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Johann Christoph Denner is generally believed to have invented the clarinet in Germany around the year 1700 by adding a register key to the earlier chalumeau. Over time, additional keywork and airtight pads were added to improve the tone and playability.
The word clarinet may have entered the English language via the French clarinette (the feminine diminutive of Old French clarin or clarion), or from Provençal clarin, "oboe". It would seem however that its real roots are to be found amongst some of the various names for trumpets used around the renaissance and baroque eras. Clarion, clarin and the Italian clarino are all derived from the medieval term claro which referred to an early form of trumpet. This is probably the origin of the Italian clarinetto, itself a diminutive of clarino, and consequently of the European equivalents such as clarinette in French or the German Klarinette. According to Johann Gottfried Walther, writing in 1732, the reason for the name is that "it sounded from far off not unlike a trumpet". The English form clarinet is found as early as 1733, and the now-archaic clarionet appears from 1784 until the early years of the 20th century.
While the similarity in sound between the earliest clarinets and the trumpet may hold a clue to its name, other factors may have been involved. During the late baroque era, composers such as Bach and Handel were making new demands on the skills of their trumpeters, who were often required to play difficult melodic passages in the high, or as it came to be called, clarion register. Since the trumpets of this time had no valves or pistons, melodic passages would often require the use of the highest part of the trumpet's range, where the harmonics were close enough together to produce scales of adjacent notes as opposed to the gapped scales or arpeggios of the lower register. The trumpet parts that required this speciality were known by the term clarino and this in turn came to apply to the musicians themselves. It is probable that the term clarinet may stem from the diminutive version of the 'clarion' or 'clarino' and it has been suggested that clarino players may have helped themselves out by playing particularly difficult passages on these newly developed "mock trumpets".
These days the most popular clarinet is the B♭ clarinet. However, the clarinet in A, just a semitone lower, is commonly used in orchestral music. Since the middle of the 19th century the bass clarinet (nowadays invariably in B♭ but with extra keys to extend the register down a few notes) has become an essential addition to the orchestra. The clarinet family ranges from the (extremely rare) BBB♭ octo-contrabass to the A♭ piccolo clarinet. The clarinet has proved to be an exceptionally flexible instrument, equally at home in the classical repertoire as in concert bands, military bands, marching bands, klezmer, and jazz.
LCB at St Botolph's Church, Shepshed