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Development of the Clarinet

Gregory Barrett

From the chalumeau to the clarinet

The 18th century two-key chalumeau and the contemporary two-key clarinet looked similar. Composers of the early 18th century often confused the instruments. The chalumeau was designed for the lower "chalumeau register" with an almost nonexistent high register. The clarinet was designed for the "clarinet register," the higher overblown notes and had a poor lower "chalumeau register."

The clarinet had a key on the back that was higher and smaller than the chalumeau's and a register tube for the overblown register. The bore was larger than the chalumeau; it was about the size of a modern Bb instrument. The clarinet bell was larger and had a definite flare to its bore. The clarinet mouthpiece was designed for the overblown register.

The first written record of the term clarinet was in the record of the Nuremberg Town Band purchase of four clarinets from Jacob Denner. It is generally agreed, based on a 1730 statement by J. G. Doppelmayr in his Historische Nachricht von den Nürnbergischen Mathematicis und Künstlern, that Johann Christoph Denner (1655-1707) invented the clarinet sometime after 1698 by modifying the chalumeau.

The earliest known clarinets that have survived are by his son, Jacob Denner (1681-1735). Jacob Denner devised the speaker key which produces pitches a 12th above the corresponding chalumeau register note. Two of Jacob Denner's contemporaries, Klenig and Oberlender, also made clarinets. Clarinets in several sizes survive by the Denners. At least 68 instruments of all kinds survive by Johann Christoph Denner and at least 40 by his son Jacob, both of  Nuremburg. The earliest Nuremburg records of clarinets date from 1710, three years after J. C. Denner's death.

Two keys

Jacob Denner's design with two keys resulted in an instrument that could be overblown to produce higher harmonics in addition to the lower register's fundamental pitches. Early clarinetists discovered that altissimo register notes could be produced by lifting the left hand index finger while the register key was depressed.

There is confusion about which key produced which note. The front key probably produced the note a' and adding the thumb key produced the note b'-flat as on the modern clarinet. Some sources say that the thumb key alone produced g'# or a'. Albert Rice states in his book The Baroque Clarinet that on the majority of existing baroque clarinets test-played by Eric Hoeprich and Marie Ross the thumb or "speaker key" did indeed produce a', with b'-flat produced by the front key and b' by both keys together. Ross found only one clarinet that produced b'-flat when both keys were depressed. This baroque era fingering arrangement cited by Rice may have been the case on the earliest clarinets before Jacob Denner moved the thumb key's hole higher and made the hole smaller. In either case the thumb key also served as the speaker or register key which when depressed produced a note a twelfth higher. The speaker key hole was lined with a metal tube to prevent clogging from moisture.

The baroque clarinet was usually made of European boxwood and sometimes of ivory, plum, ebony or pear. Clarinets varied in size and were made in either three or four sections. The keys were of brass, sometimes of silver and the springs were of brass. The tone hole covers were generally square though instruments with round covers have survived. In either case a piece of leather was attached to form the sealing pad.

Mouthpieces varied in the angle of the taper of the beak as well as interior dimensions. The earliest clarinet mouthpieces by Jacob Denner had very long window openings of between 40 and 50 mm. The length of the window was almost as long as the reed. The top lip of the player contacted the reed.

Another improvement used by Jacob Denner, also found in contemporary oboes and oboes d'amour, was the tuning hole halfway down the stock-bell of the clarinet. Denner clarinets with tuning holes played much better in tune (at a'= c.415) than a Denner clarinet without the tuning hole.

The lowest note on the two-keyed clarinet was f. With generous "lipping" and cross fingerings it was possible to play chromatically to open g'. From third space c' upward the chromatic sequence could again be repeated with the register key open. The clarinet register notes were better in tune than the chalumeau register notes. The two-keyed clarinets could reasonably be fingered up to g''', a note called for in the Concertos of J. M. Molter. B' at the break was not used by Molter because this note, some authors suggest, had to be produced by either lipping down c'' or lipping up b'-flat. As mentioned above some early clarinets could produce b' by depressing both keys. Another possible fingering which appears in the earliest existing fingering chart, that by J.F.B.C. Majer from 1732, is b' with both keys depressed and all three left hand holes and all four right hand holes closed.

