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Clarinet derives from the Italian word, “clarino” which means trumpet. This “little trumpet” derives from the chalumeau, a Baroque instrument similar to the recorder. In 1690, Johann Christoph Denner and his son Jacob added a register key to the chalumeau forming a new instrument with a 4 octave range instead of the chalumeau’s limited 1 ½ octaves. Denner’s clarinet is composed of three registers. The chalumeau is the bottom register responsible for the lower pitched notes. The second clarino register is brighter and serves as the dominant range for most clarinets. The upper altissimo range delivers the most piercing high notes.
In 1839, Hyacinthe Klosé and Auguste Buffet developed a keying system for the clarinet which improved the tone and also eased the jumps between registers. This method of keying is called the Boehm System after the developer of the primary keying system for the flute. Iwan Müller also contributed greatly to the advancement of the clarinet with his incorporation of pads for the keys made of leather or fish bladder. Prior to his invention, fabric covered the clarinet keys and permitted a lot of air to escape. Müller’s pads are airtight which increases the number of keys that can be played. While the Boehm System is the most popular keying system for the clarinet, the Müller system is also employed along with the Albert and Oehler systems. Modern clarinets come in many keys, but Bb clarinets are probably the most popular.
Famous classical pieces for the clarinet include Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major which positions a solo clarinet against the entire orchestra. Another memorable piece is Claude Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsody for Clarinet & Piano which he used as a final test for his students at The Piano Conservatoire and features some of the most difficult clarinet passages and utilizes all ranges of the instrument. John Adams’ modern masterpiece, Gnarly Buttons, is a chamber piece composed in 1995 that also features the mandolin, banjo, and keyboard.
The clarinet is more closely associated with early jazz music from the turn of the century than post 1950s jazz. It was widely used in Dixieland music, also known as hott jazz, and then became a staple of Big Band and Swing music. Popular early jazz clarinetists include Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman – known as the King of Swing. The greatest living clarinetist is Buddy DeFranco who still produces albums and remembers the fondly the days when he used to play with Goodman and Shaw.
Choose your instrument from among soprano clarinets, bass clarinets, B flat clarinets, and E flat clarinets from time-honored brands like Buffet Crampon, Yamaha, LeBlanc, and Selmer Paris. Find the perfect instrument for your own professional performances, beginning instruction, or student Bb clarinets for your school’s marching band or orchestra program. Don't forget to stock up on clarinet reeds and accessories, too!
If you need additional resources to help you find the right clarinet or the basics of owning one, look no further than our Clarinet Buying Guide, Clarinet Basics or read about the legendary Buffet Crampon Clarinets.
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