Instrument Of The Week
Instrument Of The Week
The clarinet, with its rich luxuriant sound is a standard instrument of the orchestra. Unlike the oboe and bassoon, which have two reeds, it uses a single reed to produce sound. The predecessor to the clarinet is the chalumeau, an instrument that had been around since medieval times. It had a straight pipe with no flared bell shape at the end. In the early eighteenth century the end of the chalumeau was flared out somewhat and the reed was moved a bit closer to the mouthpiece and the clarinet was born.
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Clarinet literally means “little trumpet” and was given that appellation because composers didn’t know what to do with the new instrument so they gave it parts that would normally be given to a trumpet, such as fanfares and the like.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century various improvements were made to the instrument, resulting in the clarinets we have today, which essentially have been around since about 1850.
As far as is known, neither Bach nor Handel wrote for the clarinet, probably because the instrument was rarely found in most countries at that time.
In Mozart’s day three types of clarinet were commonly used. There was one keyed in C, one keyed in B-flat, and one keyed in A. There was another one, not commonly used, but used by Mozart in “Cosi Fan Tutti” and that is a clarinet keyed in B-natural. Each type of clarinet lent itself to ease of playing in certain keys and had its own distinctive tone color. Mozart would specify in the beginning of the score which type of clarinet was to be used and rarely changed to another type of clarinet, even in lengthy works. Eventually all but the B-flat clarinet became obsolete. In using only the B-flat clarinet, modern orchestras lose the variety of tone color that is inherent in Mozart’s scores.
Mozart was the first composer to discover the soul of the clarinet. Though notable composers as far back as Vivaldi had written effectively for the instrument, it was Mozart who first composed with a deep understanding of its expressive capabilities.
Whenever Mozart featured clarinets prominently in a passage or in a whole work, he always wrote idiomatically for them, as he a deep understanding of the nature of the instrument, though he did not play it himself. He seems to have associated clarinets with love, because many of his love arias feature prominent clarinets, a prime example being in act one of “Cosi fan Tutti.”
Mozart was found of dividing the violas and pairing the clarinets with the violas. There are places in some of his orchestral scores where he would have one clarinet play in unison with the first violas and the other one play in unison with the second violas. Then he would have each viola/clarinet voice playing in parallel thirds, creating a thick, creamy, luxurious sound.
Mozart loved clarinets ever since he was a small child. In those days clarinets were by no means ubiquitous. Many cities did not have a single clarinet in town. Whenever he visited a city during his travels, he was always delighted when he discovered that the local orchestra had clarinets. The reason why so many of his symphonies do not have clarinets is because each symphony was composed for a concert in a city he was visiting, and he had to compose for what ever instruments they had.
The clarinet is featured by Mozart in certain pieces of chamber music, the clarinet Quintet being the most famous example.
The clarinet quintet (see my blog on clarinet quintets) by Weber (cousin of Mozart’s wife & a good composer himself) is good, the one written by Brahms a century later is great, and the one of Mozart is an exquisite masterpiece, a crowning jewel in the repertoire of chamber music.
Mozart’s friend Anton Stadler was a big influence on the way he handled the clarinet in his clarinet quintet and clarinet concerto. Anton was one of five brothers, all of whom played the clarinet. Anton was considered the best clarinetist in Europe. Mozart met him at the Freemason lodge. Much of the elaborate passage work in his clarinet concerto came from listening to Anton Stadler improvise for him. Mozart ingeniously incorporated some of Stadler’s improvisational material in his quintet
By Beethoven’s time two clarinets had become a standard part of the orchestra, at least in Vienna, and are to be found in all of his symphonies. The instrument found its way into jazz, Broadway, and swing music. I can’t imagine hearing Paul McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty Four” without the cheerful clarinets. Listen carefully and you will hear three clarinets in that song, one of them a bass clarinet.
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The Clarinet ( a brief history) . . December 17, 2012 . <>