Clarinets: Which to use, Bb or A?

Sherman,
Talking about the A clarinet got me to thinking about the clarinet in the orchestra.It seems to me that most of the parts are for Bb clarinet.
But orchestral friends have told me that it’s not unusual to be given a part for C clarinet, as well as A clarinet.

My question is, is Bb clarinet the rule in orchestral playing? If
so, when did it become so, or has it always been the rule? If not, how often (generally speaking) are the other clarinets involved?
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Hi J:
There is no rule for which clarinet in the orchestra. It is not merely convenience and since it has been common within the orchestra since the time of Mozart or so, it is as foregone conclusion as the double case they come in.
Every serious student has to have an A regardless of the fact that he may not play it for a while or even ever. You have or had to have a case cover as well, at least when I was in school.
But a discussion of the use of clarinets in different keys: Bb, A, C, Eb, and D and their use in the symphony orchestra is an interesting topic for discussion, very muich so.
Initially the clarinet was a three-keyed affair in Bb or so. Then , in order to play in keys employing complicated key signatures, an extension that consisted of another joint made your Bb into an A of sorts.(Pitches were vague back then) As soon as you are in the A clarinet the key is simplified.
Almost all of the playing of C clarinet parts is done by transposition and a good player can and does do it at sight. You can either do by adding sharps, taking away flats or by using the clef system wherein you simply play your part usuiong a different clef.
Many players do that and many saxophone players do so that they can easily play alto parts on tenor, etc
Back to the clarinet in A. it has improved dramatically since its inception and now many players switch clarinets even when not called for.
A good A clarinet has a special sound which may be employed at will and is very attractive, and many others switch from A to Bb when not called for in order to play passages in a more secure manner.
Stravinsky, in his Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, suggests that the player play the first two on A, and the last on Bb and it works that way quite well.
If you have a good A clarinet you almost prefer to play most things on that instrument because of the increased depth of sound.
Of course the mouthpiece is an issue as well. Originally a different mouthpiece was called for for each clarinet, but most clarinetists use the same mouthpiece for each and it is a concsideration when choosing a mouthpiece.
One always plays the Eb or D clarinet part on the Eb clarinet, the most famous of which is Til Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss (1894).
The famous clarinet solo in The Pines of Rome by Repighi is played on the A clarinet, but I actually once played it on the Bb (and most would ask why) It was because I had the low Eb on my horn, and the instrument was Mazzeo Full Boehm, an instrument which makes any key the same difficulty, of course the part learned precisely helps as well.
I had a dear friend who played in the Kansas City Symphony in the audience that day and he approved of it on the Bb. If I had to do it again, I would not as it was just an experiment to see if I could , and I did, thank goodness.
One can make a whole list of works in the orchestra where one can change clarinets, playing the Bb on the A and vice verse, just do not make an error and pick up the wrong clarinet. I never did but heard the wonderful Gino Cioffi, principal clarinet of the BSO and one of the great clarinetists do it in a morning rehearsal of Forest Murmurs of Wagner at the Shed in Tanglewood. Unforgettable.
Hope this helps your inderstanding. History is involved and more and more your preference of sound, and your horn and mouthpiece as well.
best regards, sherman

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