[Fr. clarinette; Ger. Klarinette; It. clarinetto]
Generic term for a wind instrument sounded by a single beating reed; in the system of Hornbostel and Sachs such an instrument is classified as an Aerophone: reedpipe, with a reed consisting of a single percussion lamella. The clarinet of Western art music (from which the generic term is taken) is of essentially cylindrical bore and is made in a variety of sizes and tonalities; the soprano instrument pitched in Bb with the ‘Boehm system’ of keywork and fingering, is the most widely used today. Instruments consisting of a single tube have been used, generally as pastoral instruments, in Central Asia, the Baltic countries, the Balkans, Greece, Hungary, North Africa, South and South-east Asia and South America. Clarinets sounding a single note are found in South America and on the west coast of North America.
Clarinets with more than one tube are found in North Africa, Nigeria, the Near East, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South Asia and South-east Asia. On some double clarinets, one of the pipes is a drone; on others, both pipes are melodic, but tuned slightly differently to create beats. They are characteristically played using the technique of circular breathing. One of the best known is the Pūngī, the ‘snake-charmer's pipe’ of South Asia.
Transverse clarinets are so-called because the position of the reed requires the instrument to be held horizontally. They are mainly found in West Africa throughout the savanna region, from Senegambia to Chad.
Clarinets have probably been made in a wider range of sizes and pitches than any other instrument. The most used from this family are Alto clarinet, Bass clarinet, Basset clarinet, Basset-horn, Clarinette d'amour and Contrabass clarinet, Piccolo or octave clarinets.
The clarinet is generally made in five separate parts: mouthpiece, barrel, upper or left-hand joint, lower or right-hand joint (the two ‘joints’ constituting the ‘body’), and bell. These sections are fitted together by tenon-and-socket connections, the seal being effected by lightly greased cork.
The lowest note of the standard Boehm-system clarinet is (written) e, sounding d for a Bb instrument.
The clarinet known today in the English-speaking world as the Boehm-system clarinet was the product of a collaboration (c1839–43) between the clarinettist Hyacinthe Eléonore Klosé and the maker L-A. Buffet. Buffet had some experience with Theobald Boehm's flutes and used some of the same mechanical principles in the new clarinet.
The clarinet came into widespread use only after the middle of the 18th century, although there is sporadic evidence of its use earlier. The Mannheim orchestra deserves much of the credit for popularizing the orchestral use of the clarinet. Mozart did not use the clarinet in the full orchestra until the 1780s and then only sparingly. Apart from Mozart's compositions, most of the extant clarinet music from this period to about 1790 is in the wind ensemble repertory, music written for the Harmoniemusik that was available to play at every large establishment in Europe.
In the 19th century, the clarinet was a regular member of the orchestra, playing an important role in the wind section. Clarinets in C, Bb and A were all frequently specified, the choice being determined primarily by the tonality of the piece. In military bands clarinets in F and C were gradually replaced by those in Eb and Bb between about 1815 and 1825.
During the 19th century gypsy musicians abetted the diffusion of various forms of the Western clarinet throughout Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East. In Turkey, for example, Eb, Bb and A clarinets were introduced into the palace band of Mahmud II (1808–39) and the low G instrument was particularly favoured for Turkish tunes. The military band and the jazz band have since continued to carry the clarinet throughout the non-Western world.
As with other wind instruments, technical demands on the player increased considerably in the 20th century, first in orchestral parts, then in concertos and other solo and chamber works.
The Bb clarinet once played a primary role in ragtime and jazz ensembles, although its significance waned greatly after about 1945, except in so-called traditional or Dixieland jazz. It is generally played with a wide vibrato and with distinctive glissandos and portamentos. The virtuoso achievements of early jazz clarinettists were considerable: Sidney Bechet drew high praise from Ansermet, and Benny Goodman, as mentioned above, was sought out by several composers. Other important jazz clarinettists include Jimmie Noone, PeeWee Russell, Artie Shaw, Barney Bigard, Woody Herman and Jimmy Giuffre. Extended 20th-century compositions using the clarinet in imitation of jazz include Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto and Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs. Music by such composers as Holst and Persichetti for the military or symphonic band (in which there are more clarinets than any other instrument) is also worthy of mention.
Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Bodgan Gugu
- Octavian Gheorghin
- Simon Abdelsater
- Talal Fakih
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