Basset Horn vs. Alto Clarinet

This will be one of the few times where I feel that I will need to have a debate on the merits of two instruments.  Usually, if two instruments of similar pitch exist, I would say to use them both for their merits, but not here.

Traditionally, the Alto Clarinet has been an instrument only for the band, while the Basset Horn has been an instrument only for orchestral and chamber music.  Here we get to the real difference between the two.  Professional clarinetists look at the instruments differently.  The Basset Horn is viewed favorably, while the Alto Clarinet is not.  Manufactures know this as well.  The Basset Horns being produced today are far superior to the Alto Clarinets being made.  Known design flaws in Alto Clarinets have gone unnoticed, or been neglected for at least thirty years.

The ranges of the two instruments differ slightly as well.  The Alto Clarinet descends to a curious low concert G-flat, while the Basset Horn descends to a concert F, which is a minor second lower even though the instrument is pitched a major second higher.

In general, the difference between the two instruments is said to be in the bore size.  The Basset Horn is supposed to have a narrow bore while the E-flat Alto Clarinet has a wide bore, but this isn’t always the case.  Some Basset Horns will have larger bores than some Alto Clarinets.  It all depends on the manufacturer.  For example: a Yamaha Alto Clarinet will have a bore of .670 inches while a Buffet Basset Horn has a bore of .673 inches.

I think it is time that we abandon the E-flat Alto Clarinet in favor of the F Alto Clarinet, for that’s what the Basset Horn really is nowadays.  The miniscule differences in bore design are usually only noticeable to the player.

Let’s now think of the possibilities of the F Alto Clarinet.  When symphony orchestras purchase this instrument, they almost always buy a matched pair.  Most of Mozart’s music and some of Strauss’ utilize two parts.  As bandesterators, we should take advantage of this.  Why not have two F Alto Clarinet parts in our work?  The sound of the instrument is beautiful (after all, it was Mozart’s favorite!).

The complaint from band directors about the uselessness of the Alto (either size) comes from their own hand and usually not the composer’s (though many composers can share some of the blame).  When you use two dozen B-flat Clarinets and only one Alto Clarinet, the whole of that unique sound will be lost!  24:1 are not great odds to be heard.  How about instead 6:2 (4:2, 2:2)?

I cannot think of any member of the woodwind family with which the Alto Clarinet will not mix.  Grainger showed us that the most disparate instrument, the Piccolo, makes for a haunting combination.  Mozart used it to great effect with the Bassoon in his Requiem (where the entire woodwind section is 2 F Alto Clarinets and 2 Bassoons).  With English Horn (or any low oboe), great moments of poignancy are derived.  Many composers have also used it with the Horn, where it fills in as a lower voice.  The same can be done with the trombones (when played at piano).

Do not just confine your writing to have the Alto Clarinet be just a member of the clarinet ensemble.  Use it as a solo voice and with other instruments.

Mozart Divertimento for 3 Basset Horns – Note: one of the instruments is actually an E-flat Alto.  Tell me if you can hear the difference?  I can’t.

Introitus and Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem

Richard Strauss’ Sonatine in F – contains an inportant part for Basset Horn.  Score is available on IMSLP, but is not public domain in the U.S.

Finally, the most invaluable piece of literature on the net about the Alto Clarinet and Basset Horn can be found here.

De Profundis

I can recall vividly the first time I heard Bach’s Pasacaglia and Fugue in C minor.  I was in my college’s top choir, and we were preparing for our spring trip.  Our first concert was in a large local church with a magnificent organ.  I grew up around a great old organ, but it was a small instrument from the late 1800s, an ancient frontier instrument.  It was not an instrument of great power.  The organ I was hearing was powerful.  Bach’s great work is under 10 minutes in an average performance.  The organist has great flexibility in the sounds he or she produces.  By the end of this performance, all the stops had been pulled, and I hear the instrument in its full glory.  Thirty-two feet of pipe rumbled, and I knew that bass was powerful and meant something meaningful.

Over the years, various instruments have been constructed to emulate these depths.  None have been fully successful.

Octobass

The first instrument made to explore these depths was the Octobass, a gigantic Bass constructed in the middle of the 1800s.  Berlioz described it as having the same range as a normal Bass with an extension to low C, but the surviving instruments seem to belie this fact and are actually an octave below this down to the bottom C of the 32’ range.  A few of these instruments are extant, but their use is limited to the 2-3 players who have them.  Pros – does not use wind.  Cons – 10 feet tall and extremely rare.

Octo-Contrabass and Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinets

These are the most promising of the sub-contrabass wind instruments due to the curious fact that clarinets need half of the normal pipe length to produce the same effect.  So, to produce the 32’ C, a clarinet would only need 16’ of tubing.  Sadly, these instruments were never used and only exist as prototypes.  There are several videos of a refurbished Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinet on YouTube.  Pros – reduced pipe length means a shorter instrument.  Cons- Only one working Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinet and no working Octo-Contrabass.

Sub-Contrabassoon

Despite rumors, this instrument has never existed, though I have found tantalizing evidence that someone is designing a working instrument. We shall see what becomes of that – if anything.  Pros – none.  Cons – does not exist.

Sub-Contrabass Tuba

These have been tried, and all failed.  In order for these to work, there needs to be 64’ of tubing as the normal Contrabass Tuba is already 32’ to 36’.  Pros- exists.  Cons – unplayable by human lungs.

Human capacity

What is evident is that mere mortals have a hard time producing the wind for such deep instruments, save potentially for the extra low clarinets.

Can humans actually here these notes?

The short answer is usually no.  Classical data says that human hearing stops at about 20Hz.  The lowest C of the 32’ range is about 16Hz.  However, the studies that determined this were flawed.  They used speakers to reproduce the sounds and the speakers themselves could not produce sounds below 20Hz.  With acoustic means, humans can hear down to at least 12Hz in ideal circumstances.

What does this mean?

It means that humans with I damaged ears can hear the notes, but they cannot be produced by humans (due to lung limitations) or by electronics (due to speaker limitations).  The only real option for producing these notes is by the Pipe Organ, which does not rely on lungs or speakers.

Orchestrationally, the 32’ range is a weapon that should only be pulled out rarely.  If at a sufficient volume, it will rumble the bowels of the audience.  It’s never guaranteed if these notes are even available, even if a Pipe Organ is present.