The clarinet is a relatively young instrument. It was invented in about 1700 and then it took over half a century to enter the orchestra. Flutes, oboes and bassoons had been around for years by then.
It may have been called a ‘clarinet’ because its top notes sounded a bit like a trumpet. A ‘clarion’ was an early trumpet – and ‘clarionet’ means ‘little trumpet’.
The clarinet can express itself very well: its low notes (very low!) are dark and moody; its high notes (very high!) are bright and shrill. It can be hushed and mellow, or loud and penetrating. Overall, the sound is smooth and velvety.
Like the violin in the string family, the clarinet is the most versatile member of the woodwind family. This means that it can make a wide variety of sounds and whizz around all over the place – from top to bottom, bottom to top – perhaps with a few twiddles along the way.
It also fits into a variety of situations: orchestral, chamber, solo, jazz, world music.
The sound produced on the clarinet is actually affected by the shape and size of the player’s mouth.
In Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, the clarinet is a cat. The casting is perfect: it’s a sleek, agile instrument that can slide carefully through its slow bits and pounce on its fast ones.
The clarinet playing the part of the cat in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf
Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf (extract)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd. Naxos 8.550499
Inside the orchestra
There are usually two clarinets in an orchestra, often with a bass clarinet (the low one, shown further down this page). The first clarinet will generally have the solos, and the second will fill out the sound and support the first.
Like all woodwind instruments the clarinet likes its solo moments, whether the solos are fast and flashy or slow and expressive. Both demand a big breath from the player – and good control of that breath as it comes out.
Outside the orchestra
Chamber music: Plenty – the clarinet is compatible with many other instruments.
Solo pieces: Many, for clarinet alone or clarinet with piano.
Concertos: Mozart wrote the most famous one, but there are a lot of others for the clarinet.
Jazz: The clarinet’s playful side relaxes in the jazz world. A famous jazz clarinettist was Benny Goodman.
World music: The clarinet is used in klezmer music (a type of traditional Jewish music) as well as in the folk music of Greece and Turkey, among other countries.
Construction of the clarinet
The body of a clarinet is now made out of African blackwood – very hard, very dark wood. It has what is called a ‘cylindrical bore’. This means that it’s the same width all the way down, like a pipe, until the open bell at the end.
The keys are metal.
On the mouthpiece is a little cane reed. The clarinet is a ‘single-reed’ instrument.
The reed is just one thin sliver, held on the mouthpiece by a metal band called a ‘ligature’. Unlike oboists and bassoonists, clarinettists don’t need to make their own reeds.
There are five pieces of a clarinet which all fit together to make one long tube – so the clarinet can be packed away neatly in a small case when it’s not being played.
To play it
- Put your mouth around the mouthpiece so that your bottom lip is touching the reed, take a deep breath… and blow!
- You control how fast the breath comes out of your mouth by using your diaphragm – a large, dome-shaped muscle underneath your lungs.
- The reed vibrates on the mouthpiece, which sends waves of vibrating air down the body of the clarinet.
- This air then comes out of the bell at the end as a sound. Sound comes out of the body of the clarinet, too – through the holes.
- Your fingers press different keys to play different notes.
Mozart loved the deep sounds of the clarinet. He wrote his Clarinet Concerto for an instrument called the basset clarinet, though the piece is usually played today on a regular clarinet.
The clarinet’s best effect is a sliding sound called glissando. There’s a fantastic, famous one at the beginning of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, where the clarinet swoops up from low to high in a thrilling, unbroken line. It’s like a curve in sound! You don’t know where it’s going to stop, but suddenly it lands perfectly on the note it was aiming for, and everything makes sense.
The clarinet glissando in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (extract)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Richard Hayman. Naxos 8.550295
For more about the clarinet’s special effects, go to the Woodwind Family section.
There are many! The clarinet used to come in a lot of different sizes, but the standard ones are:
Clarinet in B flat: the usual one
Clarinet in A: looks similar
Clarinet in E flat: smaller and sounds quite high
Bass clarinet: the low one
The choice of sizes, particularly between A and B flat, makes it easier to play music in different keys.
The basset horn is ‘in F’. This means that it’s bigger and sounds lower than the B flat clarinet but is smaller and sounds higher than the bass clarinet.
It has an upturned bell and its mouthpiece comes out just a little way towards the player.
This is the biggest and lowest member of the clarinet family. The bass clarinet is twice as long as the B flat clarinet. It has a stand to support it when it’s on the ground, and an upturned metal bell at the bottom. Its mouthpiece is curved towards the player like a duck’s head.
It really can go low: some of its notes are extraordinary and spine-tingling. But it doesn’t just grumble underneath the rest of the orchestra: it gets its own solo moments too.
