The Origin of the Clarinet

The Origin of the Clarinet

The clarinet is a musical instrument that was invented in 1690 from an instrument that was called the chalumeau. The  chalumeau is believed to be the first instrument that was a single reed instrument. It was Johann Christof Denner in Nuremberg, Germany, who modified the chalumeau to make an instrument that became known as the clarinet. Denner modified the chalumeau by adding an improved and better mouthpiece, as well as adding two keys to increase the range to two octaves.

The Beginning

There is some controversy among scholars and historians as to when exactly the clarinet was made some say 1690 but others believe it was 1701 to 1704. Denner’s improvements included adding a register key to make the instrument, the chalumeau, have a higher register.  This became known as a clarinet register. The result was a woodwind instrument that could produce excellent sound at both the high and low registers.

The clarinet has been modified into different types such that there are several types of clarinets today. For instance, there is a bass clarinet, piccolo clarinet, contrabass clarinet and alto clarinet. The bass clarinet was invented by Gilles Lot of France and is often played in modern orchestras and bands. The bass clarinet is bigger than the others and has a curved bell. The A-flat piccolo clarinet is the smallest of all the clarinets, at a size of just over 12 inches.

The Changes in Build

The tube length can also vary on different clarinets. The most popular clarinet appears to be the A tube soprano clarinet. Denner only added two keys to the clarinet but since his time, many more keys have been added. By the late 18th century, five to six keys were added which had the result of improving control of the pitch. The result of the addition of these extra keys was that it was easier to play chromatic scales than it was in the past when there were only two keys. Additional improvements to the clarinet included the rearrangement of the holes.

Theobald Boehm has various ideas on how to improve on the clarinet as made by Denner. Many of these ideas of Boehm have been implemented into the modern clarinet hence the instrument is referred to as the “Boehm clarinet”.

In the past clarinets were all made of boxwood. While classic clarinets are still made of boxwood or sometimes pear or plum wood, today the use of grenadilla wood to make clarinets has surpassed the use of boxwood. Grenadilla has some advantages such as having a greater density than boxwood which makes the instrument easier to support than those made of boxwood. The result of this is that more air volume can be used, and the resulting sound is better for modern performers.

Clarinets that were manufactured after 1850 are for the most part, the same shape and size as many modern clarinets that are played today. Over time there have been modifications of the clarinet to accommodate the various styles and needs of different musicians.