History of the clarinet

La grande histoire de la clarinette
Much loved for its tonal qualities, from the softest to the sharpest, the warmth of its deep register and the vivacity of its higher register, the clarinet in Bb is today a real diva covering three octaves and one sixth. Its limitless range of expression makes it the instrument of choice for symphony orchestras as well as composers of traditional, contemporary and jazz music. But what of the path it has followed since its invention by Denner at the very beginning of the 18th century and the application of the Boehm ring mechanism in 1839. Not forgetting the contributions made to its development.

The age of enlightenment and creativity

The start of the age of enlightenment brought an unprecedented breath of musical creativity : the whole of Europe was in tune with inventors continually widening the ambitus of instruments (range of voice, melody or instrument, from the lowest to the highest note), adapting the fingering and securing a better sound production.

If we turn to Italy, it was Bartolomeo Cristofori, in 1700, who created the first pianoforte, an instrument very close to the harpsichord in shape, but which introduced piano and forte nuances, thanks to its system of small hammers.

Clarinette DennerMoving on to France, it was the Hotteterre dynasty of La Couture-Boussey in Eure, of which Jacques, known as the Roman, was the most famous representative, that was to further the cause of woodwind instruments.

And finally to Germany, where Johann Christoph Denner (Leipzig 1655-Nuremberg 1707) invented the clarinet in the early years of the 18th century, after ten years of research. Denner had the idea of developing the “chalumeau” (pipe), which had two keys (A and Bb), and a single reed attached to the mouthpiece by a small cord. He extended the body using a bell and, most importantly, moved the Bb key up to become the 12th key: the clarinet was born.

The French ‘chalumeau’ of mediaeval origin becomes the clarinet

French records from the 12th century help to provide increasingly precise evidence of the origins of the clarinet. History has it, for example, that Chrétien de Troyes (circa 1135 – 1183) played a type of chalumeau at the wedding of Érec and Énide.

Esquisse chalumeau

Over time, the name chalumeau prevailed and, towards the end of the 12th century, this French pipe had eight holes, was made of boxwood and used a natural reed. Its range was very limited, not exceeding the tenth, meaning that it was impossible to produce overtones. It was nevertheless this same pipe that, in Germany, was to have a very strong influence on Johann Christoph Denner, whose genius lays in his ability to develop it into a clarinet with a bell and a twelfth key.

Jacob Denner, Beer and Barthold optimize the tones

Denner also had the idea of adding a small length of copper piping inside the Bb hole to prevent the build-up of moisture within the instrument. However, although the clarinet could be played over a range of nearly three octaves, it could not go below F, which made it impossible to produce a natural B sound, one twelfth higher. This problem was solved by Denner’s eldest son, Jacob, who extended the instrument to include a low E, thus adding a new key, played with the right thumb. Joseph Beer (1744-1812), for his part, started to learn the clarinet at the age of 14 and entered into the service of the Duke of Orleans in around 1767, where he worked as chief musician and bodyguard for some 20 years.

François-Joseph Fétis, a 19th century musicologist, attributes the introduction of the fifth key to Beer in his universal biography of musicians published in Brussels in 1837, even if other sources cite Fritz Barthold as being behind these two additional keys, which enabled musicians to play low F# and low G#, as well as their twelfths, C# and D#.

Beer went on to be a major influence in France, passing his expertise on to Michel Yost, leader of the French clarinet school from 1754 to 1786.

First appearances of the clarinet

Captivated by the tone of the new clarinet, composers at the beginning of the 18th century were unanimous in their praise. Vivaldi was the first to give it a place of honour in his opera Juditha Triumphans in 1716, taking great pleasure in combining the two clarinets and two oboes in his Grosso Concertos R.V. 559 and R.V. 560. Not forgetting of course Antonio Caldara in 1718, Telemann as of 1719 and Jean Adam Joseph Faber, kapellmeister of Anvers cathedral, who wrote his Mass for the Assumption in 1720. In France, Jean-Philippe Rameau was the first to add to his orchestra with the new sounds of the clarinet in his opera Zoroastre in 1749 and in Acante and Céphise in 1751.

Mozart first used the clarinet in his Divertimento K 113 in 1771, and of course in his famous Clarinet concerto K 622 (1791) and Quintet for clarinet and strings K 581 (1789) – two major works dedicated to Anton Stadler, the famous clarinettist. Nevertheless, the clarinet remained a very difficult  instrument to play, leading to extensive research to make the fingering more rational and above all more ergonomic.

Finally, a sixth key was added to the clarinet by Jean Xavier Lefebvre around 1791, enabling the little finger of the left hand to reach the G# of the horn and, more importantly, the C# of the pipe.

Müller invents the 13-key multi-tone clarinet in 1812

The 13-key multi-tone clarinet submitted by Iwan Müller before the committee of the Paris Conservatoire in 1812 was obviously ahead of its time. The idea of favouring the whole range of tones was, moreover, shared by others. Jean-Baptiste Dupont and Jean-Claude Labbaye, for example, put forward designs for multi-tone horns in 1815 and 1820 respectively. Unfortunately, Iwan Müller was to come up against a rare narrow-mindedness among the members of the Committee, in particular Lefebvre (who actually went on to adopt Müller’s clarinet), who rejected the instrument time and time again. A highly questionable attitude that brings to mind the similar fate reserved for Théobald Boehm’s new flute mechanism in 1832. Müller’s instrument was revolutionary in its use of a brand new layout of bevelled holes with a reed attached by metal ligature, making it far more practical. In reality, the new Müller clarinet aroused considerable enthusiasm among clarinettists, who now had a much more effective instrument.

