Basset Horn or F Alto Clarinet

Basset Horn

Basset Horn range

The Basset Horn is a curious member of the clarinet family.  Traditionally, it is a small bore (roughly equal to the bore size of the B-flat and A Clarinets) instrument pitched in F (a fifth lower than written).  Again, traditionally, the Basset Horn was to be played by B-flat/A Clarinetists with the same mouthpiece used on those instruments.  However, in practicality, most modern instruments do not conform to this ideal.  The bore has been enlarged, and in some cases is the exact same as to be found in the Alto Clarinet, so that in reality, the Basset Horn is now simply and Alto Clarinet in F.

Unlike other clarinets, the Basset Horn always possesses a written low C (here sounding F at the bottom of the bass clef).  In other clarinets that only occasionally descend to the low C; these notes are often referred to as the “Basset” notes.

It was said to be one of the favorite instruments of Mozart, who scored for it in his later operas, the Requiem, and his music for wind ensembles.  Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Richard Strauss have all used the instrument.  Strauss, in particular, used it quite extensively.

For a comparison between the F Alto and the E-flat Alto, read this article.

Beethoven’s Horn Sonata on Basset Horn

Mozart Duet for two Basset Horns

Excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Konzertstuck

The Adagio from Mozart’s Gran Partita.  Listen for the interplay between 1st Oboe, 1st Clarinet, and 1st Basset Horn.

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6 thoughts on “Basset Horn or F Alto Clarinet

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  6. Clayton Young

    This is what Cecil Forsyth had to say about this instrument:
    No. 42.
    The Bassett-Horn and The Alto-Clarinet.
    Fr. Cor de basset ; It. Corno di Bassetto ; ‘ Ger. Bassethorn.
    Fr. Clarinette alto ; It. Clarinetto alto ; Ger. Altklarinette.
    The name of this instrument is only slightly less inaccurate than
    that of the English-Horn, for though not a Horn at all it is Basset.
    It was first introduced in 1770 by a German maker called Horn. He
    christened his invention Basset-” Horn,” that is to say, ” Little Bass
    (Clarinet made by) Horn.” The Italians translated the name ” Horn ”
    literally by ” Corno.” Hence their name Corno di Bassetto.
    The Basset-Horn is a Tenor-Clarinet. In appearance it is much
    like a small Bass-Clarinet. It is pitched a fifth below the obsolete
    Clarinet in C. Its part is therefore written like that of the French-
    Horn-in-F, a fifth higher than the actual sounds. The treble-clef is used with a key-signature of one b less or one | more than the key-
    signature of the piece.
    _ In its downward compass the Bassett-Hom possesses the character-
    istic feature of the old Clarinets of Mozart’s time.^ In other words,
    its downward compass does not end at
    sounding in this case
    but is continued, by means of four additional keys, to
    sounding “)’ o—
    This gives a written compass of
    m sounding
    The highest notes are of little value, and are better replaced by the
    corresponding notes on the Bb-A instrument. The middle-and lower-
    registers are admirable, richer and fuller than those of the ordinary
    Clarinet, much more interesting and expressive than those of the Bass-
    Clarinet. Gevaert sums up its tone-quality in two words, ” unctuous
    seriousness.” This instrument, or rather its modern equivalent the
    Alto-Clarinet, is well worth using in large orchestral combinations. Its placid tone-colour specially fits it for service as a ” background-
    instrument ” in those cases where the “more personal colour of the
    Violas, Bassoons, and Clarinets playing in their lower register ” is inappropriate.
    The technique of the Bassett-Horn is similar to that of the ordinary
    Clarinet, and, in the hands of a good player, the instrument can give a good account of brilliant passages founded on arpeggios, diatonic and
    chromatic scales, broken chords, and so on. It is by no means an
    instrument whose sole capability is the performance of slow legato
    melodies.
    The elaborate Obhligato to Vitellia’s song, ” Non piii di fiori,” in
    Mozart’s Glemenza di Tito is still often heard in our concert-rooms.
    Mozart seems to have had a special affection for this instrument. He
    uses it either singly or in pairs in the Adagio of his B\> Serenade, in
    the Nozze di Figaro, in the Zauberfiote, in II
    Seraglio, and in the Requiem,. Beethoven appears to have only written
    for it once,—in his Prometheus. Modern instances are hard to find.

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