A question for all you clarinetists....

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Wallingford
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A question for all you clarinetists....

Post by Wallingford » Tue Aug 23, 2016 12:05 am

Here’s a matter that’s befuddled me, ever since I started reading orchestra scores. And I’m asking this, speaking as someone who once played the clarinet (in wind bands—middle school through college):

If the A clarinet was made to accommodate sharp keys, and the B-flat clarinet to accommodate flat keys, then why, for instance, do some composers—when writing a D-minor piece—use the A instrument? It has to be transposed to four flats, as opposed to the seemingly much simpler one sharp for the B-flat instrument.

The great ones are fairly evenly divided in approaching this “crisis”: Brahms, Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Franck take the practical route and use the B-flat instrument in E minor; whereas Bizet, Liszt, Dvorak, Sibelius and Gounod use the more trying alternative.

Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette is a classic case in point. That tune would sound perfectly natural and flow like oil on the B-flat clarinet; so imagine my consternation when, upon downloading it and seeing it for the first time, that Gounod has the A clarinet make all those bumps with all those side keys!

The situation works in reverse, too. In Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, in the “On The Trail” movement, in A major. Grofe scores it for the B-flat instrument all the way; and no matter how many recordings of this I hear, the frequent orchestral halts for the clarinet arpeggios are obviously done on the B-flat ones, and without exception they sound awkward (with the bass clarinet it’s a necessary evil, sounding even more gawky than the other two).

Is the composer’s own text really considered “holy writ” to the point of actually carrying this out as written? Or do most professional clarinetists have the developed ability to transpose by sight and use whichever instrument they please? I once had an old orchestration textbook by Norman Del Mar in which he mentions the then-new existence of a B-flat instrument with an E-flat attachment (just like a bass clarinet), so one horn can cover everything; but I never read anything else about it catching on. So far as I can tell, clarinetists settle for the old tradition of having both instruments on hand…a rather archaic practice, it seems to me.
If I could tell my mom and dad
That the things we never had
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Getting ready for Christmas day
--Paul Simon

John F
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Re: A question for all you clarinetists....

Post by John F » Tue Aug 23, 2016 2:46 am

I'm not a clarinetist - once I picked up my nephew's instrument and couldn't get a sound out of it - but I have an answer anyway, from Norman Del Mar's invaluable book "Anatomy of the Orchestra."
Norman Del Mar wrote:The B flat clarinet is very much the leading partner and is becoming more and more the instrument composers write for as a matter of course, especially with technique at so high a level as well as bearing in mind the contemporary retreat from tonality. As a result in some, especially Latin, counties, including South America, players no longer carry A clarinets at all, although they are often trapped by the formidable problems of transposition which confront them. Even so, it would be quite wrong to consider that the A clarinet is in danger of becoming extinct. It actually has the more beautiful tone of the two...
This is not a direct answer to at least part of your post, but it suggests what the answer might be; for specific works and composers, it would be necessary to investigate each case in its own right. Del Mar does say of Brahms that in his 3rd symphony, he instructed the player to change from the B flat to the A clarinet during the course of the first movement, continuing that "It must be admitted, however, that a player sometimes prefers not to make the prescribed change, if it is only for a short period. Instead he will continue on the same instrument, transposing the part at sight, rather than nurse a cold instrument for an important solo, even though he need not play on a different reed and mouthpiece but can when necessary transfer these from one instrument to the other, as they are easily detachable."

Quite a few of Liszt's orchestral works weren't orchestrated by him but by much lesser musicians (some have called them hacks), so he himself may have been indifferent to this technical question.
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david johnson
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Re: A question for all you clarinetists....

Post by david johnson » Tue Aug 23, 2016 5:13 am

speaking from a trumpet view point, I would not necessarily employ a D trpt, F trpt, and G trpt because a music sheet says: trumpet in D, F, G. just transpose as you play.

diegobueno
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Re: A question for all you clarinetists....

Post by diegobueno » Tue Aug 23, 2016 1:55 pm

All serious clarinetists have both B flat and A clarinets. Some also have C clarinets, although it's more standard to play C clarinet parts on the B flat instrument, reading it up a full step. Some clarinetists will make a point of getting ahold of a C clarinet to play Mahler or Richard Strauss, both of whom really wanted the brighter timbre of the clarinet in C when they wrote for that instrument.

