Bass clarinet

(French: clarinette basse; German: Bassklarinette; Italian: clarone)

A member of the clarinet family (generally pitched in Bb, an octave below the soprano clarinet), this instrument is classified as an Aerophone.  Its range is usually extended to E (usually written e; sounding D) on French and English instruments, D (written d; sounding C) on German instruments, and there is a growing tendency to use instruments extended to C (written c; sounding B') in the manner of the basset-horn.  The upward extension of the range is even less well standardized; the composers who established the instrument’s position in the modern orchestra were more interested in exploiting its full and fruity chalumeau register than in its upper reaches.

Many late 19th-century orchestral parts use only about two and a half octaves of the range; many bass clarinets are constructed on the premise that this limited range is expected.  However, as a solo instrument the bass clarinet has as great a range as the soprano; many of the compositions dedicated to the Czech virtuoso Josef Horák cover four octaves or more.

Technically, the instrument has similar characteristics to the soprano clarinet.  In the lower register, the attack is not so effective, for which reason its use in combination with the harp, favored by the Second Viennese School (as at the opening of Berg’s Violin Concerto), is very successful.  Particularly striking is the ease with which a wide dynamic range is achieved; in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (the end of the exposition of the first movement, bar 160) a passage for the bassoon, marked “pppppp” (following a downward clarinet arpeggio), is, in practice, often given over to the bass clarinet, which achieves this dynamic with ease.

I. History

Apart from the instruments discussed under Chalumeau, the earliest extant bass clarinet is probably that by Anton and Michael Mayrhofer of Passau (Musikinstrumentenmuseum in

Münchner Stadtmuseum, Munich, 52.50; see Young (1980), pl.244). This remarkable instrument is curved in the manner of the better known basset-horns by the same makers, but with an additional 360° section at the lower end. Like contemporary basset-horns, it possesses a key for c (sounding B'), but not for d (sounding C). It seems possible that the 360° section at the bottom, which carries the lowest tone hole, was replaceable by a shorter section to give d (sounding C) instead.

Better known is the bass clarinet by Heinrich Grenser, dated 1793 (see illustration), and the similar example dated 1795 by his uncle August Grenser (i) (Darmstadt, Kg 67:133). These finely made instruments are pitched in B, with nine keys, and descend to written B (sounding A'). The keywork is diatonic from e down and there are two thumb-holes, in the manner of the bassoon of that period. It seems not unlikely that the instrument was intended to replace the bassoon in military bands. Several other 19th-century bass clarinets may have been devised for the same purpose: some, like the Grenser example, were built in a doubled-up form like the bassoon, and several had a compass to c or B. Among the early models were the straight bass clarinet of Desfontanelles of Lisieux (Musée de la Musique, Paris, no.1136); the basse guerrière of Dumas, Paris, 1807; the basse-orgue of Sautermeister, Lyons, 1812; the bassoon-shaped ‘patent clarion’ by George Catlin of Hartford, Connecticut, c1810; the bass clarinet of J.H.G. Streitwolf, Göttingen, 1828, and the bassoon-shaped Glicibarifono of Catterini, Padua. The modern instrument owes a great deal both to Adolphe Sax and to Buffet jeune (see Clarinet, §II, 4(iii)). Musically, the history of the bass clarinet may be said to start with the important part assigned to it in Meyerbeer’s opera Les Huguenots (1836); the Act 5 solo employs a range from e to g'''. In the same year Neukomm composed a setting of verses from Psalm lxx for ‘a counter-

tenor-Lady’s voice, with the bass clarionet concertant’. The part for bass clarinet in C, which descends to written c, was played in its first performance by Thomas Lindsay Willman, very likely on an instrument by George Wood; although no specimen of Wood’s bass clarinet is known, his published fingering chart for the instrument shows it to have been a bassoon-shaped model with a claimed chromatic range of four octaves and a whole tone.

From the later 19th century the bass clarinet figured frequently in orchestral scores; Mahler, Wagner, Schoenberg and Stravinsky used it regularly. In smaller combinations it was used particularly extensively by Webern, in preference to the bassoon. Occasionally two were specified (Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring).

