Clarinets! I don’t know much about clarinets, but I’ve always been charmed by their soothing and often haunting sound. A melody most beautiful. I can’t play any musical instrument, but I think I would choose a clarinet if I decided to ever learn an instrument. Not that I’m planning to, because I don’t have the discipline to do so and also, I’m incredibly lazy. Mainly the first one. Certainly the first one. Just don’t ask anyone I know. Ahem. A clarinet is a woodwind instrument, developing from the chalumeau instrument, going all the way back to the 12th century. I think that’s remarkable. Think about the other things we invented in the 12th century. Windmills. And, erm, well, that’s it. Windmills and chalumeaus. Sounds like a dodgy French synth pop duo, to be frank. Also, most are rather dodgy, but I digress…
The clarinet, a beautiful word, by the way, is also known as ‘the little trumpet’ and the rather wonderful ‘liquorice sticks.’ Fun to say that, isn’t it? To produce sound, the clarinettist blows into the mouthpiece and uses the fingers to play the rings and keys to produce different sounds. In a nutshell, of course, because I’m well out of my depth, here. Hey, I failed music class in school. I wasn’t paying a great deal of attention. It bored the tits off me, if I’m being brutally honest, but I digress. Again.
The first clarinet was invented by Johann Denner around 1690 in Nuremberg, in Germany. He was a celebrated woodwind instrument maker of the Baroque era. Over time, he made subtle changes to the chalumeau and developed it into the modern clarinet. Despite this Germanic origin, the clarinet was first produced in France, but Germany remains the clarinet’s spiritual home.
It’s often made from the wood of the Mpingo tree (the African Blackwood), a tree that, whilst it does take quite a long time to grow, is dense enough to resonate well. It was the last instrument to be added to the orchestra, with Mozart the first major composer to add music written specifically for the instrument, in 1791, ‘Clarinet Concerto in A Major.’ Snappy title, huh? He loved the clarinet as he likened its tone to be the closest to the quality of the human voice. This showed the exceptional potential of the clarinet as a solo instrument. Soon, it exploded in popularity and, by 1800, most orchestras were using the clarinet.
The instrument continued to evolve and develop into the 19th century. Intonation was improved, holes were rearranged, new keys were added, the range of the instrument was extended. Clarinettists became famous, touring Europe and influencing many a famous composer to produce clarinet concertos and other such works. During this time, many experimented with various woods. Boxwood, cocuswood and ebony. There were even clarinets made from silver and brass, but we eventually settled on the African Blackwood.
You might think that we’ve settled all that needs to be settled, right? We know how to make the best clarinets these days, surely. Not quite. Whilst we have perfected the clarinet to a point, people still argue about the reeds. Yes. It’s the type of thing clarinettists argue about. Some say the best reeds come from a species of cane grown in France, but many experiment with a cane that grows in California. You can even buy synthetic reeds, which may be the future. Natural cane is diminishing. Oh, yes…
Famous clarinettists include Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Eddie Daniels, Richard Stoltzman, Sabine Meyer and Woody Herman, although many agree that George Gershwin composed the greatest clarinet solo in history, named ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ I guarantee you’ve heard it before. The clarinet experienced a surge in popularity during the jazz age in the early 1900s, remaining at such a high until the 1940s. This huge popularity became known as the ‘Benny Goodman Craze.’ Since then, its sound has been heard across all kinds of mainstream music, far away from the orchestral origins. Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Billy Joel and Jerry Martini have all utilised the clarinet in their music.
In 1983, the Times said this of the clarinet: ‘Consider the clarinet. Ungainly to look at. Spiteful to hold, it manufactures a nasal, reedy tony that all too easily yields to a squeal.’ I am outraged by this. I think we all should be. The clarinet is beautiful. It is a work of art. An exceptional instrument and one of the very best. Its sound is beautiful. Its history is enlightening. And its future is safe. To some, it might be ‘just another instrument,’ but it isn’t. It came from a humble origin and took hold of the world and many people’s hearts. And rightly so. It was, remains, and always will be, a gnarly instrument indeed.
Why are clarinets so awesome?
Isn’t it obvious?
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