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Bass clarinet

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The bass clarinet is a musical instrument of the clarinet family. Like standard clarinets, it is usually pitched in B♭ (meaning it is a transposing instrument on which a written C sounds as B♭), but it plays notes an octave below the more common soprano B♭ clarinet and an octave above the contrabass clarinet.Bass clarinets in other keys, notably C and A, also exist.


[edit] Description

Most modern bass clarinets are straight-bodied, with a small upturned silver-colored metal bell and a curved metal neck. Early examples varied in shape, some having a doubled body making them look similar to bassoons. The bass clarinet is fairly heavy and is supported either with a neck strap or with an adjustable peg attached to its body. While the upturned metal bell makes the bass clarinet look similar to a saxophone, the two instruments are fundamentally different. Bass clarinet bodies are most often made of grenadilla or African Blackwood, or (more commonly for student instruments) plastic resin, while saxophones are typically made entirely of metal. (All-metal bass clarinets do exist, but are rare.) More significantly, all clarinets have a bore which is basically the same diameter along the body of the instrument. This cylindrical bore differs from the saxophone's conical bore and gives the clarinet its dark tone and low pitch; importantly it also causes a clarinet to overblow at the twelfth compared with the saxophone's octave.

The bass clarinet plays an octave lower than the B♭ soprano clarinet. While the range of the latter starts at a written low E (sounding D below middle C), most bass clarinets have keywork to enable at least a low E♭ (sounding D♭ a half step above the cello's lowest C), and most professional and advanced bass clarinetists own instruments with extensions down to a C a full octave below written middle C. At concert pitch this note is the B♭ below the second ledger line below the bass staff, or B♭ in scientific pitch notation. As with all wind instruments, the upper limit of the range depends on the quality of the instrument and the skill of the performer. According to Aber and Lerstad, who give fingerings up to C8, the highest note commonly encountered in modern solo literature is the E below that (sounding D6, the first D above the treble clef). This gives the bass clarinet a usable range of over four octaves, quite close to the range of the bassoon; indeed, many bass clarinetists perform works originally intended for bassoon or cello because of the plethora of literature for those two instruments and the scarcity of solo works for the bass clarinet. In ensemble writing, notes much higher than about written C6 are uncommon.

[edit] Uses

The bass clarinet has been regularly used in scoring for symphony orchestra since the late 19th century, becoming more common during the middle and latter part of the 20th century. It is also used in wind bands and clarinet choirs, in film scoring, and as a solo instrument in jazz. In recent years, the bass clarinet has also seen a growing repertoire of solo literature including compositions for the instrument alone, or accompanied by piano, orchestra, or other ensemble.

The bass clarinet has an appealing, rich, earthy tone quite distinct from other instruments in its range, drawing on and enhancing the qualities of the lower range of the soprano instrument.

[edit] History

There are several instruments that can arguably be considered the first bass clarinet. Probably the earliest is a dulcian-shaped instrument in the Museum Carolino Augusteum in Salzburg. It is incomplete, lacking a crook or mouthpiece, and appears to date from the first half of the eighteenth century. Its wide cylindrical bore and its fingering suggest it was a chalumeau or clarinet in the bass range.

In the Munich Stadtmuseum there is an instrument made circa 1770 by the Mayrhofers of Passauwho are often credited with the invention of the basset horn. It resembles early sickle-shaped basset horns, but has a larger bore and is longer, playing in low B♭. Whether this should be considered a low basset horn or a bass clarinet is a matter of opinion. In any case, no further work along this line is known to have been done.

The earliest record of a bass clarinet is a description of an instrument, called the "basse-tube," invented by G. Lott in Paris in 1772. This instrument has not survived and very little is known of it. The next known bass clarinet was the Klarinetten-Bass by Heinrich Grenser, circa 1793. This instrument had a folded, bassoon-like shape and an extended range, and was presumably intended to serve as a bassoon replacement in military bands. Desfontenelles of Lisieux built a bass clarinet in 1807 whose shape was similar to that of the later saxophone. It had thirteen keys, at a time when most soprano clarinets had fewer.

Additional designs were developed by many other makers, including Dumas of Sommières (who called his instrument a "Basse guerrière") in 1807; Nicola Papalini, circa 1810 (an odd design, in the form of a serpentine series of curves, carved out of wood); George Catlin of Hartford, Connecticut ("clarion") circa 1810; Sautermeister of Lyons ("Basse-orgue") in 1812; Gottlieb Streitwolf in 1828; and Catterino Catterini ("glicibarifono") in the 1830s.

Finally, Adolphe Sax, a Belgian manufacturer of musical instruments, designed a straight-bodied form of bass clarinet in 1838. Sax's expertise in acoustics led him include such features as accurately-placed, large tone holes and a second register hole. His instrument achieved great success and became the basis for all bass clarinet design since.

It should be noted that the instrument on which Anton Stadler first played Mozart's clarinet concerto was originally called a Bass-Klarinette, but was not a bass clarinet in the modern sense; since the late eighteenth century this instrument has been called a basset clarinet.

