I played in clarinet in sixth grade, and a bit of seventh. Like all budding clarinetists, I picked the clarinet because there were already too many trumpet players. Everyone wanted to be brass. Brass is sort of the leather studs of the philharmonic. The Ozzy shirt, the tattoo, the middle finger.
And that was pretty much me.
The woodwinds suited me more than brass, I found. As did the “last chair” of my school’s four clarinetists, where I languished until MTV swept over the Oklahoma prairies and I turned to a fake Fender guitar and distortion pedals fully compressed.
Anyway, because I’m reviving my clarinet career in St Lucia, I’ve been researching the clarinet. And I have some STARTLING things to share.
1. First of all, “clarinette” is a French word meaning “little bell” or “little trumpet” – so screw all those brass kids at Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School. I got into the trumpet door through the back door.
2. The clarinet, more or less, was invented by Johann Christoph Denner in Nuremberg. I like this guy. For fun on those dull Nuremberg nights, JC fiddled with a chalumeau – a Baroque cousin of the recorder – by adding a single-reed mouthpiece. And then the music world made a pivotal shift. (No originals are known to exist, but some reconstructions of the fable have been attempted.)
3. In the 1840s, more German clarinet-tinkerings led to the clarinet as we know it. An early observer, Nate Gould, described a performance that “astonished every beholder, not so much, perhaps, on account of its sound, as its machinery.”
4. Googlers have no idea what a clarinet is.
6. According to a slightly unfunny humor piece in the New Yorker, a fake Gwyneth Paltrow likens her uncoupled relationship with “Cold Play guy” Chris Martin to that of the clarinet and saxophone. The fake Gwyneth says:
“I’d like to be the clarinet… of course, the saxophone wants its turn to speak, which is only fair, but it must wait for the clarinet to finish.”
7. Clarinets were huge in the ’30s and ’40s, during the so-called “Benny Goodman craze” when parents leaned clarinet for their kids. (Clarinets remain rock stars in the Balkans, as seen from the Balkan Clarinet Summit.)
8. In 1983, the Times blasted the clarinet to bits: “Consider the clarinet. Ungainly to look at, spiteful to hold, it manufactures a nasal, reedy tone that all too easily yields to a squeal.”
9. Yet Mozart liked the sound of the clarinet so much because he likened its tone to be closest to the quality of the human voice.
10. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, a hit from 1791, is considering by many to the “Satisfaction” of all clarinet tunes. (Listen.)
11. There is an annual clarinet festival called ClarinetFest, wait, ClarinetFest®.
12. There’s a Clarinet Journal, published by the International Clarinet Association. I’d love to read some of it, or find out when there might be a clarinet mixer nearby I can attend, but the journal costs $60 and it keeps its entire archives prodigiously barred from non-subscribers. Understandably I suppose.
13. That bell at the end of the clarinet? It’s sometimes called a “bore.” And, Wooderson in Dazed & Confused would be pleased to see that it comes with a couple joints.