The Symphonies of Gustav Mahler are some of the greatest pinnacles in the symphonic literature. They are exquisitely orchestrated. Mahler was one of the first composers to include long, detailed notes about performance practices in his scores. As one of the preeminent conductors of his day, we know that he was intimately familiar with every aspect of the orchestra and its instruments.
For clarinetists, the symphonies of Mahler offer some of the biggest challenges in the entire literature. The notes played are not the issue here, it’s the instruments that Mahler called for. Mahler makes no bones about players switching clarinets for different sounds. Sometimes, the changes seem arbitrary, but perhaps Mahler’s ears heard a real change in the timbre. Some of the symphonies require the player to have as many as five instruments on stage. The third clarinet part in the 5th Symphony requires the player to use D, C, B-flat, A, and B-flat Bass Clarinets, or again the third clarinet player in the 4th Symphony uses C, B-flat, A, B-flat Bass, and A Bass Clarinets.
Mahler’s use of the C Clarinet is well documented. By his time, it was almost given up as useless, yet Mahler used it for its hard, chirpy quality. Nearly every professional orchestra will use the C Clarinet today just as Mahler indicated. However, not all of his instrument choices are followed.
The most curious instrument that Mahler used was the Bass Clarinet in A. Wagner was a great champion of this instrument and insisted on its use in his operas. Today, this instrument is all but extinct, but, at one time, it formed a pair with the B-flat Bass Clarinet just like the B-flat and A Soprano Clarinets do today. Mahler used the A Bass in several of his symphonies. In each case, the player must play both A and B-flat Bass.
The existence of the A Bass Clarinet is the reason that all Bass Clarinets today possess a written low E-flat (concert C-sharp 2). This low E-flat would correspond to the A Bass’ written low E. Many composers used the A Bass simply for this added low note.
The question then arises – when did the low E-flat first come about on the B-flat Bass Clarinet? If we know this, then we can safely assume that the composer is no longer using the A Bass simply for the added low note. The last compositions to use the A Bass took place as late as the 1940s.
In looking at Mahler’s scores, we find low E-flats in the B-flat Bass parts as early as the 6th Symphony (1903-04). This tells us that Mahler had low E-flat instruments available and in mind by at least this point in his career. After this point, Mahler uses both A and B-flat Basses in the 7th and 8th Symphonies.
If the low concert C-sharp is no longer an issue, why is Mahler making such an effort to write for the A Bass?
Mahler wants the sound of the A Bass (or the B-flat Bass). Players who have played both instruments have remarked that there is a sound difference between the two instruments, perhaps more so than the difference between the B-flat and A Soprano Clarinets.
The most telling place of this in Mahler’s oeuvre is the end of the 4th Symphony. Often considered Mahler’s most conservative symphony, it has perhaps the most subtle and nuanced clarinet scoring of all 9 of his completed symphonies. In the final measures, Mahler is writing in the key of E major. On the A Bass, which has been used throughout the work, this would be the simple key of G major: one sharp. However, Mahler scores here for the B-flat Bass in the awkward key of F-sharp major: six sharps. Clearly, he is doing this for the effect that the instrument can make.
Of course, today, asking a professional Bass Clarinetist to play and acquire a Bass Clarinet in A is almost out of the question. A single maker (Stephen Fox in Canada) will make an A Bass, but only on a custom order. The A Bass Clarinet seems to be a sound we’ve lost.
For more information on the A Bass, please read Keith Bowen’s fantastic article on the history and development of the instrument.