The appeal of the clarinet is its rich variety of expression, which ranges from a light timbre to a deep mysterious timbre. It also boasts a register of approximately four octaves: the largest of any wind instrument. The clarinet is related to the flute, the oboe, and the bassoon. In an orchestra, the clarinet takes on both solo roles and the middle register of the woodwind part, while in music for wind instruments the clarinet assumes a leading role (along with the trumpet). Due to its warm timbre and all-action playing style, it is also used as a solo instrument in genres such as swing jazz.
The Origins of the Clarinet
The clarinet is a relative newcomer among woodwind instruments. It is generally said to have been invented by the Nuremberg instrument maker Johann Christoph Denner at the start of the eighteenth century. A similar instrument, the chalumeau, was already in existence. However, although the chalumeau sounded fine at lower registers, the clarinet boasted rich sound quality at both low and high registers. The fact that the name "clarinet" originally meant "small trumpet" ("clarino" means trumpet) was probably also related to this characteristic of the clarinet.
The clarinet family is comprised of a number of similar instruments. It includes instruments of various sizes, such as the piccolo clarinet (or octave clarinet), alto clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet, as well as instruments whose construction is slightly different, such as the basset horn. The basset horn, with its curved tube, was invented in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and was chiefly used in works by classical composers.
The clarinet produces sound by means of a single-reed attached to the mouthpiece. The keys are attached to the cylindrical section known as the bore and are used to vary the pitch. Up until the first half of the eighteenth century, the clarinet only had two keys. However, more keys were then gradually added to the instrument to enable the clarinetist to play chromatic scales and clean notes more easily. The configuration that has now become standard was perfected by Hyacinthe Klosé and Louis-August Buffet in the mid-nineteenth century, based on the ideas of Theobald Boehm, who was responsible for creating the modern flute. Since the instrument is based on Boehm's system, it is called the "Boehm clarinet."
The first record of a bass clarinet comes from France toward the end of the eighteenth century. We know that it was a man named Gilles Lot who first created an instrument called the Basse-Tube. As the model for the clarinet was created at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the instrument that would become the bass clarinet was only created nearly 100 years later. However, it did not enjoy much success as an instrument at first. It was not until the next century that the bass clarinet as we know it today, with its large keys and straight tubular body, was first made by Adolphe Sax, who would later create the first saxophone, in 1838. This is when the instrument first took its current shape. The first piece of music to feature the bass clarinet was Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, which contains a long solo for the instrument in the fifth act.
There are a variety of different materials that clarinets can be made of, but most classical instruments were made of boxwood. Today, however, not only is the music itself different from the era of classical music, but the requirements of the musicians are also different. The instruments themselves have also changed to have wider dynamic ranges, with rich expressive power to send the notes of even the most difficult passages far and wide. Grenadilla, which is now the most commonly used material for clarinet making, has a higher relative density than boxwood, making it easier to support with the body while performing, thereby allowing for more air volume. When blowing gently, on the other hand, rather than the sound becoming weak it becomes soft and gentle. We can conclude that grenadilla is the most suitable material for what musicians look for in a clarinet in this day and age.