Klarinet Archive - Posting 000241.txt from 1994/05
From: "Dan Leeson: LEESON@-----.EDU>
Subj: Re A and B flat bass clarinets
Date: Fri, 13 May 1994 12:13:47 -0400
Though this is a discussion about bass clarinets (so far) between
Roger and myself, I am continuing to post it on the board for whatever
interest it may hold for other players.
Roger says that my concern for sound character based on composer
request for a specific type of instrument would, in Mahler's case
at least, be misplaced. He says that Mahler would have wanted the
sound of a German bass clarinet.
Let me come back to that issue in a moment, Roger. It is a good point
and a very important one.
But as for Ravel (concerto for the left hand, La Valse, Pictures),
Verdi (several operas), and all of the non-German composers, the matter
of sound character being German or not, I think, was the point for them.
It is my suggestion (certainly an unproven assertion) that the composer
requested the A bass because he or she wanted the sound of the A bass
whether he or she was a German or a Frenchman or an Englishman (or, as
in the case of Puccini, too, an Italian).
Now as for a particular German sound of a bass clarinet, I do not think
we are in agreement on that matter. That a French bassoon and a French
French horn (the double "French" is not a typo), has a different sound
character is apparent to even one with an ear as tin as mine. But
I am unable to hear a significant difference in the bass clarinet sound
between a German and French instrument.
Let me add, that my view here is not entirely academic. When I lived in
Paris in the 1960s, and before I got my Selmer B-flat bass, I visited
both Wurlitzer and Hammerschmidt to see if they would make an instrument
for me with a French fingering. I did not intend to relearn the clarinet
simply to acquire a bass. Both factories were more than willing to do
that and, indeed, had already done it for some players. But since they
did not have one to hand, that asked me to play one of their German system
bass clarinets to get an idea of the sound character that they produced.
(Incidentally, they were also making basset horns then, too, but they
were not prepared to make one of them in a French system at that time.
Later they did.)
I managed as best as I could with their Oehler system and mouthpiece
and, while it was the most extraordinary construction I had ever seen
(It was G-E-R-M-A-N!!!!!!. It was solid. It was technology. Wow.),
I found that I could not comfortably accomodate the resistance that
I was getting. I should have realized that a different mouthpiece and
a different reed would probably have fixed that, but I was young and
very silly (and also very chuavenistic) so I never bought one. I believed
then that only the French had the "je ne sais quoi" of clarinet making.
The bottom line here is that I was unable to detect a significant
difference in the sound between a German model b.c. and a French model
b.c. It is a lousy contrast because I was not getting a good sound
to begin with on the German models, but I sensed that even if I were
able to, it would still sound like a b.c. Perhaps today I might think
But if my observation has any validity at all, Mahler's use of A bass
was to achieve the sound of an A bass, not necessarily a German A
bass. Also, Mahler conducted for a number of years in the US. He was
music director of the NY Philharmonic and also did a great deal of opera
at the Metropolitan. So he was used to non-German orchestras and may
have had a much less chauventistic view than you attribute to him. Bottom
line is, I don't know.
But even should you be correct (i.e., he wanted the sound of a German
A bass as contrasted with a German B-flat bass), then the same argument
may be extended to French instruments; i.e., he would have recognized
the difference between a French A bass as contrasted with a French B-flat
bass). Don't ask me what he would have thought of a German A bass contrasted
with a French B-flat bass. I can't think that deeply.
Let me add that Ron Monson sent me an interesting post regarding the
A bass. Selmer has, apparently, stopped making them due, probably to
low sales and high production cost. If Ron is correct and this instrument
is now out of their catalog of available products, the value of the one I
bought has just effectively doubled! I may have gotten the last one. So
when I retire, which is not that far away, whoever buys it from me is
going to give me a substantial profit based solely on exclusivity.
Good discussion. I am enjoying your insight into the issues involved. I
hope the others find it interesting too, albeit a bit specialized.
Have you played the suite in F# minor of Dohnanyi? It is all for A
bass. And I think that Mahler 6 (which I have never played) has a big
A bass solo.
Dan Leeson, Los Altos, California