Some composers have been more sensitive to the difference in timbres between the A and the B flat clarinet. One anecdote has Rimsky-Korsakov attending a performance of one of his operas and growing ashen in the face when he detects a clarinetist playing on the wrong instrument (which demonstrates that clarinetists have never felt a sacred duty to always use the instrument prescribed by the composer)

Mostly, the decision to use one or the other is based on practicality, which instrument will have the least accidentals to contend with. Clarinetists prefer to play in flat keys rather than sharp keys, but most clarinetists I know would rather play in one sharp than four flats. Dvorak uses A clarinets in his D minor symphony, but B flat clarinets in his D minor Serenade for winds. Maybe he felt that his symphony had to sound dark, and for that he needed A clarinets.

One example of overriding the composer's choice which I've done is in the Russian Dance from Petrushka. In the original version of the score, Stravinsky called for clarinets in A. There's a passage, in A major, where the piano has the melody and the clarinets decorate it with 32nd-note arpeggios, tonic-dominant-tonic-dominant. On the A clarinet that's C major up and G major down, and it sounds really brilliant but is not that difficult to play (it is traded off between the two players). The trouble is, when Stravinsky revised it in the 1940s, he changed it all to B flat clarinet. It's not so easy playing B major and F# major arpeggios in 32nd notes at that speed (it can be done, but unless your name is Ricardo Morales, it's not going to sound as smooth). You can bet that I, along with the other clarinetist, took advantage of a 6 measure rest to change instruments and play that passage on the A clarinet.

diegobueno
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Re: A question for all you clarinetists....

Post by diegobueno » Wed Aug 24, 2016 9:48 am

John F wrote: Del Mar does say of Brahms that in his 3rd symphony, he instructed the player to change from the B flat to the A clarinet during the course of the first movement, continuing that "It must be admitted, however, that a player sometimes prefers not to make the prescribed change, if it is only for a short period. Instead he will continue on the same instrument, transposing the part at sight, rather than nurse a cold instrument for an important solo, even though he need not play on a different reed and mouthpiece but can when necessary transfer these from one instrument to the other, as they are easily detachable."
That's a really really quick change, and you have to be ready for it because it's in preparation for a major clarinet solo. It has happened that conductors will slow the orchestra down minutely just before the entrance because the clarinetist was still struggling with the instrument change. I was advised by my teacher to use the A clarinet from the beginning of the symphony, transposing everything up to the solo, and then switching to B flat clarinet after that. Of course if the conductor decides to take the repeat, you're still stuck with having to change back to the A.

John F
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Re: A question for all you clarinetists....

Post by John F » Wed Aug 24, 2016 9:53 am

Fascinating stuff - thanks!
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Wallingford
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Re: A question for all you clarinetists....

Post by Wallingford » Wed Aug 24, 2016 4:57 pm

There's a passage in Strauss' Don Juan that always fascinated me. At letter G, the cellos make a restatement of the opening theme, first in C major (the work's in E), and then they do another restatement in E-flat. Then the A clarinet takes it up in that same key--transposed to F# major!

No matter how many performances of it I've heard, it always baffles me how a clarinetist can do a nice, liquid rendering of that passage, with no apparent breaks. Of course, since way back when, we've bred quite a number of generations of players who can do quite literally everything (and they're in extremely stiff competition), but it never fails to astound me.
If I could tell my mom and dad
That the things we never had
Never mattered we were always ok
Getting ready for Christmas day
--Paul Simon

diegobueno
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Re: A question for all you clarinetists....

Post by diegobueno » Thu Aug 25, 2016 2:50 pm

Wallingford wrote:There's a passage in Strauss' Don Juan that always fascinated me. At letter G, the cellos make a restatement of the opening theme, first in C major (the work's in E), and then they do another restatement in E-flat. Then the A clarinet takes it up in that same key--transposed to F# major!

No matter how many performances of it I've heard, it always baffles me how a clarinetist can do a nice, liquid rendering of that passage, with no apparent breaks. Of course, since way back when, we've bred quite a number of generations of players who can do quite literally everything (and they're in extremely stiff competition), but it never fails to astound me.
That's actually not too bad, fingering-wise. The rapid part of it is just a few notes long, unlike the Petrushka example I mentioned earlier, and the first three notes are executed with most of your fingers in one position while the 4th finger of the right hand depresses the sliver key. Since the arpeggio that follows goes through the throat register, the biggest challenge is making sure all the notes speak at the same volume, which is an issue no matter what key you're playing in.

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