Naming the low E-flat (contrabass? contra-alto?) clarinet

September 6, 2017

Every so often I hear from people about what I call the E-flat contrabass clarinet (or “contrabass clarinet in E-flat), such as in my woodwind doubling in musicals list or in my woodwind methods book. Some prefer the term “contra-alto” or even “contralto,” but I find “contrabass” to be the most accurate and useful description of the instrument.

(One disadvantage of this terminology is always having to specify the key to differentiate it from the larger contrabass in B-flat.)

First, let’s dispense with “contralto,” which describes a low female voice, typically in an opera setting. That misses the mark by a wide margin for an instrument whose range dips considerably lower than the lowest male voices.

The use of “contra-alto” (with or without hyphen) seems to be based on the questionable idea that the prefix “contra-” means “an octave below.” My best guess is that this is a back-formation from the names of some other instruments, such as the contrabassoon (which happens to be pitched an octave lower than the bassoon). In any case, following this logic leads to the term “contra-alto” clarinet because it is pitched an octave below the alto clarinet (an instrument whose waning popularity makes it a questionable choice for a frame of reference). This logic then produces “contrabass” for the B-flat instrument, as it is pitched an octave below the bass clarinet.

Various music dictionaries that I have at hand agree that the prefix “contra-” means “lower than,” but do not specify an octave lower, and most use contralto voice as an example. (If you have a counterexample from a published, music-oriented reference, I am interested to hear about it.) Based on this, “contra-alto” seems inapt—a contra-alto/contralto instrument should be just lower than the alto, and higher than tenor or bass.

Problematically, of the three major current manufacturers, Buffet-Crampon and Leblanc list “contra alto” clarinets on their websites, and Selmer uses “contralto.”

Here are some published usages of various names, listed from oldest to newest. Send me others if you know of any. It does seem to me that “contra-alto” becomes more common in the last quarter of the twentieth century, a trend that I consider undesirable (cf. “flautist”).

Reference Nomenclature used Notes
Waln, George E. “The Clarinet Choir.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. 2: 43. Article originally published 1955. E♭ contrabass
Ayres, Thomas A. “Arranging for the Clarinet Choir.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Article originally published 1957. E♭ contrabass
Cailliet, Lucien. “Cailliet Discusses the Contras.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Letter originally published 1961. E♭ contra-alto clarinet
Hullfish, William R., and Jack Allen. “Examining a Versatile Instrument.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Letter originally published 1963. E♭ contrabass clarinet
Weerts, Richard K. “The Clarinet Choir of Yesterday and Today.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Letter originally published 1963. E♭ contra-alto clarinet Weerts uses “contra-alto” in this letter, but “contrabass” in subsequent articles listed here.
Abramson, Armand R. “A Better Use of the Clarinet Choir.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Article originally published 1964. Contrabass clarinet The author does not specifically name the E-flat instrument, but refers to the “contrabass members of the clarinet family” (in the plural).
Weerts, Richard K. “Clarinet Choir Music.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Article originally published 1964. E♭ contrabass clarinet
Weerts, Richard K. “The Contrabass Clarinet in the Modern Symphonic Band.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Article originally published 1964. E♭ contrabass clarinet
Rohner, Traugott. “The Bass and Contra-bass Clairnets are Misnamed.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Article originally published 1957. “So-called contrabass in E♭” The author makes a case that the instrument would be better called an E♭ bass clarinet (and the bass clarinet would be better called a baritone clarinet).
Lawrence, Morris Jr. “The E♭ Contrabass Clarinet.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Letter originally published 1966. E♭ contrabass clarinet
Small, Terrence. “The Contra-Clarinets.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Article originally published 1968. E♭ contrabass clarinet
Weerts, Richard K. “The Clarinet Choir as a Functional Ensemble.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Article originally published 1969. E♭ contrabass clarinet
Rendall, F. Geoffrey. The Clarinet: Some Notes Upon Its History and Construction. 3d ed. Edited by Philip Bate. Instruments of the Orchestra. London: E. Benn, 1971. Contrabasset-horn in E flat The author clarifies that this does refer to the instrument in question here.
Harmon, John M. “The Contra Clarinets: New Possibilities.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Article originally published 1978. E♭ contra-alto clarinet
Heim, Norman. “The Clarinet Choir Phenomenon.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Article originally published 1979. E♭ contra-alto clarinet
Donald E. McCathren. “Teaching and Playing the ‘Other Clarinets.'” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Article originally published 1983. E♭ contrabass clarinet
Heim, Norman. “The Clarinet Choir.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1992. Article originally published 1985. E♭ contra-alto clarinet
Baines, Anthony. Woodwind Instruments and Their History. New York: Dover, 1991. Contrabass in E♭
Baines, Anthony. “Contrabass clarinet.” In The Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. E♭ contrabass
Jones, Brian D. “The E♭ Contra-alto Clarinet: Misunderstood and Overlooked.” Woodwind Anthology: A Compendium of Woodwind Articles from The Instrumentalist. Northfield, Illinois: Instrumentalist, 1999. Article originally published 1998. E♭ contra-alto clarinet
Pino, David. The Clarinet and Clarinet Playing. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1998. E♭ contrabass The author allows that it is “sometimes called the ‘contra-alto’ clarinet.”
Page, Janet K., K. A. Gourlay, Roger Blench, and Nicholas Shackleton. “Clarinet.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Edited by Stanley Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan, 2001. Contrabass clarinet, E♭
Sadie, Stanley, and J. Tyrrell, eds. “Contrabass clarinet.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan, 2001. Contrabass clarinet in E♭
Randel, Don Michael, ed. “Clarinet.” The Harvard Dictionary of Music. 4th ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2003. Contra alto clarinet in E♭
Payne, Tim. “The Contrabass Clarinets.” In The Versatile Clarinet, edited by Roger Heaton. New York: Routledge, 2006. E♭ contrabass

Comments

  1. Richard Bobo

    My vote would be for “Eb Greatbass Clarinet”.

    Reply

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