In fact, Frédéric Berr, lecturer at the Paris Conservatoire, was a partisan of this new clarinet, as was his illustrious disciple Hyacinthe Klosé, who went on to instruct both Henri and Alexandre Selmer.

1839 : the Boehm system flute is adapted for the clarinet

However, Hyacinthe Klosé was not entirely satisfied with Müller’s clarinet and contemplated the potential benefits of the new ring system that Théobald Boehm had invented for the flute a short time before in 1832. Indeed, the new Boehm flute featured a hole layout that obeyed the laws of acoustics, with screwed rests, and that was made up of interlinked rod axles connected to both the annular keys and flat keys, allowing for an unprecedented quality of sound.

Hyacinthe Klosé persuaded Louis- Auguste Buffet to make the clarinet with the new Boehm ring system in 1839: the modern clarinet was born. 1843 was the year in which Buffet officially registered his patent for a new type of clarinet, the “ring-key” clarinet, but also the year that saw the introduction of Klosé’s famous clarinet method, which took into account the new layout of bilateral keywork of the Boehm system. It was also Klosé who generalized the addition of the right thumb rest, as ebony was slightly heavier than the old boxwood used to make clarinets.

The Müller clarinet is still copied by many

Nevertheless, the Müller clarinet still counted numerous admirers looking to improve their instrument. These included the Frenchmen, Simiot, from Lyon, who built a 19- key clarinet in 1828 and Lefebvre in 1845, who added two ring keys to the 13-key clarinet. There was also Gyssens in 1852, who retained Müller’s fingering systems but combined it with the accurate tuning of Boehm’s system, and, not forgetting, the German Oehler system, very much inspired from the Müller clarinet but with a highly complex mechanism. Last but not least were the Albert brothers of Brussels, who brought the best out of the Müller clarinet with a slightly wider body. It is worth mentioning that there also existed a 15-key, 2-ring clarinet, known more commonly as the demi-Boehm, which combined the respective advantages of the Müller clarinet and the Boehm system.

Furthermore, a large number of changes to the clarinet (often of little worth) were made in the second half of the 19th century, of which the most significant were: the Bb fork (improving the Bb4 fingering) and the G# covered with a curved piece of metal.

The Albert system clarinet was very much in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century

Henri Selmer’s passion for the clarinet is what fed his interest in reeds and their manufacture, so vital to the instrument’s sound. Success was immediate with the award of the silver medal at the Montpellier Exhibition in 1896, just eleven years after the company’s foundation. In fact it proved just the boost that this young company needed to go on to manufacture clarinets, flutes, oboes, bassoons and saxophones under the name Henri Selmer.

However, clarinettists were still very attached to the German 13- key Müller clarinet, with, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Müller-inspired Albert system clarinet representing the next best thing. Everything was done to seduce and win over clarinet players: Boehm system clarinets were fitted with a flat thumb rest to please saxophonists, whilst the curved G# lever and numerous other Henri Selmer inventions saw the light of day up to and including the 20-key model, a combination of the Boehm and Albert systems. All instruments were made in ebony, granadilla and even hard rubber, a material abandoned in the 1935 catalogue.

Centered Tone, Benny Goodman’s favourite clarinet

The 1935 Selmer catalogue marked a major change in the history of the clarinet, which by now had adopted the Boehm ring mechanism. Of course, the Albert system 12 and 18 models were still available, but there is no denying that the Boehm system clarinet in Bb had imposed itself as the international standard.

As another sign of the times, metal clarinets were starting to appear in the same catalogue: there was now a metal soprano clarinet in Eb, the first of its kind in the Selmer catalogues. A manufacturing process considered to be extremely precise and elaborate, and which, even today, makes a fair number of clarinet players nostalgic.

The Henri Selmer company went on to make the mythical Radio Improved and Balanced Tone clarinets that conquered the United States in the 1930s. The revolution came with the legendary Centered Tone, Benny Goodman’s favourite clarinet. The Centered Tone first appeared in the 1954 catalogue, stepping aside for the Series 9 and Series 9* clarinets in 1961 (Series 9 for jazz and Series 9* for symphony orchestra).

Henri SELMER Paris at the heart of research

The Series 10 followed on from the Series 9 and Series 9* in 1968, while the Marchi system Selmer clarinet first appeared in the Selmer catalogue in August 1975, representing one of the major contributions of the 20th century in terms of instrument craftsmanship and added repertoire.

Indeed, Joseph Marchi spent more than 20 years leading research that brought about the addition of a 17th key, improving pitch and sound in high and top registers and extending the range of the Boehm system clarinet in Bb by an extra octave, thereby preparing it for contemporary repertoire. It is nevertheless worth noting that Houvenaghel, in 1948, also favoured the 17th key on the double-Boehm clarinet, which, although praised by the critics, enjoyed limited commercial success. The Selmer clarinet saga continued with the introduction of the 10 S in August 1977, the mythical Récital in October 1984, the Prologue in March 1992, the 10 S II in March 1994, the Signature in March 1997, the Privilege en 2004 and the Présence in 2014.

En 2019, Henri SELMER Paris is proud to present EVOLUTION, a new system available on all our professional B-flat and A clarinets : Présence, Privilège, Signature and Recital.This innovation combines a new generation resin into the wood, allowing better stability and longevity of the instrument, all while preserving the acoustic qualities of a wooden clarinet.

"Without getting tired, always do better" was the motto displayed by Henri SELMER. Since his first gold medal clarinet at the Universal Exhibition in Saint-Louis (USA), the founder has left his mark on a culture of permanent research in favour of the musician. Henri SELMER Paris integrates this approach on a daily basis in its workshops, in search of perfection for its instruments, from an acoustic, ergonomic and aesthetic point of view.


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