The Joy of the Clarinet


There must be something really endearing about the Clarinet. How else can we explain the phenomenon of different cultures and genres of music, all adopting the Clarinet as their own? Western-Classical, Turkish-Greek, Arab-Egyptian, Carnatic-Indian, Hindustani-Indian, Klezmer, Martial music and Jazz with all its sub-genres …how else? For an instrument that was “invented” as late as 1700, it has bowled all of them over.

The Invention

I say “invented”. Many western instruments (like the flute or violin) gradually evolved over the centuries. But the Clarinet was specifically invented by a German craftsman named Johann Christoph Denner. Indeed, his invention was a break-through. Woodwinds before his time had at the most 7 or 8 holes (it was impossible to have more, because the player would run out of fingers!). The clarinet’s baroque predecessors — like the Chalumeau and the Recorder — had 8 holes. Seven holes represented the seven notes and the 8th hole (speaker-hole) was used to “overblow” or play one octave higher. Now Denner’s clarinet had a speaker-hole too— except that it “overblew” by 1.5 octaves – which means that if you “overblew” on the 1st note you would reach, not the 8th note, but the 12th note (8x 1.5 octaves). This also meant that the clarinet needed a new set of holes from the 9th to the 11th. This created a new problem since a player supporting the instrument with his two thumbs had only 8 operational fingers. So Denner introduced a system of levers and pads (keys) to operate them when needed. The first clarinets had only 2 or 3 keys; over the years, continuous innovation converted it into a sophisticated key based instrument. When Denner invented it, he probably intended to produce a woodwind that could surpass the trumpet (hence the initial name, “Clarion”et); but subsequent innovations produced a family  of clarinets (from the smallest Requinto to the biggest Contra-bass) that have no equal in sweetness.



The Genres

Western Classical

Within a short period, classic western orchestras started adopting the clarinet and the chalumeau faded away. Mozart wrote many pieces for the clarinet and so did many later composers. The clarinet that is commonly used in western music is the B Flat Soprano. Here is a lovely piece– “Aragonnaise” from Bizet’s Carmen. Note that 3 players are playing the B b Soprano while accompanied by a Bass clarinet (the player on the extreme right).

American Jazz

When I think Jazz, I can think of only Benny Goodman who was the “Godman” of clarinet. Here is a recording from the 1980s- “Body & Soul


Benny Goodman was an American of Polish Jewish descent, but his genre was Jazz. But the traditional music of Eastern European Jews was Klezmer: original Yiddish with lots of Romanian, Gypsy and other local influences. Klezmer music is very expressive of human emotions, even laughing and crying. Which instrument other than the clarinet can express this so naturally? Here is the Budapest Klezmer Band playing L’chajem Rebbe.


The Turkish and Greek music traditions are rich and ancient. An instrument that played notes in staccato fashion was not sufficient. They needed an emotional, human like instrument and they adapted the clarinet to be just that. The Turks, unlike the westerners use the longer G clarinet. Mustafa Kandirali is perhaps their most famous clarinetist. But I chose to plug in this piece by Husnu Senlendirici whose music is equally attractive.

South Indian Carnatic

South Indian Classic music places a lot of importance on the Ghamaka (slurring of the note) which is atypical in western music. They have a unique instrument, the Nadaswaram which is suited to this. Surprisingly, the clarinet co-exists with the Nadaswaram and holds its own rather well. Here is AKC Natarajan (probably the greatest Indian clarinettist ) playing “Nagumomo in the Raga (Indian scale) “Abheri”. Note how Natarajan has re-engineered the bell of the clarinet: it flares open like the Nadaswaram. That is how Indianised the clarinet has become!

And Fusion

And finally music from a brilliant clarinettist who has mastered many traditions –Western classical, Jazz, Hindustani and Carnatic: Shankar Tucker, fusion genius. Note how the vocalist and clarinettist are seamlessly integrated!

Acknowledgements, Disclaimers

I am no musician or musicologist—just a clarinet afficionado. Nor is this work original. It is merely an attempt to share the joy that different genres of artistes have given us from a divine instrument. There is some great information about the clarinet in the site: I learnt a lot from it.


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