II. Notation

Many of the early bass clarinets were pitched in C, as they were intended as replacements for bassoons rather than as additional members of the wind section. With the instrument’s increased acceptance in the orchestra, bass clarinets in B and A became more popular, although instruments in C were made into the 20th century. Many 19th-century composers assumed that the bass clarinet player would alternate between instruments in B and A according to the key of the music. The long bass clarinet solo in Bartók’s Suite for Orchestra op.4 was originally scored for an instrument pitched in A. With the widespread lowering of pitch standards to a' = 440, very few players or opera houses saw the need to retain the instrument in A, which may now be said to be extinct along with its companion in C.

There are several current conventions regarding notation for the bass clarinet. The so-called ‘French system’ is generally preferred by players: in this the part is written entirely in the treble clef, to sound a 9th lower than written. As players are accustomed to handling a number of

different-sized clarinets with similar key layout (Mahler, in his Fifth Symphony, expects one player to play six different instruments), this system is the most convenient, as no adjustment of fingering relative to notation is needed.

The so-called ‘German system’ (used by Wagner and Janácek, for example) uses both clefs, but mainly the bass clef, the notes sounding (for the B instrument) a whole tone lower than written. In the treble clef this runs counter to the player’s instincts; in an attempt to avoid confusion, some composers change to a 9th transposition when using the treble clef. This may be compared with Mozart’s practice (e.g. ka91/516c and ka581) of writing for the lower notes of the basset clarinet in the bass clef, to sound a 7th above the written notes, and with his notation for the horn and basset-horn. Schoenberg notated a few bass clarinet parts in C, perhaps feeling that to specify an instrument in B (or A) carried undesirable implications of tonality. More recently this practice has been revived, possibly because of the chromaticism of present-day music, or simply to avoid the trouble and expense of copying parts in the proper manner.

III. Mechanism

The size of the bass clarinet has always necessitated some difference in keywork from that of its smaller companions. Thus the instrument by Desfontanelles of Lisieux was built with 13 keys in 1807, before the soprano instrument was built with this number. Today the Boehm-system bass clarinet differs in a few respects from the soprano. In part, this is due to the necessity for large tone holes, so that all are covered by plates rather than directly by the fingers, and for a hole spacing wider than can be directly reached by the fingers. In part, it is that the instrument is large enough to accommodate improvements that are applied with less ease to the smaller instrument (and moreover the weight of additional keywork is of little significance since a spike

or a sling is always used). Thus several bass clarinets incorporate superior venting in the lower joint. Possibly the most ingenious attempt to apply to a clarinet Boehm’s principles of perfect venting for every note is the bass clarinet by Buffet-Crampon (Galpin Exhibition, Edinburgh, 1968, no.201; Bate Collection, Oxford) which incorporates keywork similar to the Dorus key of the flute, on both the c'/g'' key and the a/e'' key.

The third and most noticeable distinction in bass clarinet keywork concerns the speaker key. The compromise represented by this key, which is required both to define the speaking length of the tube for b' and to remain open for all higher notes in the instrument’s range, becomes more and more unsatisfactory in lower-pitched instruments. It was Sax who first lessened the compromise by providing two speaker keys. One opens a larger hole lower down the instrument, giving a good b' and being satisfactory for several notes above; the second is smaller and closer to the mouthpiece, and serves for all higher notes. Today most bass and alto clarinets, some basset-horns and very few soprano clarinets incorporate this feature. Because of the inconvenience of moving the thumb rapidly from one key to the other while continuing to cover a hole at the same time, various mechanisms have been devised whereby only one touchpiece is used. When the touchpiece is depressed, one hole or another is opened, as determined by some other key. For example, one popular model is so designed that if either the a' key is opened, or the plate controlled by the right-hand third finger is depressed, the lower hole is opened, controlling the notes from b' to e''. The slightly more complex mechanism required by automatic speaker keys is regarded with mistrust by a few players, so that some bass clarinets are still made with two separate touchpieces.

(a)               (b)                (c)                (d)

Vintage Bass Clarinets: (a) by Heinrich Grenser, Dresden, 1793; (b) American, probably made in Hartford, Connecticut, circa 1815; (c) in B, by A. Nechwalsky, Vienna, mid-19th century; (d) in A, by Wilhelm Heckel, Biebrich, 20th century

Buffet Model 1193