Die Bassklarinette

"At their first glimpse of this large, indeed gigantic instrument, most listeners expected only hard and raw tones, but heard instead beautiful, full, strong and mellow sounding tones..."
(François Fetis, 1832, music critic)

The Bass Clarinet

Right from the time of its invention, the bass clarinet has been praised and adored for its beauty of tone. An early form of the bass clarinet was even given the name "Glicibarifono", "the sweet, deep-sounder" (see illustration a). The musical world was unanimous in agreement that the still young clarinet family was in need of a bass instrument. But it took decades before the bass clarinet sounded not only sweet, but also well balanced in all registers, and until the intonation became sufficiently reliable and the agility adequate. During the developmental phase of the bass clarinet, the most bizarre constructions were tried out, like the serpentine and coiled bass clarinet by the Italian instrument maker, N. Papalini (see illustration b). None of these instruments advanced beyond an experimental stage.


The Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax — the inventor of the saxophone — created the form of the bass clarinet still in use today (see illustration c). A crucial improvement was the new system of keys he invented, which enabled a straighter construction. This new bass clarinet — patented in 1838 — brought Adolphe Sax his first international breakthrough as an instrument maker, three years before he invented the eponymous saxophone. While instrument makers in France were still trying to discredit their Belgian rival, in 1839 the concertmaster of the Paris Opera commissioned Adolphe Sax's workshop to build bass clarinets for his orchestra.

The new version of the instrument represented a breakthrough for the bass clarinet in music history. The instrument's prominent part in Giacomo Meyerbeer's 1836 opera, "Les Huguenots", helped set the trend for the future. Hector Berlioz, in his memoirs, recommended that this "superior instrument" be taught in conservatories. In his "Treatise on Instrumentation" he wrote,

"According to the style of its music and the skill of the performer, the bass clarinet can assume in its low register the wild character of the low tones of the ordinary clarinet or the calm, solemn expression of certain organ registers. It may therefore be used frequently and advantageously. Moreover, if four or five are employed in unison, it imparts an excellent devotional sonority to the basses of the wind instruments."

Nothing now stood in the way of the triumph of the bass clarinet, especially in operatic repertoire. Giuseppe Verdi, Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss often used the instrument in key passages. Tonal intensity and virtuosic agility were equally called for. In 1838, after the first audition for the newly developed bass clarinet, the management of the Munich opera concluded "that the difference between this instrument and the ordinary clarinet is so great that no clarinetist will be able to competently handle it without thorough study and formal training"

From its beginnings in the opera, the bass clarinet has developed into a solo instrument in its own right — also in symphonic literature, in chamber music and in jazz.
© 2009-2023 by Leonie Gerlach         Photo: Diana Drechsler