The Instrumentarium – Episode 1 – Ramblings on the Alto Clarinet

The first episode of the new podcast from – The Instrumentarium.

Episode 1 – Ramblings on the Alto Clarinet

Matt and I discuss various aspects of the Alto Clarinet from nomenclature, to history, to construction, to brands, to random off-shoots that follow from those discussions.

Enjoy.  More to come soon.

Show Notes:

From Bandestration

Mark Wolbers’ Article on the Alto Clarinet

Grainger’s Article on Band Orchestration

A Graph of Clarinet Bores

Clarinet Bore graph

Lament for Alto Clarinet and Strings (Newton)


17 thoughts on “The Instrumentarium – Episode 1 – Ramblings on the Alto Clarinet

  1. Alexander Kindel

    The section about how modern bass clarinets are beefed up to be miniature contra-altos touches on something I find is an annoyance with wind instruments in general: the highest and lowest commonly available instruments of each family are skewed toward the high register and the low register, respectively. This makes some sense, maximizing the unique contributions those highest and lowest instruments are capable of making, but it also messes with the blend of the instrument families. I figure a family would have optimal blend if all instruments in it responded about the same in analogous parts of their ranges. I would like to be able to score for alto flutes about the same as C flutes, except a fourth lower, for example, but in practice I find that anything higher than written Eb 6 doesn’t flatter altos, while C flutes can comfortably play higher written pitches. This limited effective range makes it difficult to score the alto on an equal footing with the C, as an equally flexible and indispensable member of the ensemble, as would be my preference. The effect is made worse when one wishes to score for instruments beyond the commonly available ones, where the motivation for the skewing of the common instrument no longer applies; since the bass clarinet is already skewed toward the low register, I presume the contra-alto and contrabass are similarly skewed, which makes for an odd kind of split right in the middle of the family.

      1. Alexander Kindel

        Would you say contra-altos and contrabasses ever work as well in the clarino register as a Bb clarinet?

  2. Rufus Acosta

    As I understand it, the latest Leblanc Paris clarinets use the angled necks (with tuning sleeve) which allows a comfortable position using a floor peg. The swan neck is an older design and supports a neck strap playing position.

    The Selmer (Paris) Alto Clarinet bore is a nominal .668 inch. I would argue that the smaller bore alto, the Selmer, projects better than the larger bored Leblanc Alto (.709 inch). I guess it depends how we define “project”. The Selmer has a clarion register that is drop-dead gorgeous, but there are some nasty intonation issues with the lowest notes, as we all know; this design finely tunes the clarion at the expense of the chalumeau. The Leblanc has good intonation overall and is more like a baby bass clarinet, that is, has a large sound, even tone color across the registers and will do anything required of it.

    As our esteemed podcasters point out, the Buffet altos are a superior instrument, and is the alto clarinet you want, if you have the coin. (Failing that, I would get a used Leblanc Paris, but budget for a proper overhaul.) This instrument, the Buffet, has a simple register key like a Bb/A clarinet, unlike the other makes which utilise a fussy automatic mechanism, which is quite a challenge to adjust properly and keep adjusted, but it can be done.

    I’ve heard countless Mozart Requiems and Grand Partittas (live) because my wife owns a pair of Selmer Basset horns (.621 inch) and playes them as often as possible. Despite the small bore, I’ve seen conductors, in rehearsals, give the hand to the basset horns (too loud). These bad-boys can really sizzle and dominate the texture if allowed to, at least in a chamber music setting. But at the end of the day, I say it is difficult if not impossible to judge the merits of the differing makers/bores sizes of basset horns (and by exention the alto clarinets) because the musicianship and venue acoustics will trump any perceived/imagined differences as regards design/bore size. (Goodness, a muted bass trumpet can sound like an English horn, if but for an instant.) If a clarinet is in the key of F and fingers down to low C, it is a true basset horn. I would not get caught up on bore sizes and who is a true Scottsman/basset horn. I point out that our modern woodwinds and brass have mutated significantly since the invention of the basset horn. Good musicians will deliver the effect/affect regrdless of their equiptment.

