Although the clarinet was invented at the turn of the eighteenth century, it is a relatively new member of the woodwind> family — younger than the flute, oboe and bassoon. Johann Christoph Denner, a successful woodwind maker in Nuremberg, created the first clarinet when he added one key to an already existing instrument called the chalumeau. The clarinet was more versatile than the chalumeau and able to play much higher than the older instrument.
The clarinetist produces a tone by blowing through a mouthpiece that has a reed attached to it. The reed is placed against the player’s bottom lip and vibrates when the air rushes by it. Pressing down keys and covering holes on the clarinet determine pitches. Reeds are made from a large grass called [i]arundo donax[i] or [i]arundo sativa[i], which is mainly grown in the Var region of France. Most mouthpieces are constructed from a form of hard rubber or plastic, although in the past they have been made from wood, glass, ivory, and various metals.

The first clarinet was made of wood and had only two keys. Through time, instrument makers added keys to improve it’s sound and ease of play. Today’s clarinet has almost twenty keys and is usually made of the African blackwood [i]Dalbergia melanoxylon[i]. The keys are metal, usually silver or nickel. In the early part of the twentieth century inexpensive instruments were made of metal, although today, most of those clarinets exist only as decorative lamps. For the last few decades, clarinets have been made of plastic and colored black to imitate wooden horns. However, there is a company that produces instruments with marching bands in mind and makes plastic clarinets in blue, red, green, yellow, and white.

The clarinet consists of five sections — the mouthpiece, barrel, left-hand joint, right-hand joint, and bell. The brunt of the weight of the instrument is supported by the right thumb and held in balance with the fingers and the mouth. The soprano clarinet in the key of B flat is the most commonly used instrument. There is also a soprano clarinet in the key of A, a high sopranino clarinet in the key of E flat, and a bass clarinet in the key of B flat, all of which are frequently used in symphony orchestras and concert bands. The normal pitch range of the clarinet is just over three octaves, although professional clarinetists have a range of almost four octaves.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was the first major composer to write for the clarinet. However, the clarinet was not given serious consideration until Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) included it in some of his last symphonies. He also wrote a quintet for clarinet and string quartet and a concerto for clarinet and orchestra, both of which are still two of the most important works ever written for the instrument. Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1802) used the clarinet in all of his symphonies and from that point on, it was a standard member of the classical orchestra.

The clarinet is a very versatile instrument, capable of playing long melodic lines, rapid technical runs of notes, and quick articulated passages. The clarinetist articulates notes by lightly touching his tongue against the reed while blowing through the mouthpiece. For the last two hundred years composers have written solos for the clarinet within their orchestral pieces, taking advantage of these abilities. Many composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Claude Debussy (1862-1918), and Aaron Copland (1900-1990), have written important solo concertos and chamber music compositions for the clarinet.

The clarinet played an important part in the earliest periods of jazz and was one of the main solo instruments from the Dixieland era through the swing era. It is also featured in Klezmer and Greek folk music. The most famous clarinetist ever is Benny Goodman (1909-1986). Although he is best known as a jazz musician, he was an accomplished classical musician and commissioned works from Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith, among others.