The clarinet is an incredibly versatile instrument with a long and rich history. It has a uniquely balanced sound which lends itself to a wide variety of musical styles. From the sweet sounds of a Mozart concerto to the bright tone of a Benny Goodman swing piece, the clarinet has an exciting range.
The instrument has developed a lot since its early beginnings. And understanding the clarinet’s origins gives us a sense of the instrument’s importance over time. Here I’ll give an overview of the history of the clarinet and its related single-reed predecessors.
Early single-reed instruments (~2700 BCE)
Many modern musicians would be surprised to learn that single-reed instruments like the clarinet have their roots in ancient history.
As early as 2700 BCE, Egyptian musicians were playing a single-reed instrument called the “memet.” The memet was primarily a double clarinet with two parallel reed tubes. The entire reed assembly was placed in the mouth, meaning the player could play both tubes at the same time.
One tube was often used as a drone, or an instrument that always plays the same note (a modern example of a drone appears in today’s bagpipes). Some versions of the memet also had tone holes on both tubes, allowing for a complex musical sound. These ancient instruments probably only had the range of about a fourth (four steps on the scale).
No examples of the memet appear to have survived to this day. But the instrument is prominently featured in musical iconography of the time.
Some double clarinets like the memet are still played in the Middle East and India. The mizmar of Yemen and the zummara of Egypt are two such examples mainly appearing in folk music.
The chalumeau (1100 CE-1630)
The direct predecessor to the modern clarinet is the chalumeau. This French instrument developed out of the single-reed traditions of the ancient world with the removal of the drone tube. The word “chalumeau” appears in literature beginning in the 1630s. But the instrument may be as old as the 12th century.
The chalumeau is a single-reed instrument with a relatively narrow range compared to today’s clarinet. The instrument had no keys when it was first introduced. But it was eventually manufactured with a rear key operated by the left thumb.
This key kept the player from “overblowing” the chalumeau, meaning that its range was restricted to twelve notes. Chalumeaux (plural of chalumeau) were made in a variety of ranges to compensate for this limitation, including soprano, alto and bass.
The chalumeau was a popular instrument in the Baroque and early Classical periods. In the first half of the 18th century, chalumeau parts were commonly written in music. But by the second half of the century, most composers had moved their attention to the clarinet.
Today, the lower register of the clarinet (played without the register key, encompassing all notes below A on the staff) is known as the chalumeau register. This name pays homage to the instrument’s predecessor.
Development of the modern clarinet (1690-present)
As the Baroque period passed, instrument makers made several improvements to the chalumeau. These improvements were meant to improve the range, tuning and playability of the instrument.
From the time of its conception as an evolved product of the chalumeau to the versatile instrument it is today, the clarinet saw several innovations.
Inventing the first clarinet (~1690)
Denner’s primary improvement was introducing the register key. This key, pressed by the left thumb, reinforced the instrument’s natural overblown register of a twelfth (an octave and a fourth). This enabled the clarinet to have a much better and more stable range than the chalumeau.
The clarinet had a clear, trumpet-like sound in the middle register. This is where it derived its name from the Italian “clarino” for a historical style of trumpet. “Clarinet” means “small trumpet.” And the middle register of the clarinet is still known as the “clarion” register.
Growing acceptance during the Classical period (1730-1820)
The dawn of the Classical period led to further clarinet innovations from instrument makers and a growing interest in the instrument.
By the middle of the 18th century, clarinet parts were becoming more popular in classical music. Composers such as Stadler and Bouffil began writing chamber music for three basset horns, a type of clarinet and the predecessor to the alto clarinet in the key of F.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was fond of the clarinet and wrote numerous concertos and sonatas for it. His Clarinet Concerto in A major (K. 622) is one of the best-known classical pieces for the instrument, which had five keys at the time.
Adding pads for clarinet tone holes (1812)
One of the major problems encountered by the 19th-century clarinetist was the inability to seal tone holes covered by the keys. At first, the keys were sealed with felt pads. These pads leaked air and restricted the number of notes that could be played accurately and with a pleasing tone.
In 1812, Iwan Müller (1786-1854), developed a pad that was covered in fish bladder or leather. This gave the clarinet a well-defined sound across registers and made it much easier to play. Today, pads are made of leather, cork and synthetic materials, though felt is still sometimes used.
Müller’s clarinet also had 13 keys. This allowed for a full chromatic scale in any key, as opposed to in only one key with earlier five- and six-key clarinets.
Müller is also credited with inventing the first metal ligature for clarinet.
Improved key and finger hole arrangements (1839-1843)
Clarinet design improved in other ways throughout the 19th century. Keys were sometimes unwieldy, and Denner’s clarinet had several serious intonation issues in certain ranges.
They also added duplicate keys to be played by the little fingers of the left and right hand, allowing the same note to be played by two fingerings (related: Clarinet Fingering Charts). This made certain passages much easier to play.
The new system was called the Boehm system, named after the arrangement system for the flute that inspired it. The Boehm system, with a few changes, is still used in modern instruments produced today.
These keys and their arrangements have never been fully standardized. But most clarinets manufactured today are on the Boehm system or some derivative of it.
Mainstream popularity (1910-present)
The clarinet has grown in popularity since the mid-18th century when most of the arrangements of the keys and tone holes began to reside where they remain today. The clarinet became an important orchestral instrument and was part of the development of the concert band.
The clarinet also found a home in Dixieland jazz music and in jazz and swing music from the early and mid-1900s. Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” (1987) and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (1928) are two fine examples of how different the clarinet can sound in two genres of music.
The clarinet is a beautiful instrument with a long history. And it’s been used in a variety of musical styles throughout history.
Playing the clarinet is incredibly rewarding, and exploring its literature is as easy as calling up a streaming music player. Spend some time listening to clarinet works from various historical periods and enjoy the varied sounds and moods of the instrument.