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.

17 thoughts on “Basset Horn vs. Alto Clarinet

  1. The alto clarinet has a chicken-and-egg problem. Whatever its virtues (and I find it useful for giving some color and strength to passages that would be throat tones on the regular clarinet) you can’t count on it being present. So any important alto clarinet part must either be doubled or cued. The resulting reluctance to write important parts for it means there’s little or no incentive for conductors or players to consider it important. In practice, the alto clarinet is a member of the clarinet and woodwind families, but it’s entirely dispensable. I don’t know what can be done to change that.

    I also have difficulty seeing what an alto clarinet does that a bass clarinet can’t do at least as well, if not better. If I have a choice, I’d rather have two bass clarinets than one alto and one bass.

    1. What can be done to change it? Write parts that require the instrument. Don’t accept substitutions. You wouldn’t do the Mozart Requiem on two Bass Clarinets.
      Also, you wouldn’t write a saxophone quartet for 2 altos and 2 baritones, or a string quartet for 2 violins and 2 cellos.

  2. Mateo

    Hello from a guest here.
    So what is the difference in bore og .673 inches in Yamaha or .673 inches bore from Buffet?
    (Spell check:)

  3. Matthew Banks

    I think a compromise is in order. I may be biased, but I think the alto clarinet, and basset horn should coexist in the same ensemble. For this purpose, I’d prefer the Leblanc Eb alto, with a standard .709 inch bore. I’d ideally see a quartet of “middle” clarinets, consisting of two Eb alto clarinets, and two F alto clarinets. This pocket of sound would enrich the bands tenor-baritone register, a range very few composers or bandestrators have found something interesting to do in. What do you think?

    1. I think with 2 F Altos and 2 E-flat Altos you will have more problems than wanted. There will be inherent tuning problems. Most of the time, the parts will be doubling each other. I agree, that the middle (tenor/baritone) range needs enhancing, but I think this could be done by elimination as well. Composers should be able to specify the number of B-flat (or other soprano) Clarinets they want on a part. I favor for fewer (1 on a part in most situations).

  4. Matthew Banks makes a good point about enriching the band’s tenor-baritone register. The orchestra has string instruments of approximately equal dexterity and balance covering the soprano through tenor-baritone registers. The band has a full complement of flutes and clarinets that cover the soprano through tenor registers; but the bassoons, bass clarinet, low saxophones, and euphonium don’t balance the flutes and clarinets the way violas and cellos balance the two violin sections of the orchestra. Four middle clarinets would do much to solve that problem.

    Unfortunately, adding not just alto clarinets but basset horns only exacerbates the chicken-and-egg problem. If you write works that absolutely need those four “middle clarinets,” band directors will more likely avoid playing those works than buy the needed instruments. If you compromise by providing cues for those instruments, the directors will have other people play the cues rather than buying the needed instruments.

    Bret may have hinted at a solution when he noted that “you wouldn’t do the Mozart Requiem on two bass clarinets.” The solution would seem to be for a modern composer with the stature of Mozart to write works that make genius-level use of the “middle clarinet” sonorities. That would compel band directors to buy the instruments, thereby making their use practical for others.

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  7. Edwin Lacy

    One of the best high school bands I ever heard was in about 1963, This was in the days of the “symphonic band” concept, as opposed to the “wind ensemble” concept. This band used 12 Bb clarinets, with one doubling on Eb, 4 Eb alto clarinets, 4 bass clarinets, and 2 contrabass clarinets, one in Eb (now known as the contra-alto) and one in Bb, for a total of 22 clarinets. It was an excellent sound.

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  10. Raymond

    A bell change does wonders for the Eb alto clarinet’s sound. I make use of a wide-bored jazz Bb clarinet bell at the moment. It causes the instrument to become darker in tone and more balanced across the three registers. You get a more “clarinet” sound from the instrument as the bell forces the sound to hit the floor and spread to the audience in similar fashion to its smaller family members. I will eventually get a bell made that will be longer and truly match the acoustics of the alto. Though I lose the lowest Eb in this setup, the sounds literally “matured” when I switched bells! Ive had a number of professional gigs on my alto and folks always comment on the sound of my lovely kitbash beast(I play on a wooden Noblet from the 60s/70s btw). I am a composer who loves subtle color variations so, like others mentioned, I would prefer the use of both a “true” basset horn and an alto clarinet. The basset could be used in quieter, more introspective moments while the larger bored alto could be used for its reedier voice in louder sections. We could even have the basset horn be the “bassito” for the upper clarinets and the Alto being the higher voice for the lows(or vice-versa) As I consider the clarinet section to be the glue of the band(due to there being a clarinet in every range of the band sans upper piccolo), It would be awesome to have this instrument represent all of the various keys that the other winds have.

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