Three keys

Perhaps as early as ca. 1730, but certainly by the 1740's, several makers (including another son of J.C. Denner, Johann David) added an extended bell and a third key operated by either the left or right thumb that produced low e, or when the register key was depressed the important missing (perhaps on some clarinets) third line b'.

This new key resulted in the clarinet being lengthened and filled the gap in pitches between chalumeau and high registers. It was operated by the thumb of the lower hand. The clarinets of this era could be played with either the left or right hand on the bottom joint. A pair of holes existed for the lower hand's fifth finger. Either the left or right hole could be plugged with the remaining hole opened or closed by the fifth finger. At a later date a few clarinets were made with the e/b' key on the left side of the instrument and operated by the left hand fifth finger.

The making of clarinets at this time was not standardized. In 1973, Kurt Birsak performed playing tests on several two and three-keyed instruments built in 1760 by G. Walch of Salzburg. Using an electronic tuner he found that the lowest two pitches were more often f and f# instead of the expected e and f. When the register key is added to the lowest note on these instruments they did produce the expected b' in the clarinet register. This suggests that the third key on these instruments was added to produce a useable b' rather than the low e. Walch's clarinets have more intonation problems than other baroque clarinets that have been tested so it is inconclusive which fingering patterns were the norm.

Early clarinets such as by the Denners had somewhat wide bores and mouthpieces compared to that of a modern clarinet. The finger-holes were also large. By the mid-18th century, clarinets had smaller bores that favored the higher range and a much narrower mouthpiece and smaller finger holes.

The two-key clarinets were usually in D or C, less often in Eb, F, or G. There is a Bb clarinet by Gerard Willems. Three-key instruments came in a greater variety of pitches, adding Ab to the above list, though most were still in D or C.

The baroque clarinet was as capable as any other woodwind of the period. It could play chromatically from low e or f to d''' or higher. The blowing resistance was between that of a recorder and a modern clarinet. The mouthpiece with the reed against the upper lip could always be turned around.

Four and five keys

During the 1750's, the fourth and fifth keys were added, first by Brunswick organ builder Barthold Fritz. The a-flat/e''-flat key was operated by the right hand (now always the lower of the two hands) fifth finger and the f#/c''# key was played by the left hand fifth finger. This instrument was known as the five-key clarinet by 1770. Only in France was the f#/c''# key added before the a-flat/e-flat key. To finger c#' and e-flat', cumbersome cross-fingerings still had to be used. A typical chromatic passage of the time from f''# to c''' involved cross fingerings for f''#, g''# and a''# that would have made the music much more cumbersome than on today's clarinet.

Bass clarinet and basset horn

The bass clarinet and basset horn were both invented around 1770. The basset horn maker was German but his name is not known. The first bass clarinet was made in Paris by G. Lot. These instruments used the same mouthpiece and had the same bore size as the contemporary Bb and A clarinets. The basset horn, usually pitched in F, had its length extended so that it was capable of playing down to "c."  The extra keys to play in this extended range were operated by the fifth fingers and the right hand thumb.

More improvements

Most clarinets of the 1770's-80's were in C and Bb. Some had an interchangeable upper joint ("pièces de rechange") that when used resulted in an A clarinet. The instrument that was solely an A clarinet was rare. The bores ranged from 13 to 14 mm. C and Eb clarinets had joints added when clarinets in B or D respectively, were needed. Reeds were short, narrow and hard. Many of the reeds from the late 1770's were made from pine or fir, some from cane.

