Renate Rusche-Staudinger
Bass clarinet

The history of the bass clarinet

The need to express pressing Romantic notions in music at the beginning of the 19th century produced wide-ranging changes and modernisations in all its sub-branches.

The limits of tonality were nearly being reached with the chromatic diversification of harmony and melody. The further technical development of the instrumentation of the orchestra, in particular of wind instruments, was thereby necessarily driven forward. The expansion of the form, the greater range of dynamics and the increasing importance of the rhythmical element inevitably required a continuous enlargement of the orchestral possibilities. This trend reached a climax in mixing the expanded acoustic volume with new sound colour.

In his search for such new colours, Mozart discovered the beauty of the low register of the clarinet and included the bassethorn, a variant of the alto clarinet, in a few of his works. Accordingly, it was no surprise that the clarinet family, the newest group of wind instruments in the orchestra, should be supplemented during the Romantic period with a bass instrument.

But the instrument being made in those days in French, German, Italian and Belgian workshops, often completely independently of each other, barely resembles the instrument of today.

In spite of its initial, entirely inelegant design, with its wooden pipes bent as in a bassoon or forming numerous twisted and thickly entwined shapes, the early bass clarinet displayed that magical sound that earned it the endearing name of glicibarifono (sweet, deep sound-producer). The Belgian musicologist, Francois Joseph Fetis, also testified to its tonal qualities at a bass clarinet performance in around 1832: When looking at these large, even enormous instruments, most audiences would think that they would produce hard and raw sounds; instead they heard full, strong and soft-sounding tones...

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), a leading composer of grand opera, was enthused by the melodiousness of the bass clarinet to such as extent that he transcribed a large-scale recitative for the instrument into his opera Les Huguenots (1836) – the earliest ever bass clarinet solo in music history! During this period, the famous Belgian instrument maker, Adolph Sax (1814-1894), developed a model in elongated pipe form, the immediate precursor of today’s bass clarinet, and in so doing created the decisive prerequisite for the instrument’s rapid spread. There was scarcely an opera composer in subsequent years who didn’t make use of the bass clarinet to heighten the atmosphere in the most striking key passages in the plot. Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi used the instrument to highlight extreme intensity.

In the Romantic symphony repertoire, by contrast, we do not encounter the bass clarinet. Bruckner and Brahms retain the traditional orchestral line-up and do not use any “theatrical” instruments. The “Modernists”, Berlioz and Liszt, the late Romantics and the composers of the 20th century also extensively used its diversity of sound and did not confine it to sublime legato passages. It has also become indispensable to film music. Used in the same way as in opera orchestras, it is also able to increase crackling tension on screen even further.

The relatively new bass clarinet has successfully developed into an integral instrument of the orchestra whilst at the same time liberating itself confidently to be a solo instrument.