[edit] Notation

Orchestral music for bass clarinet is written using one of two systems.

  • a) Conventional treble clef in B♭. This sounds an octave and a tone lower than written and therefore uses the same fingerings as the soprano clarinet.
  • b) Bass clef in B♭. This sounds a tone lower than written. The player must, of course, be able to read bass clef. For music written in bass clef, higher passages may be written in treble clef to avoid the use of excessive ledger lines, but this should not be confused with system a), in which notes sound an octave lower than in system b).

System a) is used in orchestral music by most composers west of Germany and in all show, concert band and clarinet choir music. System b) is used chiefly by Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich and eastern European composers, although there are exceptions.

Music is occasionally encountered written for the bass clarinet in A, e.g. in Wagner operas and Mahler symphonies; this music also tends to be written in bass clef. Very few modern players own a bass clarinet in A; most play these parts on the B♭ instrument, transposing them down a semitone.

[edit] Bass clarinet soloists and ensembles

It was not until the 1950s that classical performers began to adopt the bass clarinet as their primary instrument. The pioneer was the Czech performer Josef Horák (d. 2005), who is credited as having performed the first ever solo bass clarinet recital on March 23, 1955. This marked a turning point when the instrument first became thought of as a soloist's instrument.

Because the repertoire of solo music for the bass clarinet was quite small, most bass clarinet soloists specialize in new music, while also arranging works composed for other instruments from earlier eras (such as the Bach Cello Suites). Beginning with Horák, many players have commissioned works for the instrument, and consequently there now exists a repertoire of hundreds of solo works, many by prominent international composers such as Brian Ferneyhough and David Lang. In addition to Horák, other specialist performers include Dennis Smylie (United States), Harry Sparnaay (Netherlands, who has worked with important composers such as Luciano Berio, Iannis Xenakis, and Morton Feldman), Evan Ziporyn (United States), and Michael Lowenstern (United States); the latter two are also composers.

In October 2005, the First World Bass Clarinet Convention was held in Rotterdam, Netherlands, at which Horák was the guest of honour and played in one of the many concerts given by the leading bass clarinetists from around the world (including all the aforementioned performers, as well as many others).

At least two professional bass clarinet quartets exist. Rocco Parisi's Bass Clarinet Quartet is an Italian group whose repertoire includes transcriptions of music by Rossini, Paganini, and Piazzolla. Edmund Welles is the name of a bass clarinet quartet based in San Francisco. Their repertoire includes original "heavy chamber music" and transcriptions of madrigals, boogie-woogie tunes, and heavy metal songs.

[edit] Musical compositions using bass clarinet

Perhaps the earliest solo passages for bass clarinet -- indeed, among the earliest parts for the instrument -- occur in Mercadante's 1834 opera Emma d'Antiochia, in which a lengthy solo introduces Emma's scene in Act 2. (Mercadante actually specified a glicibarifono for this part.) Two years later, Giacomo Meyerbeer wrote an important solo for bass clarinet in Act 5 of his opera Les Huguenots.

The most familiar piece in classical music using the bass clarinet is probably "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker, in which the instrument's low tones contrast with the tinkling higher pitches of the celesta.

There are a few major solo pieces for bass clarinet, including:

Other pieces featuring this instrument include:

[edit] Bass clarinet in jazz

While the bass clarinet was seldom heard in early jazz compositions, a bass clarinet solo by Omer Simeon can be heard in the 1926 recording "Someday Sweetheart" by Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers. Additionally, Benny Goodman recorded with the instrument a few times early in his career.

Harry Carney, Duke Ellington's baritone saxophonist for 47 years, played bass clarinet in some of Ellington's arrangements, first recording with it on "Saddest Tale" in 1934. He was featured soloist on many Ellington recordings, including 27 titles on bass clarinet.

Eric Dolphy (1928-1964) was the first major jazz soloist on the instrument, and established much of the vocabulary and technique used by later performers. Bernie Maupin emerged in the late 1960s as a primary player of the instrument, playing on Miles Davis's seminal record Bitches Brew as well as several records with Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi group. His style resembles Dolphy's in its use of advanced harmonies.

While the bass clarinet has been used often since Dolphy, it is typically used by a saxophonist or clarinetist as a second or third instrument; such musicians include David Murray, John Surman, Bob Mintzer, James Carter, Steve Buckley, Dai Pritchard, and Julian Siegel. Very few performers have used the instrument exclusively, but one such performer is the Baltimore-based American musician and bandleader Todd Marcus.[1] Klezmer clarinetist Giora Feidman is known for idiosyncratic use of the bass clarinet on some klezmer and jazz tunes.

[edit] Bass clarinet in popular music

Like most woodwinds, bass clarinets are little used in popular music, but there are examples:

[edit] Bass clarinet in soundtrack scoring

The bass clarinet has proved to be an effective solo instrument in many television and motion picture film scores. A notable example is the recurring "Jubal Early theme" pervading the score for the "Objects in Space" episode of the Firefly TV series.

[edit] External links

This article was started using a Wikipedia clarinet article
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