Around 1690, a German man named Johann Christoph Denner, and his son Jacob, added two keys to the chalumeau, which was a Baroque single-reed wind instrument invented earlier in the century, around the same time as the double-reed oboe, then known as the hautbois. The chalumeau itself was probably derived from the reedless woodwind known as the recorder and other single-reed hornpipes used in Europe and the Mideast since Medieval times, including the albogue, alboka, and double clarinet, which was called the mizmar or zamare. The Denners also improved on the bell and the mouthpiece of the chalumeau, and their seemingly small improvements (including a register key) added more than two octaves to the aerophone that originally only had a 1.5 octave range. While this new clarinet-like, middle-range instrument was adopted by composers in the early 1700s, the clarinet itself didn’t come along until the 1730s.
Over the years, makers kept improving on the clarinet; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, composing in the late 1700s, loved its sound. The classical clarinet Mozart wrote for had five keys and eight finger holes, and by the time of Ludwig von Beethoven in the early 1800s, it was a symphonic staple. Around the same time, Iwan Müller made several advancements to the clarinet, adding eight more keys, key pads, and other embellishments that made the woodwind easier to play. In 1839, Hyacinthe Klosé re-arranged the finger holes and keys, so inspired by Theobald Boehm’s system for flutes that he also named his arrangement the Boehm system. Now only musicians in Germany and Austria still use clarinets with the older Oehler system, while Dixieland jazz and klezmer music players often play Albert-system clarinets.
When people today say clarinet, they’re usually referring to the four-octave B-flat soprano clarinet, the most common kind. However, the name actually describes a large family of more than a dozen instruments, from the super-deep BBB-flat octo-contrabass clarinet (only one of these is known to exist) to the high-pitched A-flat piccolo clarinet. The clarinet, which has the widest range of any of the woodwinds, has three main registers, called the chalumeau (low), clarion or clarino (middle), and altissimo (shrill).
The straight, cylindrical body of the instrument, known as the bore, is responsible for the instrument’s unique tone, and usually made of grenadilla (an African blackwood), or hard rubber, plastic, or other woods, such as Honduran rosewood, cocobolo, or boxwood. Clarinets have also been made of metal (early 20th century), ivory (18th century only), and resin (in the present). Mouthpieces are most often composed of hard rubber, although they have been made out of plastic, glass, wood, ivory, and metal. The ligatures, which hold the reed to the mouthpiece to form the “embouchure,” are usually formed from metal plated in nickel, silver, or gold, but have been made of wire, plastic, naugahyde, leather, and string. The reed, which comes in different degrees of hardness, is generally made of the cane of a grass called Arundo donax, but they can also be made of synthetic material.
The A key clarinet and B-flat key soprano have a very similar bore and can be fitted with the same mouthpiece—the only real difference is the A sounds a bit warmer. The E-flat clarinet is noted for its bright sound, which stands out even in a loud orchestra. Rarer soprano clarinets are also made in the keys of C and D, while soprano and sopranino clarinets in A-flat, B, E, and F are now considered obsolete. G clarinets, known as Turkish clarinets, are used only in particular Mid-Eastern styles of music. The basset horn, which was invented in 1770 has a bend near the mouthpiece, sounds similar to an A soprano clarinet. The basset clarinet is a longer version of a soprano clarinet, which allows it to reach lower notes.
Also invented in 1770, the bass clarinet has a low, soothing dulcet tone, usually playing an octave below the soprano B-flat clarinet. The similar but higher-pitched alto clarinet, also known as the tenor clarinet, is usually keyed to E-flat, but E and F alto clarinets have also been made. The bore of an alto or bass clarinet is straight like those of soprano clarinets, but it has an upturned bell, which Adolphe Sax copied for his saxophone in 1846.
Contrabass clarinets are usually pitched at BB-flat, which is two octaves below the B-flat soprano clarinet and one octave below the B-flat bass clarinet. Similarly, contra-alto ...
Denis Buffet-Auger, who descended from an esteemed family of French instrument makers, began producing high-quality 13-key clarinets in 1825 in Paris. When Denis’s son, Jean-Louis Buffet, married Zoe Crampon in 1836, they created the beloved Buffet Crampon professional clarinet brand. The company’s extremely popular R13 clarinet was developed in 1950, so named after its designer Robert Carrée. Buffet commissioned other manufacturers to make lower-priced clarinets for students or amateur players branded as Evette, or “Evette sponsored by Buffet.” But by the 1970s, Buffet was making Evette and Evette & Schaeffer brand clarinets like the E11 in its own factories. Then, in 1981, Buffet Crampon was absorbed by British instrument manufacturer Boosey & Hawkes, which sold its instrument assets to The Music Group in 2004. In 1985, the Evette lines were eliminated, and all levels of Buffet clarinet were branded with the Buffet name.
Parisian clarinetist Henri Selmer founded a company to manufacture reeds and mouthpieces in 1885 and produced his first clarinets in 1898. With the help of his brother Cincinnati Symphony clarinetist Alexandre Selmer, the company opened a New York City branch in 1905. In 1926, a wreath replaced the lyre in the “Henri Selmer Paris” logo. In 1954, Selmer introduced its famous Mark VI and Centered Tone B-flat clarinet models, and in 1960, the Series 9 B-flat and A clarinets were issued. Series 10 followed in 1966. Selmer clarinet models from the 1980s to the 2000s include the Recital, Prologue, 10S II, Super Action Series II, the Saint Louis, Arthea, and Privilege. In 2002, the Selmer company merged with United Musical Instruments to form Conn-Selmer (which also includes the legacy of instrument brand C.G. Conn).
The men behind Leblanc and Noblet, the oldest instrument manufacturer in France, both starting making clarinets and other woodwinds in the late 1800s, until the heir-less Noblet left his company to Georges Leblanc, who continued to use the combined name. Leblanc heir Léon Leblanc joined with Vito Pascucci in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1946 to import G. Leblanc instruments to America. In 1951, the U.S. branch of Leblanc started producing the Vito line of student instruments, including beginner clarinets. In 2005, Leblanc became part of the Conn-Selmer behemoth. Starting in 1905, the Buescher Band Instrument Company, in Elkhart, Indiana, sold clarinets as a part of its True-Tone line. Selmer bought out Buescher between 1963-65, issuing the Buescher Aristocrat and 400 clarinets.
The first playable all-metal clarinet, the C.G. Conn Wonder, was not invented until 1888, and this double-walled Albert system clarinet, with a silver body and gold-plated keys, hit the market in 1895. Couesnon and Tribert followed with Boehm system metal clarinets. Penzel-Muller claimed its 1910 silver alloy Clari-Met was the best clarinet yet, which would supposedly bring an end to wood clarinets. In the 1920s, William S. Haynes Co., Noblet, H.N. White, Buescher, and Selmer also made small quantities of metal clarinets, but they were never really successful until Cundy-Bettoney Co. of Boston produced the wildly popular all-silver Silva-Bet in 1925. The first Pedler metal clarinet, which appeared around 1929, however, was probably the best metal clarinet ever made. These clarinets were fashionable in Jazz Age America, and fell out of production by 1965.