In England ca. 1785 the mouthpiece was separated from the barrel and the joint was provided with a long tenon to act as a tuning slide. The separation of the mouthpiece from the barrel may have occurred outside England at about the same time but because the tenon joint was short, tuning was not possible.

Just before 1790, and only in England, a key to trill between a' and b' was added. In general, English clarinets of this time were not as developed as continental instruments. The continental clarinets had larger tone holes and increasingly better sound in the chalumeau register. This was important to Mozart because he started writing solo passages for the clarinet in the chalumeau register.

More keys

In 1791, Parisian clarinetist Jean-Xavier Lefèvre popularized, but did not as is often attributed invent, the sixth key on the clarinet, the left hand c#/g# key. Other players added this key at about the same time elsewhere, but Lefèvre's was the model used for 20 years until Iwan Müller's innovations. It was still difficult to play in keys with many sharps or flats because cross fingerings still had to be used.

J.F. Simiot produced clarinets with excellent tone using large tone holes and a large (15 mm.) bore. He created a register key on the top side of the clarinet that would not be clogged by water and put a brass tube in the left thumb hole to again prevent water from entering it. Semiot also devised a brass tuning slide between the mouthpiece and barrel. When using the "pièce de rechange" to produce an A clarinet, a mark indicated how far the bell should be pulled out. One of the finest surviving clarinets from the first half of the 19th century is by Semiot. In 1803, Semiot claimed to have made a 12-key clarinet. Being from Lyons his work was not well known.

Around 1806, Iwan Müller invented key pads made of leather or gut stuffed with wool that were more flexible than all leather or felt strips. Müller's pads, called "elastic balls," were glued inside the pad cups. Müller is also credited with developing the metal screw ligature and the metal thumb rest. When no thumb rest was used, the clarinet had to be supported at a greater angle away from the body.

Müller's greatest accomplishment was redesigning the key mechanism for greater ease in playing. In 1812, he arrived at a 13-key clarinet with improved intonation due to better placement of the tone holes. Müller bored tone holes with acoustical consistency and added attachments that enabled the same key to be used with different fingers. He hoped his clarinet would be accepted for use at the Paris Conservatory but a conservative committee of experts including Lefèvre, Méhul and Gossec, rejected it even though they admitted the six-key clarinet needed improvement.

The 13-key clarinet could play more easily in all keys (it was called the "clarinet omnitonique") but the committee did not want to lose the individual timbres of clarinets built in different keys. The seven keys added by Müller were f/c'', b-flat/f'', b/f#'', d#/a#'', f/c''' and g#'/b' trill. F. Geoffrey Rendall says the trill from "a" key was also added. Two keys were operated by the right thumb. Müller's clarinet still did not have any rings around the tone holes. Müller further refined his instrument by adding holes and keys that replaced awkward cross-fingerings.

Prominent players Friedrich Berr and J. B. Gambaro used Müller's design before 1820 and its popularity spread over the continent. Müller's clarinet was the prototype of the German system clarinets.

1808, Invention of the contra-bass clarinet

1818, First record of a metal clarinet

Ca. 1820, German players most often played with the reed touching the bottom lip. In France and elsewhere the reed on top was still more common. When German clarinetist Friederich Berr began teaching at the Paris Conservatory, the French joined the trend of playing with the reed on the bottom. Soon the English also began playing with the reed on the bottom.

Ca. 1820, pitch needed to play in London orchestras was about A-433, bands played higher. The pitch in bands continued to rise until 1850.

1823, César Janssen of the Paris Opera invented "roller keys," allowing the finger to slide from one key to another

1830's, The first German experiments to produce combination Bb/A clarinets

1832, Boehm introduced the "long axle" for flute keys, which were later used on clarinets

1837, August Buffet introduced the "needle spring" mounted on posts screwed into the clarinet

1839-1843, Hyacinthe E. Klosé followed Berr as a Paris Conservatory teacher. He and Louis-August Buffet developed the Klosé-Buffet clarinet, which is essentially the modern French clarinet. It had slightly smaller tone holes and four needle springs.

