Instrumental insights: the Clarinet by Krista Martynes
/ September 1, 2011
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The body of a clarinet can be made from
various materials. Professional instruments are most often made from
exotic hardwoods such as grenadilla, while plastic resin is a common,
inexpensive student alternative. Historically, other woods have also
been used, along with metal, hard rubber and ivory. Today, instrument-makers
continue to explore the potential of other materials, such as carbon
fibre and composites, working to continue the path towards design perfection.
A brief history of the clarinet
by Krista Martynes
Throughout a clarinettist’s career, the musician can play up to seven
different clarinets, transpose entire orchestral masterworks, develop
more extended techniques than most instruments, as well as play major
solos influenced by traditional folk music from various countries. This
is all the result of the youthful history of the clarinet.
The clarinet originated from the German
instrument-maker Johann Denner who expanded the range of the baroque
17th century chalumeau by adding keys and tone holes using
a boxwood bore. The bore was also cylindrically altered to distinguish
a sonorous contrast between the clarinet and other woodwind instruments.
Throughout the 18th century,
many modifications were made to the tone holes and keys. Johann Stamitz
wrote one of the earliest clarinet concertos, and his expansion of the
orchestral score to include winds influenced Haydn to include clarinet
in his own symphonic writing. The clarinets would often double the trumpet
or horn which could elude to the sound quality of the boxwood bore.
Mozart took the instrument to superstar status in the late 18th
century by providing the famous clarinet concerto for a longer derivative
basset horn in A (resembling the length of an English horn).
Beethoven helped put the clarinet on
the map throughout his symphonic works. He began by writing for soprano
clarinet in C, an instrument that resembled the modern Eb clarinet,
with a bright sound. In his later compositions, he wrote for a less
bright clarinet in Bb. Instrumentalists of the period became familiar
with playing both Mozart’s lower basset horn and Beethoven’s brighter
C clarinet. Consequently, modern day clarinettists carry the A and the
Bb clarinet to their orchestral jobs every day, unlike most instrumentalists
who have one primary instrument. Orchestral players often transpose
Beethoven’s symphonic works that are still written in C, and sometimes
play auxiliary Eb or bass clarinets.
In the 19th century, Hyacinthe Klosé
and Auguste Buffet modified the key system to the Boehm system (originating
from the flute), creating two popular systems of clarinet that still
presently exist: the French (Boehm system) clarinet and the German (Oehler
system) clarinet. The French instrument-makers started to use ebony
and grenadilla wood which softened the sound. Each new system attempted
to facilitate and improve technique. It’s continual development influenced
romantic composers such as Weber, Spohr, Brahms, and Gershwin to write
elaborated concertos and solos, bringing the young instrument to the
The instrumental advancements influenced
folk and tzigane clarinettists as they were provided with a full range
instrument. Turkish, klezmer, oriental, and occidental folk musicians
inspired famous compositions by 20th century and modern classical
composers such as Bartok, Prokofieff, and Copland.
Deriving from the instrumentation of
Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie op. 9, and the idea of each instrument
being a soloist, contemporary ensembles emerged in Europe in the 1970s-1980s.
They have since had a significant impact on musical society. Twentieth
century and modern composers have grasped the clarinet’s elaborate
family and voluble extended techniques. Modern day instrumentalists
that play professionally in contemporary ensembles can be expected to
play on the A, Bb, Eb or bass clarinet within one concert or a single
Instrument-makers continue to expand
the clarinet family. There is a modern Italian clarinet that has extended
the range a whole step lower than the French or German clarinet. Interpreting
Italian composers, such as Salvatore Sciarrino or Luigi Nono, is difficult
for clarinettists who play French and German instruments, as some notes
don’t exist on their instruments. As contemporary music is sliding
from well-tempered to non-tempered to even equal-tempered writing, new
instruments are being made such as the Bohlen-Pierce equal-tempered
clarinet. Different parts of the clarinet have been modified to include
contact microphones or pitch bending effects to facilitate playing with
electronics. Modern instrument-makers are recreating the clarinet with
different forms of wood, metals, reeds, and tuning holes, giving professional
clarinettists, composers, and the instrument a bright and intriguing
If you think that a new reed is better
than an older one, think again: new reeds need to be broken in gradually
for maximum flexibility, control and comfort. While softer reeds are
easier for a beginner, harder reeds produce better tone, but are more
difficult to play due to the fact that more air is required to make
the reed vibrate. Depending on the frequency of use, traditional bamboo
reeds last from two weeks to one month. Plastic reeds are a recent alternative
offering greater longevity.
Krista Martynes’ Clarinet Tips
For the Beginner
What would you consider to be an important,
yet often overlooked element of instrument care that a clarinettist
should follow in order to maintain their instrument?
The inner bore of a wooden clarinet is constantly undergoing climate
change as it is humid, then dry, much more than the outer parts of the
clarinet. As a result the wood moves, changing the pitch, and the bore
becomes dry and brittle. The bore needs to be oiled every six months
by an instrument repairman.
For the Intermediate
What is an essential daily routine
that an intermediate-level clarinettist should have
in their arsenal to maintain and further develop their playing?
Playing long notes in all octaves of the clarinet helps the player maintain
breath control which is the first essential obstacle for a wind instrumentalist
to overcome. Playing scales rhythmically everyday (memorised) keeps
the fingers moving and the technique sharp.
For the Advanced
What would you recommend as a potentially
inexpensive way to upgrade a clarinet for someone who may not be able
to afford a professional instrument?
The mouthpiece and barrel have a huge impact on the sound and facility
of playing the instrument. If a player doesn’t want to invest in a
professional instrument, but feels limited, trying different mouthpieces
with more open or closed faces/bores, or trying different barrels could
be a positive change.
If you could recommend one work and
recording that would romance anyone into falling in love with the clarinet,
what would it be and why?
If one attends an orchestral concert, the clarinet has a wealth of solos
in most orchestral masterworks which are a treat to the ear, accompanied
by a vast and glorious string section.
The Brahms Quintet is a masterwork for
the clarinet and string quartet. Brahms’ late-writing is glorious,
with his marker rhapsody in the second movement. One of my favourite
recordings is Swiss clarinettist (recently deceased) Thomas Freidli
with the Sine Nomine Quartet recorded on Claves.
Krista Martynes has performed as a
soloist, orchestral and chamber musician throughout Canada, the United
States and Europe. Recently, she gave recitals in festivals including
Musikprotokoll, Transart and Remusica. Intrigued by the process involved
in the creation of new music, she frequently collaborates with composers,
dancers, video and sound artists in Montreal and abroad.
DID you KNOW?
The clarinet got its name from the Italian word clarinetto
which means “little trumpet.”