The Evolution of the Clarinet Choir

The clarinet is #blessed to have so many members of its family, and amazing things happen when these instruments are combined together to create a clarinet choir.

Despite the wide variety of clarinets in different keys throughout its history, the clarinet choir as we know it is a relatively new concept.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The clarinet was developed around the turn of the 18th century by Johann Christoph Denner in Nuremberg, Germany, and it quickly gained traction as both an ensemble and solo instrument. Early clarinets had very few keys, and as a result were not able to access all key signatures. For example, in order to perform a piece in D major, players would use a D clarinet (or other clarinet which was capable of easily playing music in this key signature).

At the beginning of the 19th century, Ivan Müller (also spelled Iwan Mueller) created the clarinette omnitonique, which was capable of playing in all key signatures. (Fun fact: He presented this clarinet to the Conservatoire de Paris in 1812 for their approval, which would greatly determine the use of this instrument in the wider musical scene. The committee rejected Müller’s clarinette omnitonique – pitched in B-flat – arguing that its ability to play in every key would negate the use of other members of the clarinet family and rid the world of their unique musical voices. So in a way, the very problem Müller’s clarinet had
solved was used against it.)

Müller’s clarinet began to gain widespread popularity, despite the Paris Conservatoire’s rejection. However, the committee wasn’t entirely mistaken in their reasoning – as the clarinet’s keywork continued to evolve, auxiliary clarinets were still widely used to showcase their unique timbral and tonal distinctions.

By the end of the 19th century, the members of the clarinet family were a veritable menagerie, and composers such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler used them in full force in orchestral scores to create more complex and rich harmonies.

Even with a wide variety of clarinets at their disposal, composers did not write music specifically for what we would label as clarinet choirs. Some, like Anton Stadler (aka “Mozart’s clarinetist”), Jacques Jules Bouffil, and others wrote for clarinet trios and quartets, but these were often intended for one kind of clarinet (i.e. four clarinets in B-flat).

The “inventor” of the clarinet choir is considered to be Belgian clarinetist-saxophonist Gustave Poncelet, who organized a group of nearly 30 clarinetists at the Brussels Conservatory where he taught at the end of the 19th century.

This group quickly gained recognition, and it wasn’t long until this ensemble made its way overseas to America with Simeon Bellison’s newly formed clarinet choir in 1927. What began as a small group grew steadily to reach nearly 80 members towards the middle of the 20th century. Other important figures in the clarinet choir’s history are Lucien Cailliet, Harvey Hermann, David Hite, and many others.

Standard instrumentation for the clarinet choir includes E-flat clarinet, B-flat clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, and contra clarinets, although this has been expanded and can include any members of the clarinet choir.

The golden age of the clarinet choir is largely considered to be during the 1950s and 1960s, when many universities formed clarinet choirs which performed and presented at state, regional, and national music conferences. The growth of the clarinet choir at the university level was also fostered by the influx of newly enrolled college students after the relative economic stability after WWII. University music programs flourished as schools began to hire full-time teachers, performers, composers, and other faculty. Many clarinet manufacturers promoted and encouraged the development of clarinet choirs, as they offered students a wonderful opportunity to learn auxiliary instruments and to become better ensemble musicians. New works were arranged, composed, and commissioned for the clarinet choir, and the popularity of this ensemble continued to grow.

Now, the clarinet choir is an essential part of many university clarinet curriculums. This ensemble is commonplace at clarinet conferences, and there has even been a Guinness World Record Set for Largest Clarinet Ensemble (performed by 367 clarinetists at ClarinetFest 2019 in Knoxville, Tennessee).

In addition to the repertory of original works written for the clarinet choir, there are also hundreds of arrangements, transcriptions, and other compositions which were created to demonstrate the unique tonal and technical capabilities clarinetists can produce.

The clarinet choir as we know it is just over 100 years old, and it is exciting to think what new developments will take place in the next century and beyond!

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