CHAPTER 7 - E-flat Clarinet
The High Clarinets in Orchestral Music of the Nineteenth Century
The use of clarinets in high keys (C, D, E-flat) in the orchestral music of the nineteenth century was influenced by several factors. Their association with military bands in France , England , and Germany , and with Harmoniemusik in Vienna , created a concept and practice of sound that carried over into the scoring practices of orchestral composers, who introduced them into the orchestra in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In addition, the custom of orchestrating the high clarinets in the nineteenth century was, naturally, directly related to the acoustical and technical design of the clarinet at this time. Although many specimens of these instruments exist in museums and private collections today, very few genuine mouthpieces and no playable “nineteenth century” reeds have survived. Furthermore, problems are encountered when musicians today attempt to play these instruments, primarily because a twentieth century concept of a clarinet sound has already been incorporated into their musicianship. Since no recordings of early nineteenth century artists exist, no one knows for sure how early clarinetists sounded.
Besides speculation and experimentation on these old instruments, several other sources are available for clues to questions about nineteenth century clarinet sound. These include clarinet method books of the time, text books on orchestration of the time, encyclopedia articles of the time, documented clarinet design changes, and orchestral scores of the time. Despite occasional contradictions of descriptions, it seems possible to make some educated guesses about these instruments and their capabilities.1
Clarinets were built in different keys at first to address key-mechanism limitations. They were not originally used in the eighteenth century for color reasons by players and composers, but rather for mere technical convenience. The earliest clarinets were built in D and C; they were very similar to the chalumeau in construction, with a small bore and a very much narrower mouthpiece. The larger instrument in B-flat was probably built partly to temper the shrillness of sound and enable the clarinet to be used as a blending ensemble instrument, and partly to make certain key signatures less of a technical problem. The widening of the mouthpiece and bore also aided in this process.
Clarinets in C and B-flat were particularly abundant in the late eighteenth century. The universal custom, at least in continental Europe , was for the clarinetist to employ instruments in C and B-flat in the orchestra. The player used alternative middle joints (pieces de réchange) to change the B-flat clarinet to an A clarinet. When a B-natural instrument was needed, an alternative joint would be added to the C clarinet. By using clarinets in B-flat, A, and C the player could simplify any key signature through the utilization of a transposed instrument. Sharp keys would be transposed on the A, flat keys on the B-flat, and simple keys played on the C instrument. Thus, the new division of the clarinet body into two main pieces was to allow necessary changes for different tonalities.
However, it is evident that musicians at this time recognized a difference in sound. One example of this recognition appears in the treatise Diapason general des instruments a vent of 1772, written by a director of the Paris Opera, Louis-Joseph Francoeur.2 Francoeur explains the desirability of having four clarinets - one in A, B-flat, C and D. He gives evaluations of the tone colors of each instrument.
Large Clarinet in G - softest clarinet, not strong in the orchestra, sad and lugubrious
Clarinet in A - much less somber than the G, but still soft in quality
Clarinet in B-flat - stronger, projects more than does the A clarinet
Clarinet in C - more sonorous than the B-flat clarinet
Clarinet in D - very sonorous and very striking; called the brillante clarinette
Naturally, all composers were not interested in these gradations, but it appears that many were. This argument becomes stronger when one examines scores. In fact, numerous illustrations of clarinet orchestration demonstrate these concerns of timbre, both directly and indirectly. For example, some early nineteenth century works are orchestrated for a specific clarinet that is not in the most convenient key for that particular part. Other works seem to have references to Harmoniemusik or military band music of the time that used C clarinets.3 Still others that employ C clarinet seem carefully suited to strong characteristics of this instrument - brighter colors, cleaner staccato, and a more transparent sound.
Eight general functions emerge for which composers from Rameau to Strauss and Mahler have utilized the high clarinets (C, D and E-flat):
1) in transparent textures
2) for power-doubling - with a violin melody or with brass
3) with horns and/or bassoons (Harmoniemusik)
4) with oboe and/or trumpet (muted)
5) as a third or fourth flute
6) in staccato passages with other woodwinds
7) as a solo instrument (in different registers)
8) with the clarinet section (to create a clarinet choir within the orchestra, or to extend the clarinet range)
When these parts are played on the heavier and sweeter B-flat clarinet, not only is the musical character altered, but so are aspects of balance and tone color.
