Low-pitched wind instruments with a single reed were already known in Europe in Renaissance times: The chalumeau – the direct precursor of the clarinet – was made in various pitches, the instrument family also including a bass chalumeau. Chalumeaus were in use until about the end of the 17th century and were only played in the lower register (the clarinet’s low register is still called the chalumeau register today); they did not have a speaker key for playing the high notes (clarinet register). The bass chalumeau was made in the form of a bassoon so that all the finger-holes could be placed within easy reach of the musician’s fingers.
Early bass clarinets
In the late 18th century two instrument makers began developing clarinets in the bass register at roughly the same time and independently of one another.
In Paris in 1772 Gilles Lot created a clarinet with several keys and a compass of more than three octaves, which he called a ”basse-tube”.
And in the Dresden workshop of Heinrich Grenser in 1793 a bass clarinet (”Klarinettenbass”) was produced with nine keys and a range down to a written Bb3 (which meant that the lowest sounding note was either Ab4 or Ab3). This instrument and a second bass clarinet from 1795, both pitched to Bb, have survived to the present day. Like the bass chalumeau they have the form of a bassoon. The tubing is very thick, similar to the bassoon’s wing joint, which made it possible to drill the tone holes in the wall at an angle so that they were easily reachable.
At the beginning of the 19th century many workshops were producing a variety of different models with colorful names: in Paris in 1807 Dumas made a bass clarinet that he called a ”basse guerrière”, which, to judge by the name, was intended for military bands. This instrument was later improved by Louis Auguste Buffet. Then in 1812 came the so-called ”basse-orgue” made by François Sautermeister in Lyon; in 1828 it was followed by the bass clarinet of G. Streitwolf in Göttingen; and in 1838 C. Catterini in Padua and P. Maino in Milan came up with the ”glicibarifono”.
The man credited with pioneering the modern straight form of the bass clarinet is Adolphe Sax (1814–1894), who created a version with 22 keys and an entirely straight tube in the 1830s. He also added a reflector which was designed to conduct the vibrations from the downward-pointing bell into the auditorium.
The bass clarinet in the orchestra
In 1836 Giacomo Meyerbeer scored for a bass clarinet in his opera Les Huguenots, entrusting it with solo tasks. This important role greatly increased the bass clarinet’s popularity and paved the way for further use in art music.
Like the clarinet, bass clarinets for the orchestra were now also made in Bb and A; many earlier models had been in C because the instrument had originally been used in military bands purely as a bass instrument instead of the bassoon, which was also pitched in C.
Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner were among the first composers to make regular use of the bass clarinet, raising it to the status of a standard orchestra instrument. Since Wagner it has regularly been given tonal tasks to perform beside its function as a bass voice: it is ideally suited for solos with a somber and solemn character, although it is also perfectly capable of producing humorous and comical effects. Richard Strauss requires as much agility of it as he does of the clarinet itself. He not only took the bass clarinet of his time to its lowest limit (the lowest note on an A instrument was a sounding C#), but also took it up to the highest register (highest note F5) for the first time.
Modern models now have a range from Bb1–B5 (sounding), but these extremes are hardly ever used by composers, partly due to a lack of interest in the highest notes, partly due to uncertainty as to which instruments are available and how far down their compass reaches.