B-flat and A clarinets: redundant?

July 1, 2010

I wrote this a few years back for a graduate school course. The professor, not a wind player, raised the question of why I limited the discussion to clarinets in B-flat and A, and ignored, for example, the C clarinet. The reason for this, which may not be obvious to a non-clarinetist, is that the B-flat and A instruments use the same mouthpieces, reeds, and sometimes even barrels. Since other sizes of clarinet require their own mouthpieces and reeds, there is a clearer separation between these instruments.

Photo, Ollie Crafoord

Alert concertgoers will be aware that the orchestral clarinetist is often seen on stage with not one, but two clarinets, which appear to be nearly identical. These are clarinets in the keys of B-flat and A, and, in truth, they very nearly are the same—identical in keywork and playing approach. The difference is one of an inch or so in length, giving the A clarinet a range that is deeper by one semitone.

It seems a redundancy to have two instruments so close in range. The ubiquity of the B-flat and A clarinets is a vestige of the clarinet’s early days, when its simpler keywork made it poorly suited to playing in more than a handful of keys; early clarinetists owned several instruments of different transpositions so that they could play in whatever key was required. But the modern instrument has a more involved mechanism that allows much more chromatic agility. The problem that remains is that the clarinet has accumulated two hundred and fifty years of repertoire, some of which calls for the instrument in B-flat, some of which calls for the instrument in A, and even some that calls for a little of each.

The question, then, is this: for a given piece of music, did the composer simply choose a specific clarinet in an attempt to make life easier for the clarinetist? If so, it may no longer be necessary to use two clarinets to do the job of one, with the modern instrument’s more sophisticated keywork giving it more chromatic freedom. The clarinetist might pick his or her preferred instrument for the situation, regardless of which is specified by the composer. (Jack Brymer is willing to leave the decision up to an even lower-level employee: “There is a fairly strong school of thought which suggests it [the use of both A and B-flat clarinets] is an archaic hang-over and that the composer should simply write the score out in concert pitch and leave it to the copyist to sort the matter out.”)

The other possibility is that composers selected either B-flat or A clarinets to exploit a difference, real or perceived, in tone quality. Colin Lawson points out that composers as orchestrationally astute as Francis Poulenc and Richard Strauss have scored for B-flat and A clarinets to be used simultaneously, with the clear intention of contrasting the instruments’ timbres. Brymer, however, contends that “one can prove scientifically that the sounds of the B flat and A clarinets are identical,” and attributes any perceived timbral difference to preconceived notions.

The clarinetist who chooses to use only one clarinet to play parts written for either instrument must, of course, become skilled at transposing. Another issue is the very slight difference in range: the A clarinet’s low E (concert D-flat) is unobtainable on the ordinary B-flat clarinet. Some musicians have used a B-flat clarinet built to reach the extra low note, but Lawson quotes the conductor Sir Henry Wood as calling this practice a “great mistake.” Sniffs Sir Henry, “I always missed the particular quality of the A instrument.”

The debate over the B-flat and A clarinets is built essentially on differences of opinion. The only clear conclusion that can be drawn at this point is that clarinetists for generations to come will walk onto the stage with a clarinet in each hand.

Sources

Brymer, Jack. Clarinet. Yehudi Menuhim Music Guides, ed. Yehudi Menuhin. New York: Schirmer, 1976.

Lawson, Colin. “Introduction: Clarinets in B-flat and A.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Clarinet, ed. Colin Lawson. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Comments

  1. Michael

    I would argue that the interval of a perfect 12th between the chalumeau and clarion registers of the clarinet is unique in modern orchestral woodwind instruments, and that the necessary keywork associated with this larger interval makes the technical demands of the instrument far greater than the other woodwind instruments.

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  2. Jon Margerum-Leys

    I don’t own an A clarinet, but have often wished that I did, simply to improve the key signatures when playing with an orchestra. Call me lazy, but when playing a piece in concert A, I’d rather be in no sharps no flats than in five sharps.

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  3. SMVance

    The same thing could be said about E-flat and D clarinets, but, at least west of the Rhine, has been resolved in favor of the E-flat. Bass clarinets in A are likewise rare [is that why B-flat bass clarinets now usually have a low E-flat key?]. Schoenberg wrote for contrabass clarinet in A, but I imagine those parts are nearly always transposed on a B-flat contra. [Try to find an A contra!].

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