The clarinet is a very versatile instrument that underwent several stages until it reached its final form that we know today. Undoubtedly, it is considered one of the most important instruments in the symphonic repertoire, as well as a solo and an ensemble instrument. Although is used a lot in classical music, it is also intensively used in other genres such as jazz and folk music. It is one of the main instruments used in klezmer music, and a very important member of the Balkan folk music scene. But where did the clarinet come from, and how did it reach the final form we have today?
The clarinet is one of the most well-known single reed instruments. It belongs to the woodwind family, and as the family suggests it is entirely made of wood, but we can also find instruments made from plastic and metal. The first appearance of the clarinet is the 17th century in Germany under the name ‘clarino’, which means imitation of the trumpet, or chalumeau. It slowly entered the classical music scene under the name ‘clarino’ and very soon the name switched to ‘clarineto’ or ‘clarinet’. Through many evolutions and experiments by great players, in the mid 19th century we reached the design we mostly use today. Nowadays, we have two main clarinet systems: the Boehm system and the Oehler System.
This evolution and the constant instrument improvements throughout its known history have led to the creation of various different clarinet types which are known as the clarinet family. To begin with, the most common clarinets that are used today are the clarinet in B-flat and A. Referred to as ‘soprano clarinets’, these instruments are widely used in all styles of music. The Bb clarinet is also the instrument that beginner students start with. There is also the e-flat clarinet, which is smaller in size than the Bb and also sounds higher. It is used a lot in large ensembles such as wind bands, marching bands and in symphony orchestras.
Moving to the lower parts of the family, we have the alto clarinet which is in the key of E-flat and sounds lower than the B-flat clarinet. The alto clarinet is very rarely used in the symphonic repertoire, but is often used in chamber music, clarinet ensembles, and wind bands. Moving even lower we get the bass clarinet which is in the key of B-flat. An instrument with a beautiful sound that extents to low C (the cello’s lowest note) found its place in the orchestra at the end of the romantic era and since then it became an important member of larger scale works. Nowadays, it is used in all sorts of musical genres and it is quite famous among contemporary music composers. Lastly, we find the lowest members of the clarinet family that include the contralto clarinet and the contrabass clarinet. These two instruments are mostly used in clarinet ensembles and clarinet choirs.
There are two main clarinet ensembles that use most of all the clarinet family. These ensembles are the clarinet quartet/quintet which mostly involves Eb, Bb, Alto, Bass clarinets and the clarinet choirs which involves the all the pre mentioned clarinet family. These ensembles are increasing their popularity steadily, and more composers are getting interested in composing new music for these ensembles.