There is a saying in the band world that something is “as bland as B-flat.” For me, this is exemplified in the abundance of B-flat Clarinets in our modern band. I have seen bands with twenty or more. I have also seen bands with as few as three or four. In the days of the early bands (or at least the early bands as we see them today), the B-flat Clarinet was thought of as the equivalent of the Violin. Their range is somewhat similar and they have similar facilities in technique, but to me the sound is miles apart.
The standard arrangement in a band is to have either three or four parts for the B-flat Clarinets, but I would ask why is this number set in stone? If we are to have a large number at our disposal, why not divide them further into six or even eight parts? The section divided into multiple lines can give sublime harmony, while together in unison; they can make a powerful effect.
There is little I can say about this most common of band instruments that has not been said before regarding technique or possibilities. One thing I can mention is that I so rarely hear melodies and harmonies for the B-flat Clarinet in its bottom or chalameau range. To me, this is the most appealing sound that the instrument can produce (this likewise goes for every member of the clarinet family).
The over-use of the B-flat Clarinets in the band leads to the bands “vanilla-like” sound. I find they are constantly overworked and over utilized. There are so many choices to use for soprano woodwinds. Should every picture we paint be in red only?
The only instrument with which the B-flat Clarinet has some trouble mixing is the Oboe. The saw-tooth wave form of the Oboe clashes with the near pure sine-wave of the clarinets. An often overlooked mixing is with the horns where the clarinets will blend seamlessly. The high register is an interesting blend with the trumpets and can match them somewhat in timbre.
Brahms Clarinet Sonata 1