There’s even a contrabass clarinet, which goes lower still! But it appears more in wind bands than in orchestras.
Find out more about the development of the Clarinet in .
A Little History of the Clarinet
Ancient instruments existed that were similar to the clarinet, but as far as Europe is concerned the clarinet’s history begins around 1700.
There was an instrument at that time called the chalumeau. It was like a recorder, but it had a single reed on the mouthpiece.
In about 1700, a man from Nuremberg called Johann Denner added an important metal key to the chalumeau. This was the birth of the clarinet! The key was called a ‘speaker key’ and meant you could play much higher than before.
It made a harsh sound at first, but like most inventions it was changed and improved over the years. More keys were added so that it could play more notes. And it got bigger…
But composers were slow to write music for it. It had to wait another 75 years after its invention before it was properly accepted in the orchestra. Mozart loved it and gave it a starring role in his Clarinet Concerto (1791). After that, it started being very busy!
Auguste Buffet, a Frenchman, made a clarinet using a successful fingering system developed for the flute by Theobald Boehm. ‘Buffet’ clarinets are still played a lot today.
Part of Mozart’s famous Clarinet Concerto
Mozart: Clarinet Concerto
Ernst Ottensamer, clarinet; Vienna Mozart Academy; Johannes Wildner. Naxos 8.550345
Do You Know?
See if you can answer the questions below!
● What kind of bore does the clarinet have?
● What kind of reed do clarinettists use?
● What is the bottom joint of a clarinet called?
● Which animal does the clarinet represent in Peter and The Wolf?
● What is a basset horn?
Play More Music!
Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!
Selected Clarinet and Bass Clarinet Extracts
Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67: IV. The Cat (extract)
The clarinet is the cat, climbing a tree!
Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd
Taken from Naxos 8.550499
George Gershwin (1898–1937)
Rhapsody in Blue (extract)
Just listen to this glissando, where the clarinet slides at 0.04 – a famous musical moment!
Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Richard Hayman
Taken from Naxos 8.550295
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90: II. Andante (extract)
A simple, gentle, lyrical solo.
Performers: BRT Philharmonic Orchestra; Alexander Rahbari
Taken from Naxos 8.550280
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622: I. Allegro
A masterpiece from Mozart – and one of the last things he ever wrote.
Performers: Ernst Ottensamer, clarinet; Vienna Mozart Academy; Johannes Wildner
Taken from Naxos 8.550345
Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826)
Grand Duo Concertant for clarinet and piano in E flat major, Op. 48: III. Rondo: Allegro (extract)
The triumphant end of a challenging showpiece for clarinet!
Performers: Kálmán Berkes, clarinet; Jenő Jandó, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.553122
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Der Hirt aus dem Felsen (‘Shepherd on the Rock’), D. 965 (extract)
The soprano voice and the clarinet in cheerful conversation, along with the piano. The words mean ‘The springtime will come, the springtime, my happiness, now must I make ready to wander forth’.
Performers: Lynda Russell, soprano; Peter Hill, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.553113
Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Lower than the regular B flat clarinet, this is the bass clarinet with a quiet solo.
Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Michael Halász
Taken from Naxos 8.550487
Clarinet with Orchestra
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622
Mozart wrote his Clarinet Concerto for his good friend Anton Stadler. Stadler was a Viennese musician who was busy modifying and improving the instrument. The concerto was originally written for the basset horn, which is a larger, deeper-voiced version of the clarinet, but it was soon adapted so that it could be played on the A clarinet (almost as common, and very similar to, the B flat clarinet). It shows off the full range of the instrument, both technically and expressively. Listen to the very dexterous passage at 2.09–2.30 in the third movement (track 3) as an example of the clarinet’s fantastic range!
Performers: Jozef Luptáčik, clarinet; Capella Istropolitana; Richard Edlinger
Taken from Naxos 8.550073
Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826)
Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 74
Weber loved the clarinet and wrote plenty of music for it. He was an early Romantic composer so the music is expressive and beautiful. It demonstrates well the clarinet’s soulful side: listen to the recitative-and-aria passage at 4.05–5.30 in the slow second movement (track 2). Recitatives and arias are found in operas in the Baroque and Classical periods: the recitative is ‘sung speech’ – helpful for moving the story on because it is full of words, but not particularly tuneful; the aria is a song. The ‘recitative and aria’ technique was going out of fashion by the time the clarinet was on the scene.
Performers: Ernst Ottensamer, clarinet; Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, Košice; Johannes Wildner
Taken from Naxos 8.550378
Aaron Copland (1900–1990)
This Concerto was written in 1948 and contains a mixture of soulful, expressive, wild and jazzy modern music. The whole second movement (track 2) is a cadenza – in other words, the orchestra has a break while the clarinet gets to show off. The last movement of the concerto is a great example of the clarinet battling it out with the orchestra, playing extremely high and low, and ending on a fabulous glissando (listen to track 3 from 6.27 to the end).
