The Classical Clarinet
by Emily Worthington
In Boxwood & Brass, Fiona and I play on copies of clarinets that were in use in Germany and Austria during the ‘Classical’ period of music history, c. 1780–1820. The clarinet was only invented in the early 18th century, and reached its first stage of maturity as an instrument during the Classical period, when it became popular with composers throughout Europe, often through contact with travelling virtuosi. Happily, this coincided with the working lives of many great composers who wrote for it, including Gluck, JC Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber.
The ‘Classical’ clarinet is constructed from boxwood, with between 5 and 12 brass keys – these materials were the inspiration for our name, Boxwood & Brass. Boxwood is a slow-growing wood and relatively dense, though not as dense as the African Blackwood used to make modern clarinets. The Classical clarinet also uses a wooden mouthpiece and a smaller, softer reed that the modern instrument.
As a result, the Classical clarinet has a lighter and more intimate sound, with a wide spectrum of colours ranging from soft and muted to clear and trumpet-like. These characteristics are reflected in 18th-century responses to the instruments: an 1884 concert review said of Anton Stadler, Mozart’s clarinettist and close friend:
“Never should I have thought that a clarinet could be capable of imitating a human voice so deceptively as it was imitated by you. Indeed, your instrument has so soft and lovely a tone that nobody with a heart can resist it.” Johann Friedrich Schink, Litterarische Fragment, 1785
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a recollection of the clarinet’s introduction to the English military suggests it was prized for its powerful tone:
“Half a dozen lads of the militia were sent up to London to be taught various instruments to form a military band. The German master Baumgarten put into their hands a new instrument called a ‘clarionet’ which, with its firery [sic] tone, was better adapted to lead armies into the field of battle than the meek and feeble oboe” William Gardiner, Music and Friends, 1838.
It is these qualities, along with its technical agility, and its wide compass (the same as the modern clarinet) that makes the clarinet ideal to lead the harmonie in all repertoire from opera arias to military marches.