The Classical Clarinet

by Emily Worthington

 4-key clarinet from  Gamme de la clarinette  by Valentin Roeser (Paris, c.1760

4-key clarinet from Gamme de la clarinette by Valentin Roeser (Paris, c.1760

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. 

 5-key clarinet from  Methode de Clarinette  by François-Xavier Lefevre (Paris, 1802)

5-key clarinet from Methode de Clarinette by François-Xavier Lefevre (Paris, 1802)

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:

 5-key clarinet from  Nouvelle méthode de clarinet  by Frédéric Blasius (Paris, c. 1796)

5-key clarinet from Nouvelle méthode de clarinet by Frédéric Blasius (Paris, c. 1796)

“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.

Boxwood & Brass's Emily Worthington demonstrates her 10-key clarinet by Peter van der Poel (2009) after Heinrich Grenser (Dresden, c. 1810). This is the kind of instrument that Beethoven and Schubert would have been familiar with, and for which Weber wrote his Clarinet Concertos.

The instrument is made of boxwood with imitation ivory ferrules and brass keys. The mouthpiece is grenadilla wood, made by Agnes Guerroult after Grenser.