Having noticed a veritable cornucopia of clarinet materials being marketed, it would seem proper to list all of the various instruments which I have owned or played and their comparative qualities.
The oldest instrument was a Selmer full boehm metal clarinet , # 406, from the late 20s. It was sent to me in a decrepit case, actually falling apart. The sender wanted an appraisal and I replied that I couldn’t make such an appraisal without playing the instrument. So, we worked out an arrangement wherein I would completely restore the instrument to playing condition, which I did, with the following results: the clarinet played absolutely beautifully, with an exceptionally facile altissimo. I brought it into Twigg Music in Montreal to purchase a new case and played it for them, and frankly they were very impressed with both the look of the instrument, it size. the bore being very much narrower than a wooden instrument. It was rather shocking to me. This is the very same model which Gaston Hamelin played first clarinet in the Boston Symphony. It was the instrument that the conductor ,Serge Koussevitsky, disapproved of strongly.The contract was not renewed.
Hamelin went back to France, taking several soon-be-prominent players with him, notably Ralph Maclain, who became principal in the Philadelphia and founded the so-called American school of the clarinet. One of his students was Harold Wright, Principal in the Boston orchestra and probably the most individual sound of the instrument ever to be heard. By those comments I mean to say , that late in his career and even as early as his time as principal with the National Symphony in Wash. D.C., his sound and presentation were much more like those of a great soprano, perhaps someone like Jessye Norman, or Renee Fleming, an individual presentation which entered and continued to the delight of his audiences. (Please hear his Mozart Concerto withe BSO on this site, it is without any of the cliched holding of certain notes at the beginning of a run,or a childish attempt at phrasing Mozart, adding ornaments. This work and Wrights works is literally perfect.
Back to clarinet materials, having said that the early Selmer metal instruments were superb, and having played one of these early instruments,let us go the early instruments made of Boxwood, those with the usual three keys. I had a set made for me by a maker in NY, and they had excellent quaiity, and I must confrss that I played them with a contemporary mouthpiece for my best results. I toured Nova Scotia with a trio called the Mannheim Trio, with Valerie Kinsslow, soprano, and Boyd MacDonald , fortepiano. We played “Parto Parto”, by Mozart, from La Clemenza Di Tito. I cannot qualify the sound or the respnse exactly, but here were instuments with which you had use various harmonic fingerings for certain chromatics. I later had some extra keys added. This in the time of the burgeoning practice of playing all on original instruments.
There was acute pun going around:” What do you do with a BAroque Cello?”FIX IT”
Moving forward, the plastic clarinet made its presence known with the appearance of the Resonite Clarinet by Selmer. There was a cute visual ad of a 1947 Studebaker, you know the one that seemed to be going in both directions at once. There was a larger clarinet joint under each of the four tires holding the car about a foot off the ground. Maybe some remember it.
This was the Selmer version of plastic. All the other makers followed suit, the Yamaha being the most prolific. That clarinet is now number 250, going along with a price, however the is no clarinet made of plastic which has any particular quality of response other than strident. I own a 250, with the prior number, which I believe was 95, though I cannot be sure. This type pf plastic or bakelite or resonite iincludes the Buffet Greenline, made of carbon fibres. Not only is it price the same as the Buffet wooden instrument, it can shatter and break quite easily.
Ultimately, we come to the grenadilla, or sometimes called the mpingo, the most proular material. If you reach back into your memory, you will recall a time of considerable wanting of a clarinet made from grenadilla.
The manufacture of this instrument is most difficult since the wood changes with the temperature, has tedency to crack, all of the joints shrinking and swelling with the change in temperature, and humidity.
At a school where I taught briefly, they had a full time tech. who did nothing but unfreeze barrels from tne top joints of clarinets. Play on a new clarinet in a band rehearsal for several hours at a time and you will even have some instructors directing their student to leave the barrel pulled out a bit, regardless of changes in pitch.
In your youth you learned to want a wooden clarinet. You loved your first one, especially if it had silver plated keys and had a case like your teachers, black with a fitted cover. I certainly did, almost anxiously waiting for the time. Do I remember any special sound or respond it had? It had none, except that which I imparted into the horn with my breath, reed and mouthpiece. And, at whatever level of proficiency I had reached.. There was always a great deal more to accomplish, and it is still constant. One is never finished learning.
Going into various other of the more rarer woods, I have been told by the designer and clarinetmaker, William Ridenour, that cocobolo is almost an impossible wood to work. His only suggestion w as that all of these should be lined with rubber, similar to some bassoons.
Late in the 50s or 60s, Selmer produced its unique model called the “Recital”. Frequently call the FAT Clarinet, it had a narrower bore and a thicker body, resuling is a fine and weighty response. But with any other mouthpiece than the C85, which seemed to be made for the Recital, the tuning was faulty, though quite a lovely response.
I donated my set my University.
All of the above have developed into clarinets having astronomical prices, out of the reach of most if not all families with a clarinet student.I counseled many students to purchase brands at lesser prices, simply because they were good as the more expensive instruments.
And where would there studies lead them? Employment for serious clarinetists is diminishing by the week, if not the day. By the time your parents finished paying for the instrument, it s on the shelf in your closet.
I leave the instrument made from hard rubber or ebonite for last. The reasons are clear. There is an abundance of rubber, a natural substance throughout the world. It is one of the most pliable materials to machine. It is far more stable in pitch and dimension than any wooden clarinet.Because of these reasons it is far easier to produce and to finish, making its acquisition much simpler.
Does any clarinet have an actual sound? NO. A clarinet is an inanimate object. Only you can turn into a beautiful instrument for making music with your acquired knowledge of repertoire, formation and mentorship of someone who knows what it is supposed to sound like.
The varia is most amazing , the results mostly the same.