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What Key Is The Bass Clarinet In?

The bass clarinet is usually pitched in the key of B♭ (B-flat).  It is a transposing instrument, a written C will sound like B♭. Bass clarinets in different keys, most notably the C and A, do exist yet are fairly rare (as opposed to the more common B♭ clarinet, which appears quite regularly in classical music). The bass clarinet is an octave lower than the regular B♭ soprano clarinet, and, depending on the model can have a range down to a low C or a low E♭. These Professional grade low C bass clarinet models are often required for orchestral playing.  

The fingerings on a bass clarinet are exactly the same as a “regular” B♭ clarinet, however, there is usually a low E♭ key on a bass clarinet, and It has a bell that curves upwards slightly. The bass clarinet is also considered a low woodwind instrument and uses a much larger reed and requires a much looser embouchure. Many advanced or professional bass clarinets reach down to a low C (sounding B♭, exactly the same as the bassoon‘s lowest B♭), or two whole octaves below the written middle C. The lower half-steps are created by the additional keys worked by one’s right thumb, some of them duplicated by the right or left-hand little finger key groups. Basically, the bass clarinet sounds a whole octave below the soprano B♭ clarinet.

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Bass Clarinet Key and Fingering System

The vast majority of the modern bass clarinets, like all other clarinets in this family, are equipped with the “Boehm system” of fingerings and keys. There are, however, bass clarinets that are also created in Germany with an “Oehler system” of key-works (this is most commonly known in the USA as the ‘German system,” due to the fact it is used more often, and is considered “standard,” in  Austria and Germany (also used extensively in Turkey and Eastern Europe). Many “Albert system” clarinets (the Oehler system’s forerunner) are still in use, especially in the aforementioned areas.

A clarinet wind instrument of this size demands a perfected key system. The majority of modern Boehm system based bass clarinets have an added extension key, which allows the bass clarinet to play to the (written) E♭. This extra key originally was added to make for easy transposition of the parts for the more uncommon (to rare) bass clarinet pitched in A. These days, it finds an increased and prominent role in concert bands and other compositions.  A “key” distinction between the bass clarinet and the more common soprano clarinet (B♭) key-work is the keypad for your left-hand index finger are connected to a vent that can be uncovered to reach precise high notes. This gives one the ability to form a half-hole fingering, which allows the notes in the higher registers to be played on the bass clarinet. It is also important to note that there are two register keys on older bass clarinets. One key for middle D♯ and just below, another key for middle E and higher. The more contemporary models most often have a mechanized register key, where the single left thumb key controls both vent holes. This means that depending on if your right-hand ring finger (used for fingering middle D♯ and below) is up or down, the upper or lower vent hole will close or open.

Bass Clarinet Range

As is common with all the wind instruments, an upper limit of range totally depends on the caliber of the clarinet and skills of the clarinetist. Lerstad and Aber, who present fingerings up to written C (sounding B♭), contend that the top note regularly found in modern solo pieces is the E below that (sounding the D above treble C) middle C. This enables the bass clarinet a comfortable range of as much as four octaves, very similar to the bassoon range. This would account for why many bass clarinetists regularly perform pieces originally written for cellos or bassoons, because of the superabundance of musical pieces written for these two instruments and the comparatively few solo pieces written for the bass clarinet.

Bass Clarinet Range

As mentioned above, there is an A bass clarinet and a low C bass clarinet. You might be asking yourself: Are these really necessary? What could they possibly add to the clarinet family that is not already found in the more common and widely accepted B♭ bass clarinet? As always, this is a case of historical development, demanding composers, and the love of all things clarinet.

Reasons to get an A bass clarinet or a low C bass clarinet:

  1. If you have transpositional difficulties
  2. If you believe that if an instrument is called for by a composer, that is the instrument you should play.

Transpositional difficulties

If you have been transposing bass clarinet parts for years and do it with sufficient facility that does not require you to get an A bass clarinet or a low C bass clarinet then perhaps it is an unnecessary investment.

Bass Clarinet Purist

Please do acquire an A bass or a low C bass clarinet if you are of the opinion that when a composer requests a specific instrument, that is the instrument on which we should play. In this vein of thought, one would not play on an A clarinet when the B♭ is requested and vice-versa. It is an opinion or belief held by many “purists,” that we do a disservice to composers when we arbitrarily change their clear and unambiguous performance specifications simply because it is inconvenient for us to do as they say. And worse, conductors tolerate this by not insisting on specifically pitched clarinets. 

After being invented in the 18th century, the bass clarinet found increasing popularity during the 19th century among composers (for example Richard Wagner). The bass clarinet became a frequently selected and favored form of clarinet for rich and deep orchestral work. There are several examples in classical pieces, especially from the 19th-century, that call for the bass clarinet in A or C and written in bass clef or in a mixture of treble and bass. In the case of Symphony No. 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler (written in 1899 and 1900, though it incorporates an earlier song originally written in 1892) toward the very end of the work, there is a solo for bass clarinet in B♭ in 6 sharps.  It is a very brief solo and there are those who might be tempted to play it on A because the instrument speaks better in that particular range. For the musical “purists” this is a wrong thing to do.

Another example can be found in  ‘On The Trail’ from Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. There is a solo, sometimes referred to as that “terrible solo,” resembling a bass clarinetist falling down a flight of stairs with a tray of dishes. It is more easily accomplished on an A bass, at least for many. But should it be? If you have been playing it without error on the bass in B♭ than that is indeed what is called for, and what should be used.

I think that the presumption undertaken by an instrumentalist in adapting what is clearly called for by the composer and freely adjusting it to another instrument at-hand, or for one that the clarinetist feels more confident in, is beyond one’s prerogative. However, having said that, if the requested instrument is unavailable and or the performer’s skill set is not equal to the prescribed clarinet then any clarinet is better than none!

Marvelous bass clarinets are a very unique form and type of clarinet. They are easily distinguished from the readily recognizable ‘soprano clarinets’ that encompass the Bb and A clarinets. These bass clarinets are becoming an increasingly common sight in wind ensembles and orchestras, concert bands, and occasionally in marching bands. Lately, we have seen increased use in contemporary music such as the Dave Matthews Band and highlights in jazz. This contemporary surge of the bass clarinet can be traced almost entirely to the mid-20th century with the likes of Eric Dolphy, whose creative use and vision for the bass clarinet continues to influence jazz music and give bass clarinetists a new direction forward for both the jazz genre and the bass clarinet. 

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