Their major innovation was the use of movable rings around the tone holes. When a finger covered a tone hole it also depressed the ring that was connected via a Boehm "long axle" to a padded key at a different location. The Klosé-Buffet clarinet had seventeen keys and six rings as do present day instruments. This eliminated the need for the cross-fingerings.

1844, The Boehm clarinet was patented. Boehm himself was not directly involved in its development.

ca. 1840, Adolphe Sax developed a clarinet from Müller's clarinet that used the Boehm movable rings but still needed cross-fingerings.

1830-1840, Refinements in the bore resulted in more evenness among notes. The size of the various pitched clarinets became more standard. Boxwood or ebony were the usual body materials and the keys were brass or silver.

Other clarinet models continued to be popular outside of France. The Belgian "Albert system" was a refined version of the earlier simple systems (without movable rings), like Müller's 13-key instrument. They supposedly had better intonation and tone than the Boehm clarinets of the same time.

1845, Müller collaborated with Heckel in adding rings around the finger holes of his clarinet's lower joint.

Mouthpieces did not increase to the present size until the 1840's. On early clarinets the mouthpiece was not considered a separate entity from the clarinet and was therefore made of the same type of wood. In the early 19th century it was first thought of as being separate. Harder woods more resistant to change in dimension were tried. Glass, ivory and metal were also tried. Hard rubber mouthpieces first appeared in the 1870's, plastic or Plexiglas in the 1930's.

1855, A five-key clarinet was still offered in a Viennese instrument maker's catalog.

1862, Buffet built a combination Bb/A clarinet with one set of keys and two metal tubes in the bore. It was mechanically sound, but had poor intonation and sound quality.

Ca. 1860, in Bavaria, Carl Baermann improved Müller's clarinet in collaboration with Munich instrument maker Georg Ottensteiner. They added two rings around finger holes on the upper joint and double levers to operate the a-flat and b-flat keys with the left hand. Clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld used this Müller-Baermann model in the 1890's.

Clarinetist Robert Stark and instrument maker Anton Osterried added keys based on the Boehm clarinet to help with certain trills.

Few improvements were attempted on the Boehm clarinets as their users were generally happy with the clarinets.

1869, First machine-made reeds

1870's, Boehm system clarinets increased in popularity in Italy, Belgium and the United States. They were almost the only type used in France.

1885, Englishman James Clinton developed a clarinet derived from the Müller clarinet. Around 1890, the Spaniard Manuel Gómez established the Boehm clarinet more fully in London where he was a prominent clarinetist. Gómez played a "Full Boehm" instrument. The Full Boehm clarinet had an extended range to low e-flat, an articulated c#'/g#' key, a left hand a-flat/e''-flat lever and a seventh ring for a cross-fingered e'-flat/b''-flat.

Early 1900's, Dr. R.H. Stein, a Berlin musicologist, made a quarter-tone clarinet, which was abandoned.

1900-1920, Oskar Oehler (1858-1936) worked to acoustically improve Müller's clarinet by changing the placement of some keys and their shape. The present day Oehler clarinet has 22 keys, five rings and one finger plate. Oehler system finger holes were spaced further apart than Boehm. In general the Oehler system required more finger sliding between notes instead of using alternating left and right hand small fingers as on Boehm instruments. Oehler's prime goal was the perfection of pitch and tone quality. Oehler did achieve better in-tune twelfths between e and b', f and c'', e' and b'' and f' and c''' than the Boehm clarinet.

1952, William Stubbins and Frank Kasper patented the S-K mechanism, which provided separate holes and keys for a register key and a resonance key for the note b'-flat. This design resulted in better tuned third partials and altissimo register.

Greg Barrett


Gregory Barrett
NIU School of Music
1425 W. Lincoln Highway
DeKalb, IL 60115