Notes on clarinets and clarinet music


Occasional Writings

Christopher Fox,  Music Dept., Huddersfield,

As requested here are some notes on clarinets and clarinet music. Hope they are useful.


Writing for the clarinet

(I’m writing this in response to the various questions which you pose, and for which I’ve added numbers)


“The composer as alienated performer”

1. My chief instrument is the double bass, though I also play the piano. I have also played untuned and tuned percussion to a certain extent (I played briefly in Steve Reich’s group playing Drumming) .

2. It is not in the least problematic not being a clarinettist. I enjoy writing in as idiomatic way as I can for all instruments.

3. I never think of myself as the player.

4. I am very conscious of the technical character of any instrument that I write for. In the case of the clarinet this would involve its range, its character in its different registers, awareness of problematic areas, and so on. It also involves being aware of the ways in which it combines with other instruments in ensemble as much as its solo characteristics (what Koechlin calls “orchestration proper”). I do not think about fingerings but rely on the player to provide the appropriate ones and even to provide alternatives. I am fortunate in working with musical and inventive performers in this respect. I am aware that fingerings are not universal and hence I prefer not to prescribe – with multiphonics too.

5. I write music for this or that clarinettist.


“New music and history”

1. In some cases I do think about the history of the clarinet but this depends entirely on the nature of the piece I am writing. Let me give two examples.

When I wrote a piece for clarinet or soprano saxophone and piano in 1983 it was intended as an operatic paraphrase of my opera Medea. I called the piece Allegrasco, referring to the clarinettist Edmondo Allegra who is the dedicatee of both of Busoni’s works for the clarinet. I imagined, therefore, that he was the ideal performer of Busoni’s works, one of which, the Elegie was itself an operatic paraphrase of Docktor Faust.

“Allegrasco”, then, is a kind of performing instruction as well as a title: it sounds like “Allegro” though it really means “with the sound and musical approach of Allegra” – a sound I had to imagine but a musical approach which could be deduced from the music that Busoni had written.

The second example refers to my forthcoming opera Doctor Ox’s Experiment in which the bass clarinet has a very substantial part. In the opera there is a reference to Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and I was aware that the bass clarinet solo at the beginning of Act 5 of this opera was only playable because of the development of the instrument’s mechanism by Adolphe Sax (my opera is set in an imaginary part of Belgium, hence the connection with Sax).

2. Clearly the above gives some idea of the significance of history in my thinking about the clarinet, but it can be somewhat tangential as for example the fact that Busoni’s father wrote what was probably the last method for the instrument in which the mouthpiece is the other way up. To a large extent the clarinet’s significant history for me relates to its players: Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet playing has always inspired me and the two unaccompanied versions of God Bless the Child are, for me, some of the greatest moments in the bass-clarinet’s history.


“Composition as a social act”

1. I do write for a particular player. This is the case not only for the clarinet but for other instruments too. The instrumental composition of my own ensemble arises from the fact that these are the people with whom I want to work rather than that these are the instruments for which I would like to write (and then find suitable players). In the case of the clarinet my writing has been entirely for my close colleague and friend Roger Heaton who has the sound which I love above all others.

2. Roger Heaton’s sound is exactly what I write for and sometimes it can be a disappointment when I have another player performing a part which I have already had played by Roger. A recent case in point was my Adnan Songbook (for soprano and 6 players: 2 violas, cello, bass, clarinet/bass clarinet, electric/acoustic guitars). This was first performed by Valdine Anderson with my ensemble at the Almeida in July 1996. It was then performed, with full string sections, by the CBC Vancouver Orchestra with the same singer in September. While the additional strings made the overall sound much warmer, richer and giving a more substantial support for the voice, the solo parts were undoubtedly not, for me, as fine (i.e. Jonathan Carney solo viola, James Woodrow guitars, and Roger Heaton, clarinets).

Equally his musical tastes interest me. He has a wonderful feeling for the romantic repertoire although he is best known for his performance of a wide range of new music. I enjoy a good deal of this music, especially in his performance, though I remind him always to bring his bass-clarinet mouthpiece after having heard him play a piece by Globokar which doesn’t use one (it uses a trombone technique – the consequence of a composer thinking that he is playing his own instrument and that the other instrument is his surrogate?). This has led me to include such things as multiphonics, for example, but within the context of tonal music. There is one piece that I wrote for Roger, as a gift, which is essentially about his sound – this is Three Elegies for Nine Clarinets (for 4 clarinets, 2 altos, 2 basses and one contra-bass clarinet) for him to record as a multitrack piece. Subsequently this was played live with an 8-track accompaniment with the solo player moving from clarinet to bass and back to clarinet.



1. The acoustics of the instrument, allied to the particular player, are what gives it its sound and so the two are inextricably linked in my mind.

2 –

3. The 9 clarinet piece is certainly about the clarinet, or rather the clarinet family.

4. The clarinet is good at many things most of which are common knowledge: its extreme dynamic range, the facility for rapid legato scales and arpeggios, its agility, its ability, in the right hands, to play expressive cantilenas, its ability to blend. The strengths and weakness tend to be those of the players rather than the instrument. For example the very high register of the bass clarinet is a wonderful sound but I once found a player shifting to clarinet from bass in such a passage because he could not believe that this was the sound I wanted!

I think the only area that I would change is the bottom end of the instrument. It would, for example, ,make sense for the B flat instrument to go down to a written D, like the bass. I find the bottom fourth of the contra-bass rather weak and needing the reinforcement of the bass an octave higher for its effect to be felt. This is analogous to some organ pedal notes being ineffective, or rather inaudible in the case of the organ, unless they are doubled at the octave (the 64′ pedals on the organ at Liverpool Cathedral are able to be felt rather better if the 32′ is occasionally doubled for the very lowest notes).

List of works with clarinet

The pieces of mine with substantial clarinet parts are the following (an asterix indicates that a commercial recording exists):

1983 Allegrasco (for solo clarinet and piano or ensemble) *

1986 Sub Rosa (for ensemble)*

1987 By the Vaar (for jazz double bass and strings with bass clarinet)*

1987 The Old Tower of Löbenicht (for ensemble including bass clarinet)* This is also arranged for violin, piano and bass clarinet.

1988 Doctor Ox’s Experiment (Epilogue) (for soprano voice and large ensemble, including bass clarinet)

1990 Four Elements (for ensemble including bass clarinet)*

1992 Aus de Letzten Tage (for ensemble, including clarinet doubling bass clarinet)

1993 The Archangel Trip (written for the group Icebreaker, this has a solo part for bass clarinet)*

1993 Le Chateau d’Oiron (ambisonic installation in French castle using recordings of clarinet and bass clarinet with other instruments)*

1993 Three Elegies for Nine Clarinets (4 B flats, 2 altos, 2 basses and 1 contra-bass clarinet)*

1996 Adnan Songbook (for soprano voice and ensemble including clarinet doubling bass clarinet)

1997 Doctor Ox’s Experiment (opera, in which the bass clarinet is strongly featured in the orchestra with several extended solos)

I think this is reasonably complete but I will fax all this to Sally at Schotts so that she can cast an eye over it.

All these works are published by Schott. If you want particular musical examples then that would be the best place to get them. Maybe Roger might have some idea about what you might use?

I hope that this is useful. Please check anything that isn’t clear or which needs amplification.

All the best







Gavin Bryars