“Clarinetto” is the romantic diminutive, or minor, of “clarion.” The Clarin trumpet (named after Clarino Blasen) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The “clarinetto” of this period, due to its sound, was related primarily with the upper register of the trumpet.
Instruments using single reeds with a cylindrical tube-shaped bore can be discovered back to the early Egyptian culture and most likely the clarinet originated there. The single reed was in the most basic structure a flexible and adaptable tongue cut from the side of a hollowed-out reed-pipe so one end could vibrate unrestrictedly while the other was joined to the body portion of the pipe. The vibration was eased by shaving either the hinged end, or the free end of the reed.
The Middle Ages
There is evidence that throughout the Middle Ages and beyond them well into the seventeenth century the single reed was confined to the music-making of the peasants. There is no evidence whatever that it was ever adopted for more serious purposes.” (F. Geoffrey Rendall, The Clarinet New York: Philosophical Library, 1954 p. 64)
A similar instrument merging the attributes of a cylindrical bore and single reed was used throughout Europe during the late seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries and was customarily called the “chalumeau.”
Doppelmayr recorded in 1730 about a clarinet developed by a German woodwind maker, Johann Christoph Denner (1655-1707) (Adam Carse, Musical Wind Instruments, London: Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1939, p. 150). Any later references to the clarinet development are dependent on this testimonial. Apparently, Denner “invented” it by upgrading the chalumeau, giving it a removable mouthpiece, adding a bell exit, and creating the harmonics music accessible by methods of a “speaker” key. This most indispensable revelation was that the drilling of a vent hole by the upper end of the cylinder tube causing the scale of fundamental sound to be a twelfth higher. Basically, this “clarinet” (clarion) was added to the contemporary “chalumeau” register.
THE CLARINET OF DENNER
The first “clarinet” was a simple two-keyed type instrument with eight fingering openings which allowed an entire scale from f to b’. The image above shows two perspectives on this type of instrument.
The illustration above is the kind of two-keyed instrument that has the Denner creative innovation(Rendall, op. cit). There were, obviously, no tone-holes for any semitones. These are only achieved through cross-fingering.
The early sound this type of clarinet made was a bit grating and not very soothing. J. Mattheson referred to the “chalumeaux with their wailing ensemble” in Neu-eroffnete Orchestre combined with Walther’s comment that “the clarinet sounded from a remote place like a trumpet” (Ibid. , p. 70) vouch for the shrillness of the tone.
THE FIVE-KEYED CLARINET
The five-keyed clarinet to which Mozart gave status by forming the clarinet concerto, was evidently developed around 1750 and became the standard before the century’s end. The material for the clarinet was, for the most part, boxwood with an ebony wood mouthpiece. However, there were a few clarinets made of ivory, beautifully fitted with silver components. In either structure, there is no uncertainty that these instruments were horribly off-key.
The best development of the key framework occurred in the first fifty years of the nineteenth century. The most influential of the creative innovators of this time was Iwan Müller (1786-1854) who created the thirteen-keyed framework and was viewed by some as the second designer of the instrument. (Carse, op. cit., p.160)
From around 1840 the brass metal keys were supplanted with silver keys, cupped or rounded keys supplanted flat keys and the reed was fastened with metal ligatures, not, as was the case up to this point, tied on. Likewise, around this time, it became standard to play with the reed on the lower lip rather than the upper lip. This process relinquished a portion of the upper range yet improved the rest of the range.
Unmistakable among the clarinet inventors, with the thirteen/fourteen keyed clarinets, was Eugène Albert (1816–1890), a fabricator whose name is recognizable with the well known and popular Albert system before the widespread adoption of the Boehm system.
Boehm System Clarinet
The Boehm clarinet was formulated by Hyacinthe Klose in partnership with Auguste Buffet, a Paris instrument creator. The new clarinet depended on components borrowed from the Boehm system flute. The improvements were the ability to control notes with the use of levers that duplicated control for the left and right hands. This Boehm system also allowed for acoustically better-arranged note-holes for better sound for pretty much every trill and provided new ways to slur between notes.
Despite the fact that the patent was applied for in 1844, this new “Boehm” clarinet was not adopted widely until after 1900. At the time, many European clarinetists were slow to buy-in to the Boehm System. Many did not like the complex mechanism and the inability to produce the low tones that were “indispensable” to the identity of the clarinet in the minds of many. Once the French Army adopted the new Boehm clarinets it broke the dam of resistance. Today the Boehm system clarinet is almost the only kind of clarinet you can buy.