Instruments | Clarinet | Woodwind

Unusually among musical instruments, a specific date has been posited for the invention of the clarinet. Johann Christoph Denner of Nuremberg has been claimed as the man who, in 1700, devised and built the first of these instruments.

Like all the best stories, however, the history of the clarinet is shrouded in mystery. The instrument attributed to Denner, which now resides in the National Museum in Bayern, Germany, is in fact a chalumeau. The chalumeau is the clarinet’s direct ancestor and the defining difference between the two lies in the invention of the ‘speaker key’. Nobody, though, is certain who the inventor of the speaker key was.


By the middle of the seventeenth century, the recorder had become an immensely popular instrument but it had many drawbacks, not least of which was a lack of volume. Attempting to overcome this flaw led directly to the creation of the chalumeau. Instead of splitting a stream of air on a sharp edge to induce sound vibrations, the chalumeau used a single reed attached to a tapered mouthpiece. Passing a stream of air over the reed agitated it, which in turn caused the column of air contained in the instrument’s body to vibrate.

In spite of the improvement in volume, the chalumeau was only able to produce accurately a limited range of pitches at the lower end of its compass. The ‘speaker key’, operated by the thumb, was invented around 1700 specifically to allow access to the higher pitches. The close link between the chalumeau and the clarinet is retained in terminology: the low end of the clarinet’s compass is still referred to as the ‘chalumeau’ register.


Like all wind instruments, the clarinet’s pitch is a function of the length of the vibrating air column; covering or uncovering finger holes therefore alters the pitch. The use of keys to facilitate this began with the chalumeau and continued with the clarinet. The clarinet as we know it today came about as a result of a collaboration in the early 1840s between clarinettist Hyacinthe Eléonore Klosé and maker L.-A. Buffet. Buffet used the mechanical principles of Theobald Boehm – the man responsible for revolutionizing flute design – to create a system of keys that is the standard today. (Unfortunately for Buffet, the design carries Boehm’s name in spite of the fact that the latter had nothing to do with it.)


The modern soprano clarinet consists of five sections: mouthpiece, barrel, upper or left-hand joint, lower or right-hand joint and bell. These sections are joined by tenon and socket joints lined with cork to ensure a snug, airtight fit. The upper and lower joints together constitute the body. The mouthpiece is tapered on the upper side. On the lower side is a slot, over which is fitted a single reed attached by a metal ring. The chamber inside the mouthpiece makes a smooth transition to the main body of the clarinet, which is bored cylindrically.

Curiously, there...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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