-hole, and relatively narrow give it a low register of great richness.

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Audio: Lesley Schatzberger plays Eb clarinet (1041) on an excerpt from Hector Berlioz (1803-69), ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ from ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ (1830).

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Video: Lesley Schatzberger talks about the basset horn by Thomas Key, London, 1820 (92) here.

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In Germany, the mechanism of the clarinet has evolved gradually, with more keys being added to facilitate the fingering of difficult music, and is today known in this country as the ‘Oehler System’.

In France, some of the ideas that Boehm used for his flute were applied to the clarinet around 1840. The so‑called ‘Boehm clarinet’ has changed little since then, and has become the prevailing model – first in France, followed by the United States, Britain and most of the world.

The clarinet is a versatile instrument, equally useful in the symphony orchestra and in wind and jazz bands.