The C clarinet -
Why has the C clarinet not survived in the same fashion as the B-flat clarinet (or the D as the E-flat) in the symphony orchestra of today? Does its disappearance have something to do with shortcomings of the instrument, shortcomings of clarinetists, changes in performance practices, or influences outside of music? Actually all of these conditions have contributed to the decline of the C clarinet since the beginning of the nineteenth century.
F. Geoffrey Rendall, a British musicologist, provides us some insight with a description of the C clarinet that dwells on its most distinctive features.
We are inclined to expect from it a tone not dissimilar in quality to the B-flat and A, and are perhaps surprised to find it matter-of-fact, crisp and frank, but lacking in charm. Nor has it the individuality of the D. These slight defects, lack of charm and mellowness, with a tendency to hardness, no doubt account for it never having been adopted as the standard orchestral and solo clarinet. It is just devoid of the pleasing timbre of the lower-pitched instrument. When it is brilliant it is apt to be hard and incisive. In common with other clarinets of higher pitch, it is difficult to make; for it demands small tone holes and a different bore than that of the B-flat and A. Pierced with large holes and fitted with a reed too wide for the bore, it can be wild in tone, and frankly objectionable. 4
Apparently, these properties were also recognized in the first half of the nineteenth century. Hector Berlioz mentions some in his Traite de L'Instrumentation (1844).
Clarinets lose proportionally in purity, sweetness and nobility as their key is raised higher and higher above that of B-flat; this key is one of the finest on the instrument. The tone of the clarinet in C is harder than that of the one in B-flat and has much less charm. 5
Issues of economics also decreased the popularity of the instrument. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, the C clarinet was gradually but completely replaced in the European military bands by B-flat clarinets (the E-flat also replaced the F and D clarinets). This change may be related to difficulties encountered by makers in its construction, or the keys that military bands were most often playing in may have made the B-flat more useful. Whatever the reasons, the majority of clarinets made were employed in the military bands of the time; it became economically unfeasible for makers to produce both B-flat and C clarinets.
Finally, the improved key mechanisms of the early nineteenth century permitted clarinetists to play with greater technical breadth and ease. With additional keys on the instrument, players could more readily transpose C parts on the B-flat instrument. Why should the player, and listener, suffer the sounds of poor intonation whenever a change had to be made in the middle of a piece to a cold instrument.
This skill and practice of transposition was apparently quite prevalent during the time of Berlioz. However, like other composers before and after, Berlioz wrote for clarinets of different sizes in his scores for definite reasons of desirable tone quality and character. He eloquently elaborates upon this in his instrumentation treatise.
Generally, performers should us only the instruments indicated by the composer. Since each of these instruments has its own peculiar character, it may be assumed that the composer has preferred one or the other instrument for the sake of a definite timbre and not out of mere whim. To persist as certain virtuosos do - in playing everything on the clarinet in B-flat by transposition, is an act of disloyalty toward the composer in most instances. This disloyalty becomes even more obvious and culpable when, for example, the clarinet in A is prescribed by the composer just in order to reach the low E (producing C-sharp). This occurs frequently. What would the player of the clarinet in B-flat do in such a case, since its low E only reaches the D? He would transpose the note to the higher octave and thus destroy the effect intended by the author. This is intolerable! 6
Even though many clarinetists and composers today may feel that B-flat and A clarinets have interchangeable tone and character (others argue that the differences are clearly audible), the differences between the C and B-flat clarinet are much too pronounced to confuse. This is obvious when one recognizes, first of all, that the whole-step difference between the B-flat and C clarinet is twice the size of the half-step relationship between the A and B-flat clarinet (not to mention the drastically different acoustical design).
Military Bands and Harmoniemusik -
The introduction of the clarinet into the orchestra seems to have been a result of its growing popularity in military bands in France , England , and Germany , and the Harmoniemusik movement in Vienna in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Military bands in Germany around 1750 consisted of pairs of oboes, horns and bassoons. The first recorded use of horns with oboes and bassoons was in the music of the hunt, and it is in scenes that are evocative of hunting and the outdoors that ensembles of horns and oboes are met with in opera and ballet of the early 1700's. It appears that this combination became fairly popular around 1730 in all parts of Germany . Towards the middle of the century, it was gradually discovered that clarinets were better partners for horns than were the oboes, mainly because they were more effective than double-reeds. They were safer to manipulate on the march, and produced a tone more appropriate for outside work than the oboe.
