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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000233.txt from 2010/05

From: "Keith Bowen" <>
Subj: Re: [kl] Klarinet Digest, Vol 3, Issue 40
Date: Wed, 26 May 2010 08:02:36 -0400


I'd agree fully that it is pointless to mix 'old' and 'new' instruments in
the same section of the orchestra, so don't worry, I shan't turn up to
Spires Phil with a classical clarinet. And without doubt, period-instrument
orchestras have produced many fascinating insights as well as wonderful

However, the original point was really about using the correct tonality of
clarinet within a modern ensemble. Given that all the instruments are
modern, should we play C, D etc parts on those clarinets rather than
transpose them to the nearest 'standard' A, Bb or Eb, or is this tokenism?

I think there is a strong argument for using the composer's choice, at least
if we believe the composer was competent. While the modern Bb sounds
different from the classical Bb, the relationship in timbre between this and
the A and C is, I argue, very similar to that between the classical set of
instruments. As Dan has argued, whether or not composers wanted to choose a
particular clarinet for its timbre (rather than ease of fingering), they
definitely knew the implications of their choice. I have recently studied
clarinet instruction manuals and handbooks of composition and orchestration
dating from the 1780s to the 1920s - about 40 in all. An absolutely common
thread over the whole period - during which the clarinet developed from the
five-key boxwood instrument to the modern Boehm or Oehler system - is that
the timbre of the various clarinets is different. Berlioz (1843) discusses
this in detail and says:

"Generally, performers should only use the instruments indicated by the
composer. Since each of these instruments has its own particular character,
it may be assumed that the composer has preferred one or the other
instrument for the sake of a definite timbre and not out of mere whim."

This is repeated in Strauss' revision of the manual in 1904. By this time
clarinets were very different, and Strauss was convinced that any clarinet
could be played in any key (he had a friend in the Berlin Phil who told him
that B major was as simple as C major these days!). And few composers cared
less about the technical difficulty of the parts that they wrote. But, as
Dan has also pointed out, no composer was more particular in the
specification and choice of tonality. The front page of Rosenkavalier score
says that it is absolutely forbidden to transpose the C parts onto A or Bb
instruments. He was, of course, assuming essentially modern instruments.

I don't believe that it is tokenism to suggest that the clarinet should
select the requested instrument while the other woodwind play their standard
instruments, even if they are all modern instruments. The others generally
don't have alternatives - but of course, if a part calls for a cor anglais
(English horn) they would not dream of playing it on an oboe even if it were
within range. I think that selecting the requested clarinet is a similar, if
less obvious, principle. Indeed, when the clarinets played modern C
clarinets in Beethoven 5 in our orchestra last year you commented
(favourably, I think!) on the different tone colour. Though I have little
experience of D clarinets, I would expect a significant difference between
it and the Eb instrument for Till Eulenspiegel, and I am quite certain that
Strauss would have known the difference.

There is a second, less obvious reason. Sometimes in the orchestral
literature there are choices of clarinet that seem contrary to the logic of
the key. Examples (for the bass clarinet) are Mahler 4, Strauss Invalid
Workshop and Tchaikovsky Nutcracker. While selected timbre may be a reason,
I think that the choice of local key is often a reason. This may be for
smoother - or sometimes less smooth - playing, or because of an association
of key with character in the composer's mind. If this seems questionable,
consider whether we would all be happy with the Mozart concerto or quintet
played (even by a highly competent player) on a Bb instrument, even if it
were a basset instrument descending to low B ?

Keith Bowen

-----Original Message-----
From: Colin Touchin []
Sent: 26 May 2010 10:08
Subject: Re: [kl] Klarinet Digest, Vol 3, Issue 40

Using the appropriate instruments makes a lot of sense, but inevitably leads

to major compromises. If only the clarinettists take this much trouble to
"get it right" then an ensemble is going to sound a mixture of different
period timbres - if all the horn, oboe, cello players, for example, research

and obtain the most suitable instruments and the techniques needed to go
with playing them in period style, then that effort and sincerity pay off in

performances which more nearly attune to the composers' likely, guessed-
at intentions.
In 1973 (one of the first reconstructed performances?) I conducted the
Eroica with original wind/brass instruments from the Bate Collection at
Oxford under the aegis of Antony Baines (we had volunteer students so
they used the only available modern strings and timps) and Professor
Joseph Machlis exclaimed afterwards "Now I know why Beethoven wrote
what he did". I also played in the Gran Partitta, the Adagio for clts/bhns,

the C minor Serenade with us all using eighteenth-century instruments - for
sure, lacking in techniques to control these unknown forces, but so
colourful and enriching.
If only some of the players can obtain or adapt to historically or
geographically appropriate instruments, then there is equal value in an
ensemble all using modern instruments interpreting with 21st-century ideas
and experiences as there is for an ensemble all utilising old machines and
doing their best to create the sound-world of the composer's time; but
value in a half-and-half approach, or even 5%/95%. If we are particular
about using a clarinet in D, say, when we are sure the composer meant
that, then it only makes sense if every other element in the score is
specifically and accurately reproduced. If the Eb is very close to the D,
too might the modern plastic-headed timpanum be close to the old calf-skin
(no way, my father would say, as we had calf-head copper-shell drums in
the house and knew how beautifully they sounded compared to any modern
Tokenism in authenticity is illogical, although the debates amongst
clarinettists can be as entertaining and illuminating as their performances!

Colin Touchin.
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