    In the orchestra, Eb Alto clarinet is used by Stravinsky’s in Elegy for J.F.K. and in Holbrooke’s Sym. No. 2.

    I really like the opininions and mind set of the podcasters. I look forward to many more. You guys are the best. Peace out.

    1. Whew lots to respond to here! I love that it’s already getting such a response!

      1. LeBlanc Altos. They’re no longer in production. LeBlanc for all intents and purposes ceased to exist in the huge Conn-Selmer merger a few years back. The name LeBlanc only exists now as their student line harmony clarinets.

      2. Great to have someone with personal experience on the Selmers. I have to bow to you and to Matt who have far more experience with them than I do.

      3. I can absolutely attest to the LeBlanc/Noblet octave key design being fussy. It took me a long time to get mine adjusted properly (and it’s still not 100% perfect).

      4. I think at the end of the day, our opinion on the various bore sizes was that in the end, it makes very little to no difference to the listener. The experience of your wife and the projection of the Basset is new information for both of us (well, at least me). I will definitely make an addendum.

      5. I’ve got the score to the Holbrooke (why do we not have a recording of that piece!). The Alto Clarinet part is marked for F Alto Clarinet, so essentially a renamed Basset Horn. I’ve not looked at the Stravinsky, but if it’s like his Threni, then he does exactly the same thing, F Alto Clarinet.

  3. Allison Nelson

    What a pleasant surprise to run across this page tonite. Roughly 2 years ago, kind of on impulse, I asked Stephen Fox if he would have an interest in making an alto for me. Due to the rather negative reputation of the instrument, I fully expected him to balk at the idea but his response was a very pleasant surprise. He was told me that “it was about time the alto came out of the closet and that there was absolutely no excuse or reason for it to not sound every bit as good as any other clarinet or even better!” 🙂 Since I got the alto, an amazing number of people have been coming forward and fessing up to having an interest / curiousity regarding altos, basset horns and other more obscure instruments.

    Just over a year ago, Steve put in my care and hands, his first alto clarinet. It is my favourite clarinet. I have a pair of Rossi LRs A & Bb one of which is extremely special for many reasons, a Fox C and Steve has restored an 1848 Goulding & d”Almaine for me but the alto is special. I got to play the Alto part in Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy in our first concert of the year, an event that will remain with me forever. As an new alto owner and amateur musician, with just a couple of months of playing under the belt, it was both thrilling and terrifying to be doing that piece.

    Someone that Stephen and I know is presently working on a concerto for Symphonic Wind Ensemble and Alto Clarinet and details will be forthcoming as the work gets further along. I am hopeful that the alto will get to see other works composed for it that will bring the alto clarinet out of the shadows and more into the light as the legitimately beautiful instrument that it is.

    1. What a wonderful comment! I want to know all about your Fox Alto. I’d love to hear it as well. I’m using the Alto as often as I can in my own works now. Got at least 3 parts for it in the band piece I’m working on now.

      1. The one I’m working on now is in its infant state. However, my last one, Omnia exeunt in mysterium, has a huge role for Alto Clarinet. Lots of unison playing with English Horn.

  4. Allison Nelson

    A bit of an update on the adventures of my new Steve Fox alto clarinet:

    Wellington Wind Symphony will be premiering a unique new work, a concerto for alto clarinet and wind symphony. The Seven Deadly Sins was composed by Michael Purves-Smith and the soloist will be Steve Fox and he will be playing the alto clarinet that he made for me in 2015.We are in rehearsals now and it is a challenging but very interesting piece and we are quite enjoying it. There is a nice article about this event in March -April 2017 edition of The Music Times, published by Jean Narveson in Waterloo, Ontario, which you can pick up in many locations throughout Waterloo-Wellington counties in SW Ontario, Canada.

    If you are in our area April 30th or May 7th, 2017 this would be a concert worth checking out.

      1. Allison Nelson

        The concerts were recorded but I do not know what will happen or when as far as releasing content.

  5. karlylevarney

    Does anyone know if there’s any difference in tuning and sound between a single-curve, standard alto clarinet crook and the double-curve (looks like a mini bass clarinet neck) or swan neck (as it’s sometimes referred to) alto crook?

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