Bass Clarinet

Bass Clarinet

Bass Clarinet range

Here we have another common band instrument that is frequently misused.  It is pitched one octave below the standard B-flat Clarinet.  Historically Bass Clarinets in both C and A have existed, but both are now extinct (Mahler and Wagner used the A Bass extensively).  The presence of the A Bass Clarinet (and its subsequent extinction) is the reason that the modern B-flat Bass has always had an extension half a step lower to a written low E-flat.  Modern instruments now descend all the way to a written low C (though student and non-professional instruments will lack this extension).

Here is why I say that the Bass Clarinet is misused.  Take a look at a well comprised symphony orchestra.  We expect to see a Cello section of eight to twelve players and a Bass section of six to eight players.  This means we have a low string ensemble of fourteen to twenty players.  In the band, there is no equivalent.  We are missing our bottom end.  In a true wind ensemble we will have one Bass Clarinet, one Contrabass Clarinet, two Bassoons, one Contrabassoon, and one Baritone Saxophone.  We are down to six players who carry the weight of the orchestra’s twenty (and two of our players, the two contras, aren’t always used, which means we never have the equivalent of the Basses).  My solution here is to simply have more Bass Clarinets.  Why not use two, three, or even four?  We now start sixth graders on the instrument, surely we should now be expecting more out of it.  Think of the rich sound that could emanate from our bands if we had this kind of base.  As I write this, I am listening to a well-known piece of modern band music, and to my ears I hear absolutely no low lows, but a cacophony of high Piccolos and trumpets.  Has the word sonorous left our collective dictionary?

Let’s think of the possibilities of elevating the Bass Clarinet to where it needs to be.  As with the standard B-flat Clarinet (and with all members of the family) having multiple instruments on a single part has been shown to be advantageous.  Most ensembles have at least two players (and I’ve been in many with three or four).  Can we not take advantage of this?  Divisi parts should now be the norm, not a rare expectation that must be explained to the players.

The unobtrusive sound of the Bass Clarinet can blend into nearly every combination seamlessly, and many times so unnoticed that the blend is only noticed when the Bass Clarinet is suddenly absent.  Traditionally, it has been used as the bass for the entire woodwind section in the orchestra, as the Bassoon provides a poor bass at best.  One of my favorite doublings is that of Bass Clarinet and English Horn at the octave (though Bass Clarinet and Bass Oboe at the unison might provide curious results as well).  The smooth sounds of the Bass Clarinet and the Euphonium as a natural mix (see the Sancho Panza theme in Strauss’ Don Quixote).

Mechanically the Bass Clarinet should be able to do everything that the higher clarinets can (albeit slightly slower due to the vibrations of the instrument itself).  This means technical passages should pose no problem.  Along with the Baritone Saxophone, the Bass Clarinet should be given the bulk of the technical bass register passages (florid runs, trills, tremolos, etc.).

Weber’s Clarinet Concerto (on Bass Clarinet)

Bach Cello Suite 1 (Prelude)

Carmen Suite Part 1

Carmen Suite Part 2

13 thoughts on “Bass Clarinet

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  8. michael

    The bass clarinet is more difficult to play than the normal Bb , especial from the mid range upwards. In more and more school bands sadly a bass guitar is (ab)used to make up for lack of bottom end, and its artificial loud sound drowns out most other lower instruments, especially the beautiful sound of the bass clarinet. Also, most teachers seem to be unfamiliar with this instrument and its possibilities and often parts do not make full use of its low register, instead doubling up saxophones.

  9. Alba

    Wind instruments project much better than strings. A full 40 piece band typically has 14 low wind instruments (2 low clarinets, tenor sax, baritone sax, 2 bassoons, 3-4 trombones, 2 euphoniums, and 2 tubas). That’s 35% of the ensemble, and is fine for balance.

    1. I firmly believe that when orchestrating for a band that woodwinds and brass should be treated as separate entities. By grouping them together, we get a mushy sound with no definition or clarity. If we look at the woodwinds alone, they are woefully unbalanced. Relying on brass to make up for the woodwind’s deficit shouldn’t be our default.

      1. Alba

        I think 2 bass clarinets, a tenor sax, a baritone sax, and two bassoons create a rich, full sound. When added to the low brass, it creates a beautiful organ-like sonority.

  10. Alba

    An orchestra typically only has 6 low wind instruments (2 bassoons, 3 trombones, and 1 tuba). An orchestra also has much more high instruments (violins are half the ensemble. Overall, the band probably has better balance.

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