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The clarinet is a woodwind instrument that developed during the 18th century. Its nearest ancestor was the chalumeau, an instrument related to the recorder. The chalumeau was unlike the recorder, however, in that it had a single-reed mouthpiece and two keys in addition to its finger holes.

The first clarinet was essentially a chalumeau with a register key – a key that allowed the player to raise the instrument’s pitch. This development has been attributed to Johann Christoph Denner (1655-1707) or his son Jacob Denner (1685-1735), instrument makers from the German city of Nuremberg. The original clarinet played well in the middle register, with a sound reminiscent of the trumpet. The name clarinet derives from clarino, the Italian name for an historical trumpet that is also called “clarion” in English. Clarinet means “small clarion/clarion” or “small trumpet.”

Soon, makers were adding more keys, thus improving tuning and playing, and expanding the range. As the tone mellowed, clarinets won increasing appreciation. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, very much valued the sound of the clarinet.

By the turn of the 19th century, the clarinet was an integral part of the orchestra. One drawback, however, was the lack of an airtight padding for the keys. The discovery of a solution let to a series of dramatic enhancements. While a clarinet of Mozart’s time might have had five keys, those in the early 19th century could have had 13. Different “systems” for key configuration were developed, each with its own advocates. Even today, there is no single standard configuration. Clarinets are also built for differing pitch and tone. The modern clarinet offers a great deal of variation indeed.

In a nod to its history, the clarinet’s lowest register is still referred to as the “chalumeau,” and the middle is the “clarino” or “clarion” register.