Performers: David Singer, clarinet; A Far Cry Orchestra
Taken from Naxos 8.559667
Clarinet and Piano
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Clarinet Sonata in F minor, Op. 120 No. 1
Brahms wrote two clarinet sonatas towards the end of his life. They demonstrate the maturity and sophistication of his music: to perform them, the clarinettist needs good technique as well as style and expression – how the player thinks about the music, shapes the phrases, and presents the whole thing meaningfully to a listener. Both sonatas have been adapted for the viola, which is equivalent to the clarinet in terms of pitch. In the first movement of this Sonata in F minor, you can hear beautiful interplay between the clarinet and piano (track 1, 1.39–2.49) and a ‘tierce de picardie’ at the end of the movement – after playing in the minor key throughout the movement, there is a change to the sunnier major key right at the very end.
Performers: Kálmán Berkes clarinet; Jenő Jandó, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.553121
Francis Poulenc (1899–1963)
Sonata for clarinet in B flat and piano, FP 184
Poulenc died before being able to hear the premiere of his Clarinet Sonata, which was written right at the end of his life. It was first performed at Carnegie Hall in 1963, by Benny Goodman on the clarinet and Leonard Bernstein on the piano. It has the standard three movements – the outer two movements being lively, and the second movement being slow and expressive. The clarinet opens the second movement (track 2) like a bird – soaring alone in the sky; the main romantic theme starts with the piano a few bars later.
Performers: Ronald Van Spaendonck, clarinet; Alexandre Tharaud, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.553612
Alban Berg (1885–1935)
Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op. 5
This ‘miniature’ (short work) for clarinet and piano highlights and celebrates the sounds and characteristics of the clarinet, including its ability to play extremely softly, and to blend with the piano in the lower register. There is even some flutter-tonguing (track 3, 0.12–0.21). Berg wrote the sonata in 1913 and his teacher (the composer Arnold Schoenberg) was not impressed with it at all! Yet here it is, years later, recorded and performed: do you think Schoenberg made a mistake?
Performers: Peter Schmidl, clarinet; Madoka Inui, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.557232
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (‘The Shepherd on the Rock’), D. 965
This beautiful piece for the unusual combination of clarinet, soprano and piano has three sections which all run seamlessly into each other. The first section is about a lonely shepherd on the top of a mountain listening to echoes (the clarinet!). The second section is in the minor key and turns dark as the shepherd expresses loneliness; and the third and final section is much more hopeful as the shepherd sings ‘Springtime is coming!’ Listen to the smooth way the clarinet makes the transition from the second to the third section (7.30–8.15).
Performers: David Campbell, clarinet; Lynda Russell, soprano; Peter Hill, piano
Taken from Naxos 8.553113
Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992)
Quatuor pour la fin du temps (‘Quartet for the End of Time’)
This piece was premiered in January 1941 in a concentration camp in Germany, where Messiaen had been confined since his capture in 1940. His choice of instruments – violin, clarinet, cello and piano – was determined by the players available in the camp. Messiaen was also an ornithologist (someone who studies birds) and you will hear birdsong imitated throughout the Quartet. The third movement (track 3) is for solo clarinet and is titled ‘Abyss of the Birds’.
Performers: Amici Ensemble
Taken from Naxos 8.554824
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Octet for wind instruments
Stravinsky’s Octet uses a unique combination of flute, clarinet, two bassoons, trumpet in C, trumpet in A, tenor and bass trombone. The clarinet has many fast passages and wild streaks (listen to the second movement, track 2, at 2.00–3.33 for an example of this). When audiences first heard the Octet in 1922, they thought Stravinsky was having a joke! But a couple of years later, critics and audiences alike realised that this was a real masterpiece.
Performers: Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble; Robert Craft
Taken from Naxos 8.557507
Duke Ellington (1899–1974)
Creole Love Call
Duke Ellington was a jazz pianist, born in Washington D.C. In the 1920s he formed a sextet, which in time grew to be a ten-piece ensemble. He liked to pick out players with unique styles of playing, so sometimes we can hear ‘wa-wa’ sounds and growls from the instruments. This Creole Love Call calls for bass clarinet, and the dark, sultry character of the instrument suits the mood of the piece. Listen to the juicy low notes from 7.04 onwards!
Performers: Joe Temperley, bass clarinet; Wycliff Gordon, trombone; Eric Reed, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass; Herlin Riley, drums
Taken from Naxos 86032-2