Let us consider the world of the clarinet today, 2012. Your are a serious studentout there, doing all the Etudes, Method Books, Studies you can find. You are doing well. You’ve learned a bit about reeds, can begin to pick a commercial reed out of the box that may even play a little, waited a day or two, and found the reed nothing but a horror, tried only a small selection of mouthpieces, either chosen by your teacher, or by yourself from the well stocked shelves of the music store you frequent. Embouchure frustration has not visited you too much, you are still waiting for your staccato to improve, for your undertones to fall by the wayside, and you are beginnning to think you can play. You want to play, and not in the studio,wailing your warmup when anyone passes by. Your sound is the most important thing you have , it is what you profess, but outside of the concert or marching band, if you’re in University, where is a place for you to play? This is also closely connected to buying a pair of clarinets. By a “pair” we usually mean a “set” which pertains specifically to the traditional Bb and A clarinets, in a fitted double case. I shall never forget my first set of clarinets. They were for a student, a badge of honor, a handy acquisition, but what does that mean? A clarinet built in the key of Bb means that you can play practically all of the repertoire written for the clarinet as the tradition goes. So, let us move forward to today in the 21st Century. The two great masterpieces in the Chamber Music Repertoire for the clarinet are the Brahms and Mozart Clarinet Quintets ,written for clarinet and String Quartet. Both must be played with a A Clarinet. A Clarinet in Bb cannot be used as there is usually no low Eb key on a Bb and the both quintets were truly conceived for clarinet in A.( Andncidentally, the Mozart Concerto was written for a Basset clarinet, with an extra octave lower. While there are no Basset Clarinets with this extra octave in existence from that time, there is a strong implication in the very notation and, so there are these new “Old” nstrument around everywhere, but that is for another article.( The most difficult thing is to find the players who are capable of rehearsing and performing both pieces, or either one. The Mozart is difficult rhythmically, with some difficult passages for the fist violin,viola and cello. But the Brahms is another story as there must be many rehearsals with the String Quartet rehearsing alone, for bowings, nuances and general technical difficulties. We like to say excellence is certainly advisable, however the Brahms is quite difficult for the entire ensemble.
Will you be planning on performing either of these two works? If so, you need to have an A clarinet. I receive many requests for works for Graduate Recitals. Choros # 2 by Villa Lobos for Flute and Clarinet in A is a short, but difficult and entertaining work, as is the Woodwind Quintet by the same composer. The Schoenberg Woodwind Quintet is another work requiring clarnet in A as is Pierrot Lunaire, perhaps one the most important chamber works of the 20th Century, which also requires doubling on Bass Clarinet.
The Hindemith Quintet for Clarinet, Eb Clarinet and String Quartet is another great piece. This require Clarinet and Eb Clarinet. It is famous for having the first and final movements exactly reversed, (backwards), but the Eb movement is a difficult work unto itself and a real party, if you like to play Eb. All of the above are works requiring extensive rehearsal. I have performed them all and can certainly attest to the excellence of the works and the rehearsals needed. Have I included you or those like you in these comments? If so, you have to either own or have access to Bb, A, Eb and Bass Clarinets. There are many who simply do own just about all of the clarinet family. There are players who keep excellent mouthpieces for these instruments, as well as reeds and ligatures. But, while the Eb is also frequently used in the works of Richard Strauss and Wagner, perhaps the most advisable clarinet to own in your consort is the clarinet in C. Specifically, there are not a great number of ensembles for clarinet in C. But, this instrument is especially beautiful in timbre and you have access to every string quartet even written, hundreds of works from the Baroque Era. In fact, you are totally prepared, or you can always find players and you needn’t transpose if you have a C. I have a special fondness for this instrument because my instinct tells me that in general, it has a better natural scale and I prefer the timbre of the C clarinet. The C Clarinet is frequently used in the Beethoven Piano Concerti, instead of Bb and some pianists ask for the solos especially in the slow movements to be played on the C clarinet, probably the original instrument upon which they were performed. So, are we still looking for a pair of clarinets? If you are headed for a career in a symphony orchestra, certainly you need a pair in the traditional sense of a pair, Bb,and A.
But, let us face the fact that symphony Orchestra area almost a dying breed, or perhaps a bankrupt breed, especially within the US and Canada where funding is private. Donation, Ticket Sales, Touring are extremely important. The recording industry as such, is changing even as we speak. I was trained traditionally and wanted and did play principal in a Symphony, however most students who play and love the clarinet will not have that opportunity,or will find the competition in numbers alone staggering, and while the saleries are quite high, it is difficult to fit this kind of playing into a plan that includes a life with a family. One can love music in any part of ones life, but the pressure of a position in a major symphony almost rules out a family life. Compensation is high but competition is much intense and orchestras are being replaced , again, as we speak. The subject of purchasing instruments is one thing, but is no longer the wish of every good clarinetist. (My parents wanted me to be a dentist, and perhaps they were correct. I would have done much better in that line of work, but I wanted, and was able to have music. But we are here for only a short time, and we must think of what is practical and indeed, possible in that short time. Madamoiselle Boulanger said to me when I asked her how to justify compensation being so much smaller for a musician than many other professions? “One plays music because without music, one would prefer to die”. Certainly something about which to think. Certainly it is interpreted differently when heard by young ears, or when one is toward the end.