In 1762, the English Royal Artillery formed a band to emulate what they had seen in Germany during the Seven Years War. It included ten instruments; pairs of trumpets, horns and bassoons and four oboes or clarinets. The players in England were at first Germans (civilians); only later did clarinetists become actual soldiers. These early players were converted oboists.
The first military bands were maintained unofficially at the officers' expense, which kept their numbers small. However, through volunteer regiments, the numbers of bands and clarinetists gradually increase; this is supported by the number of extant instruments. Very few clarinets manufactured before 1785 still exist; contrarily, numerous five and six-key instruments made after this date still survive. In addition to popularizing the clarinet, military bands performed two other important functions. They provided a valuable training school for players, and a reservoir of trained performers. Johann Hermstedt, the virtuoso for whom Spohr wrote his concertos, was a military bandsman, as was Joseph Beer, for whom it is believed the concertos of Karl Stamitz were written.
Apparently, military bands with clarinets developed in France at about the same time. The number of clarinets in French bands increased from 2 (before 1762) to 20 by 1800. These bands were assembled on special occasions, in the late eighteenth century, to perform overtures and symphonies by such composers as Gossec and Mehul.
The association of clarinets and horns is an early one, both in England and France . Handel wrote a short sonata for two clarinets and horn. The early operas by Thomas Arne also use this combination. Halfpenny contends that the clarinet in A seemed favored in France because of the classic pitch of the horn (D) “....whose association with clarinets came fairly early upon the scene in France .” 7 Perhaps this aided in the acceptance of the clarinet into the combination of wind instruments that comprised the military band, and that also generated a movement popularized in Vienna , known as “Harmoniemusik.”
The term “Harmoniemusik” applied to wind bands of the European aristocracy (c.1780-1825) and the music written for them, as well as to their popular imitations found in street bands. To translate “harmonie” as a military band is simply incorrect; they served no military function. For many years it was also thought that this “Harmoniemusik” was limited to dining entertainment. The recent discovery of vast libraries of concert Harmoniemusik of this period, as well as proof of the concerts themselves, has now cast a new light upon this entire question. These ensembles apparently existed primarily to perform concerts; this is rare during any period of wind music, but especially so in the eighteenth century. Another interesting fact is that these octets (2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns), and their concerts, were an important part of the musical life of the culturally elite - they did not perform concerts as entertainment for the middle class. In fact, the general public was able to hear them only on rare occasions. The center of all this wind chamber music activity was Vienna but, due to Austria 's political ties, this musical influence also spread to Hungary and most of what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia .
This combination of instruments in Vienna may also be traced to the popularity of the Turkish bands in this city in the mid-eighteenth century.
A field band is made up of two horns, two bassoons, and two oboes; these instruments are found in the Turkish band, as well as two clarinets, a trumpet, a piccolo, a very large bass drum, a side drum, and a pair of cymbals. A field band is heard when the palace guard changes. Turkish bands are heard in front of the barracks of a summer evening in fair weather, and at times with the main watch. 8
Many composers, including Mozart, became involved in writing for this combination in Vienna . Soon after the establishment of various concert octets, it became popular to have current operas performed as instrumental works (no voices) by an octet. More than one hundred fifty of these arrangements still exist. These were complete transcriptions of entire scenes, and often included entire acts, or even entire operas. Since these transcriptions were not simplified or cut, they represented incredibly difficult technical demands.
Ensembles of clarinets, horns, and bassoons were employed in France in the 1760's, and of clarinets and horns even before that. Francoeur mentions this combination in his orchestration book.9 He illustrates the combination of clarinets, horns and bassoons with orchestral examples by Stamitz and Procksch. It seems natural that characteristics of scoring between Harmoniemusik and orchestral writing of the time would be shared. Haydn's London Symphonies provide some good examples. The bassoon has moved away from doubling the bass string line, and now acts as a bass to the woodwind section. In Symphony No. 102 (The Military), the clarinets (in C, which is the key of the band clarinet) appear only in the second movement, when they are grouped with oboes, bassoons and horns. The flute is grouped with the strings and the special percussion section of triangle, cymbal and bass drum which sonically represents the opposing Turkish band. Beethoven uses a similar orchestration in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony . Haydn's music is abundant with popular references and allusions; it is natural for his orchestration to complement this quality.
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