heather roche

… on taking a historical approach to the sound of the clarinet

So there are basically two things I do in life in order to procrastinate when it comes to actual practising, while doing things that I still deem musically useful. One is working on this blog. The other is practising this beauty:

This is a 5-key classical clarinet built by Stephen Foxa fantastic and Canadian (!) clarinet maker. A 5-key instrument is suited to playing classical music up until about 1800. So, my favourite things to work on are Johann Stamitz’ Clarinet Concerto, all the exercises from the Lefèvre Method and lots of bits of early Mozart, like the wind Serenades, especially K. 375etc. (I once saw a student playing the Rossini Variations on a 5-key instrument, at which point I became cheeky and started learning bits of Crusell Concerti and such on mine, which is not allowed, so don’t do it.)

After that one starts to be in need of the 10-key add-on that Stephen makes, which I’m increasingly tempted by. If you’re curious about the timeline and how many keys came when, this part of his website is quite helpful.

I should say that I’m no expert when it comes to playing historical clarinets, it’s just a hobby, but if hearing these sounds makes you interested in these instruments, you should check out the recordings I list afterwards to get an idea of what a professional early music player can do with one of these. And if you’re interested in learning more about the clarinet’s history, there are a lot of great books to check out, not least the Cambridge Companion (if you’re a composer and you only get one, get this one!), Rice’s Clarinet in the Classical Period or Baroque Clarinet, or Lawson’s The Early Clarinet: A Practical Guide.

Anyway, I think that for composers, hearing the difference between the historical model and the modern one is kind of useful.

And this is because the clarinet has very different sound colours in its three different (chalumeau, clarion and altissimo) registers. This is rather clear on the modern clarinet (especially when compared with the saxophone, which essentially sounds the same in every register), but it’s even more apparent on historical instruments.

I also sometimes have the feelings that less-experienced composers occasionally have a poor idea of what the clarinet does, what it can sound like and what the colours available are. So I thought this would also be a nice way to increase your repertoire of colours and sounds and what the clarinet is capable of. And honestly, I can’t think of a better way to get excited about the clarinet than to get into historical instruments.

So here’s an F major scale (a major scale, on this blog, shocking) going upwards through the three registers, and then I play a little in each register to give you an idea of the differences:

 

And for comparison the same thing on the modern instrument:

 

It’s also worth getting to know the chalumeau, this strange distant baroque cousin of the clarinet. It’s basically like a recorder, but with a single reed and a cylindrical bore. Christoph Graupner (1683-1760) wrote some of the most beautiful music for these instruments, as you can hear here:

And now for a few recordings. If you’re out shopping, the names of clarinetists who play historical instruments who I generally try to keep an eye out for are Lorenzo Coppola, Gilles Thomé, Jean-Claude Veilhan, Pierre-André Taillaird, Eric Hoeprich, etc. (Though of course it’s started to bother me that this list only contains men, so I’ve been asking around on Twitter and subsequently trying to get to know the playing of Nicola Boud, Nicole van Bruggen, Jane Booth, Lesley Schatzberger, etc. a little better!)

Anyway…

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