Instruments for nerds

Q. What’s the definition of a nerd?

A. Someone who owns his own alto clarinet.

Alto clarinets get no respect.

When I was in the sixth grade, having taken clarinet lessons for about a year and a half, I was assigned to play our school’s new bass clarinet, and I liked it a lot despite my being not a whole lot larger than the instrument case. But the next year, when I went to junior high school, there were more incoming bass clarinetists than the bands had need or instruments for, so after a couple months back in the soprano clarinet section, I started on alto clarinet and played that for the rest of that year and the next.

Now, even the bass clarinet is not exactly the world’s most familiar instrument. Most people when they see one think it’s some sort of saxophone. And indeed the modern bass clarinet was developed by Adolph Sax, but whereas a saxophone is a conical bore instrument — thinnest at the top and then gradually widening toward the bell — and usually made of brass, the bass clarinet is (like the regular “soprano” clarinet) cylindrical — the same diameter all the way through, except for the bell — and aside from the neck and bell is usually made of wood or, for student instruments, plastic or hard rubber. (The shape difference isn’t merely visual aesthetics; it accounts for most of the differences in tone between clarinets and saxophones.)

Bass clarinet

The alto clarinet looks pretty much like the bass clarinet, but smaller, halfway in size between the bass and soprano; the three sizes are a family, or rather part of a family.

Alto clarinet

There also are E♭ and A♭ clarinets, shorter and higher pitched than the B♭ and A sopranos; the G clarinet; the basset horn, similar to an alto clarinet but with an extended lower range; the contra-alto and contrabass clarinets, an octave below the alto and bass, respectively; and a lot of other oddballs rarely seen.

The E♭, B♭, A, and bass clarinets are common in orchestral music. The little A♭ is, so I understand, used mostly in Italian marching bands. The basset horn enjoyed popularity in the 18th century but fell out of favor, but it was apparently one of Mozart’s favorite instruments and he wrote a few pieces for it, and a couple of later composers did too, so while it’s rare it has credentials. The contras are pretty uncommon, but do find a good deal of use in movie and TV soundtrack music.

The alto, hardly anyone likes. It’s used almost nowhere but in wind bands, and pretty rarely even there. Many music directors have no use for it. They complain about the quality of its sound, and they say it can’t do anything that could equally well be done by the sopranos and basses.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me those arguments are specious. If an alto clarinet doesn’t sound good, it presumably is either because of the instrument or the player. Sopranos, basses, and basset horns all sound fine; there’s no inherent reason an alto shouldn’t sound fine, too, provided it’s been designed, built, and maintained well. But there’s the chicken-and-egg problem; the instrument gets no respect, so no one puts enough effort into making them sound good, so they get no respect. Add to that the tendency school directors have of keeping the really talented players on soprano and putting the not-so-good ones on alto (and bass) (yes, I’m looking at me here).

And yes, the alto’s range can be covered on the high end by the soprano and on the low end by the bass. But the viola is in a similar relationship to the violin and cello, and the tenor sax to the alto and baritone. People don’t go around — well, not as many people, anyway — advocating tossing violas and tenor saxes into the trash.

At the high school music concerts I’ve been to lately, there’ve been quite a few violas, and several tenor saxes. Not an alto clarinet in sight, though.

Nor were there any when I went to high school. We’d moved to a new school district, and I told the band director I played alto clarinet. He pointed to the top level of the instrument shelves and said “Our alto clarinets are up there. We don’t use them.” Turned out the be all right with me, though, because there was a vacancy in the bass clarinet section; if I’d known that, I wouldn’t even have mentioned the alto clarinet. I happily played bass for those four years, even though a year or two later the band director changed his mind, got the alto clarinets down off the shelf again, and assigned a couple of clarinetists to play them.

It wasn’t until some years later I learned a bit about the history of these instruments. Because of the length of its bore, it’s hard to make a viable bass clarinet without a lot of long key levers, springs, and pads, technology that wasn’t really developed until about the early 1800s. Not that people didn’t try; after all, bassoons had been around a long time before that, with a bore even longer than that of a bass clarinet. Bassoons make the long bore more tractable by folding it in half: it goes down from the gooseneck-shaped bocal to the bottom of the instrument, through a u-bend, and back up to the bell at the top. That helped early bassoons manage without long key levers; so did tricks like making the wooden walls of the tube thick and drilling the finger holes at an angle, so that they were widely spaced inside the instrument (where the spacing matters acoustically) but close together on the outside (where you need to reach them with your fingers).

But bassoons aren’t very loud or resonant, and especially for outdoor use they don’t provide a very strong bass section to a wind band. And in the 18th century valved brass instruments hadn’t been developed, either; there were no sousaphones! It turns out cylindrical instruments can get an octave lower with the same bore length than conical ones, so it must have seemed a natural idea to try to build clarinets an octave lower than the standard ones, and to make them bassoon style, with a folded bore, to make them easier to handle while marching. Heinrich Grenser gets the credit for the earliest known example in 1793. Here’s one from about 40 years later by Catterini:

Glicibarifono by Catterini

Other makers built similar instruments, and others before and after experimented with other designs, including this oddity from Nicola Papalini.

Bass clarinet by Papalini

As for alto clarinets, the closely related basset horn goes back to the mid 1700s, but the earliest reference to a more or less modern alto in Europe is one played by Iwan Müller in 1809.

Oddly enough, though, the bass and alto clarinets may have been independently invented in the United States. George Catlin was making musical instruments in Hartford, Connecticut, and by 1810 was making something he called a “clarion” which was in fact a bassoon-shaped bass clarinet, similar to but different from Grenser’s and others being made in Europe. Whether he developed it on his own or knew of the European basses isn’t known. Apparently he and his students built and sold a fair number of these.

And there’s one extant instrument at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that’s cataloged as an “alto clarion”; while it has no markings, it bears a strong family resemblance to Catlin’s basses, but is smaller — an E♭ instrument, that is, a bassoon-shaped alto clarinet, dated circa 1820. It’s one of the oldest alto clarinets in existence.

Alto clarion, attributed to George Catlin

I’ve never really gotten the appeal Pinterest has for some people as a social media platform, but I do find it useful as a repository for interesting images, and one of my Pinterest boards is “Oddwinds“: unusual woodwind and brass instruments. Somewhat weirdly to me, one of the most often repinned pictures from Oddwinds is the Catlin-style alto clarion. Why? I have no idea. The bassoon-shaped bass clarinets get much less attention.

So maybe, if Selmer wants to start selling more alto clarinets, they should try making them bassoon shaped. Something in that might just appeal to people for some reason.

Then again, the most-repinned Oddwinds picture is a quarter tone clarinet.

Quarter tone clarinet

And I doubt Selmer could sell many of those.

Disclaimer: Not all photos are mine. Click through for copyright and licensing.

Other Disclaimer: I own my own alto clarinet.




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