The first episode of the new podcast from Bandestration.com – 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.
A Graph of Clarinet Bores
The Clarinet in G is an interesting possibility. It is a large clarinet pitched a fourth below the written note. This instrument is most commonly associated with Turkish and Balkan ethnic and jazz music. Historically, this instrument was called a “Clarinet d’Amore” being pitched a minor third below the standard B-flat Clarinet. Most original d’Amores had a bulb bell like the lower oboes. Modern instruments do not have this feature.
All G Clarinets (save for those custom made by makers like Stephen Fox) are in the Albert system. This means that most clarinetists will have to learn a new fingering system in order to play the instrument. I myself have recently picked up the instrument and am facing those challenges currently. That said, once the challenge of learning the new system is in place, the instrument can be a valuable asset.
The True Alto Clarinet
Being exactly midway between the B-flat Clarinet and the E-flat Alto Clarinet, the nomenclature of the instrument can be somewhat ambiguous. In all honesty, the G feels like a true alto voice. It’s a bit huskier than the B-flat, but not as much as the E-flat Alto. Due to it’s small bore, the same as the B-flat, it feels and plays almost like a true, small-bore Basset Horn. In fact, at one time Basset Horns were pitched in G as well as F. The original draft of the Mozart Concerto was for Basset Horn in G.
If we call this an Alto Clarinet, then I really feel that the current E-flat Alto Clarinet should be renamed as the Tenor Clarinet (which is its old English name).
The G Clarinet can have several uses. One, it can bolster or replace the lowest B-flat/A Clarinet parts. I can also serve as an independent solo voice. When a composer wants the darker sound of the A Clarinet, use the G instead. There is minimal to no difference between the B-flat and the A, but there is a substantial difference between the B-flat and the G.
The added range to a sounding B2 gives a few extra notes that are not available to either the B-flat or the A.
Below are a few videos of myself fumbling around in my new Chinese-made G Clarinet. These should not be taken as professional playing, but as a rough outline. Note, I am still struggling with the instrument.
The Alto Clarinet is a larger clarinet in E-flat pitched a major sixth below the written notes. Traditionally, this has been the instrument used in the band. However, the Alto Clarinet has had a troubled life in the band world. As early as the 1950s, band directors were calling for its removal. Continue reading “E-flat Alto Clarinet”
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. Continue reading “Basset Horn or F Alto Clarinet”
This will be one of the few times where I feel that I will need to have a debate on the merits of two instruments. Usually, if two instruments of similar pitch exist, I would say to use them both for their merits, but not here.
Traditionally, the Alto Clarinet has been an instrument only for the band, while the Basset Horn has been an instrument only for orchestral and chamber music. Here we get to the real difference between the two. Professional clarinetists look at the instruments differently. The Basset Horn is viewed favorably, while the Alto Clarinet is not. Manufactures know this as well. The Basset Horns being produced today are far superior to the Alto Clarinets being made. Known design flaws in Alto Clarinets have gone unnoticed, or been neglected for at least thirty years.
The ranges of the two instruments differ slightly as well. The Alto Clarinet descends to a curious low concert G-flat, while the Basset Horn descends to a concert F, which is a minor second lower even though the instrument is pitched a major second higher.
In general, the difference between the two instruments is said to be in the bore size. The Basset Horn is supposed to have a narrow bore while the E-flat Alto Clarinet has a wide bore, but this isn’t always the case. Some Basset Horns will have larger bores than some Alto Clarinets. It all depends on the manufacturer. For example: a Yamaha Alto Clarinet will have a bore of .670 inches while a Buffet Basset Horn has a bore of .673 inches.
I think it is time that we abandon the E-flat Alto Clarinet in favor of the F Alto Clarinet, for that’s what the Basset Horn really is nowadays. The miniscule differences in bore design are usually only noticeable to the player.
Let’s now think of the possibilities of the F Alto Clarinet. When symphony orchestras purchase this instrument, they almost always buy a matched pair. Most of Mozart’s music and some of Strauss’ utilize two parts. As bandesterators, we should take advantage of this. Why not have two F Alto Clarinet parts in our work? The sound of the instrument is beautiful (after all, it was Mozart’s favorite!).
The complaint from band directors about the uselessness of the Alto (either size) comes from their own hand and usually not the composer’s (though many composers can share some of the blame). When you use two dozen B-flat Clarinets and only one Alto Clarinet, the whole of that unique sound will be lost! 24:1 are not great odds to be heard. How about instead 6:2 (4:2, 2:2)?
I cannot think of any member of the woodwind family with which the Alto Clarinet will not mix. Grainger showed us that the most disparate instrument, the Piccolo, makes for a haunting combination. Mozart used it to great effect with the Bassoon in his Requiem (where the entire woodwind section is 2 F Alto Clarinets and 2 Bassoons). With English Horn (or any low oboe), great moments of poignancy are derived. Many composers have also used it with the Horn, where it fills in as a lower voice. The same can be done with the trombones (when played at piano).
Do not just confine your writing to have the Alto Clarinet be just a member of the clarinet ensemble. Use it as a solo voice and with other instruments.
Mozart Divertimento for 3 Basset Horns – Note: one of the instruments is actually an E-flat Alto. Tell me if you can hear the difference? I can’t.
Introitus and Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem
Richard Strauss’ Sonatine in F – contains an inportant part for Basset Horn. Score is available on IMSLP, but is not public domain in the U.S.
Finally, the most invaluable piece of literature on the net about the Alto Clarinet and Basset Horn can be found here.