Sounds & Rhythm
The Woodwind's Queen: Clarinet
THE clarinet is one of the younger woodwind instruments with a single reed and cylindrical bore. When you talk about the clarinet in general you refer to the A- or B flat (soprano) clarinet. From a distance the instrument may look similar to an oboe. In contrast to the oboe's thin double reed, looking like a straw, the clarinet has got a wide mouth piece with a single reed fixed on it. Furthermore it has got a cylindrical bore, that is, the full length is of the same diameter much in contrast to most other wind instruments. Both in sound and playing techniques the clarinet is one of the most flexible instruments at all. You will find that it shows a very different sound in the different registers - more characteristic than any other wind instrument. You can play virtually all forms of articulation with a clarinet - extremely short staccato, a perfect legato (binding of notes), vibrato when it is needed, even a glissando (that is changing the pitch from one tone to another without having to interrupt).
There is a diversity of national styles and quite different ideas of how a clarinet should sound, with the German and French schools being the most prominent. At least in the question which instrument type to use the French school is dominating the world (except for Germany and Austria, where they use their own instrument types).
The clarinet's history begins with its invention around 1700: The German instrument maker J.C. Denner developed it based on a very simple shepherd's instrument, the chalumeau, which then had a range of about one octave. Since 1800 the clarinet is fully established in symphonic music, popular music, dance- and military music and then later on in Jazz and pop, but is also used in Indian, Persian and Turkish music, Gipsy, Kletzmer and even Arabian music with its non-European scales.
In the classical symphony orchestra there are at least two to three clarinettists playing the B flat or A clarinet, in addition there often is an E flat clarinet player and a bass clarinet player when needed. The clarinet held its role in popular music until the saxophone took over in the mid 20th century, when electronic amplifiers (microphones and e-guitars) made a far louder tone necessary.
In the symphonic wind band and the marching band the clarinets are used to replace the strings like violins and violas - as a result there are many more clarinet players in this type of orchestra. In dance orchestras and jazz big bands the clarinet is often played by the same musicians who play the saxophone, too, because of the same mouthpiece and the similar technique.
Clarinets are not extremely expensive - you get "good enough" new instruments as well as a better but used ones starting from about 500 Euros. Neither is the clarinet large or difficult to carry about. A child can start to learn to play the clarinet as soon as it has his/her adult teeth and the hands are big enough. Depending on your ambition and time invested in exercising you can learn enough in two years to be able to play in a beginners' orchestra or band (this still leaves you some way to go to become a world class solo clarinet player, off course).
Quite often the clarinet players influenced composers directly - this wasn't always just a professional relationship only, but often a friendship. It helped both: The musician needed new and popular pieces to play, and the composer benefited from finding out what a player could do with the instrument. Most composers then and today play the piano and maybe one other instrument, the more they know about the characteristics of the instruments, the better they can set music for them. You find a lot of such relationships between composer and player: Stamitz and Joseph Beer, Mozart and Stadler, Spohr and Hermstedt, Weber and Baermann, Brahms and Mühlfeld, as well as Benny Goodman who worked together with modern composers a lot.