Alto clarinet

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Alto clarinet
Playing range
  • Written: E3 to G6
  • Sounding: G2 to B5
Related instruments
Alto clarinet

The alto clarinet is a woodwind instrument of the clarinet family. It is a transposing instrument pitched in the key of E, though instruments in F (and in the 19th century, E) have been made. It is sometimes called a tenor clarinet.[1] In size it lies between the soprano clarinet and the bass clarinet, to which it bears a greater resemblance in that it typically has a straight body (made of Grenadilla or other wood, hard rubber, or plastic), but a curved neck and bell made of metal. All-metal alto clarinets also exist. In appearance it strongly resembles the basset horn, but usually differs in three respects: it is pitched a tone lower, it lacks an extended lower range, and it has a wider bore[vague] than many basset horns.

The range of the alto clarinet is from the concert G or G in the second octave below middle C (i.e. bottom line of the bass clef) to the middle of the second octave above middle C, with the exact upper end of the range depending on the skill of the player.

Modern alto clarinets, like other instruments in the clarinet family, have the Boehm system or Oehler system of keys and fingering, which means that this clarinet has virtually identical fingering to the others. The alto clarinet, however, usually has an extra key allowing it to play a low (written) E, and a half-hole key controlled by the left-hand index finger with a vent that may be uncovered to assist in playing the altissimo register.


The invention of the alto clarinet has been attributed to Iwan Müller and to Heinrich Grenser,[2] and to both working together.[3] Müller was performing on an alto clarinet in F by 1809, one with sixteen keys at a time when soprano clarinets generally had no more than 10–12 keys; Müller's revolutionary thirteen-key soprano clarinet was developed soon after.[3] The alto clarinet may have been invented independently in America; the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a bassoon-shaped alto clarinet in E, cataloged as an "alto clarion", attributed to an anonymous American maker circa 1820.[4] This instrument bears a strong resemblance to the "patent clarions" (bass clarinets) made from about 1810 by George Catlin of Hartford, Connecticut and his apprentices.[5] Later, in Europe, Adolphe Sax made notable improvements to the alto clarinet.[6]

Albert Rice defines clarinets in G with flared bells, which were produced as early as 1740, as alto clarinets,[7] but this use of the term is uncommon.

Use in musical ensembles[edit]

Soon after its invention, Georg Abraham Schneider composed two concertos (Op. 90 and op. 105) for Müller's instrument and orchestra.[3][8] Generally, however, the alto clarinet has not been commonly used in orchestral scoring. It is used mostly in concert bands and plays an important role in clarinet choirs. A few jazz musicians, Hamiet Bluiett, Vinny Golia, J. D. Parran, Petr Kroutil, Joe Lovano and Gianluigi Trovesi among them, have played the alto clarinet. In his Treatise on Orchestration and Instrumentation, Hector Berlioz said of the alto clarinet, "It is a very beautiful instrument which ought to take its place in all well-established orchestras."[9]


The alto clarinet band part remains in 20th and 21st century wind band literature. Band directors looking to add color to a large clarinet section will often move clarinet players to this instrument. Many times the alto clarinet serves an important role in the harmonic scoring of the clarinet section within the broader scope of the concert band.

There is a notable alto clarinet solo in Percy Grainger's wind-band piece Lincolnshire Posy.

An important orchestral example is Igor Stravinsky's Threni, which calls for an instrument in F instead of the usual E, and with extension keys to fingered low C.[clarification needed][10][11] Stravinsky calls for the usual alto clarinet in E in the Elegy for J.F.K. (1964).[12]

Joseph Holbrooke seems to have liked the instrument. He wrote an elaborate part for alto clarinet in his Symphony No. 2 Apollo and the Seaman.[13][14]

In the wind band and clarinet choir the alto clarinet can add tonal strength to the ensemble, not only because it can play lower notes, but because some of the most beautiful notes (written C to F) in the upper register of the alto clarinet have the same pitch as the weaker-toned middle-register notes (written F to B) of the B soprano clarinet.

Solo music for alto clarinet[edit]

The solo repertoire for alto clarinet is still limited, with much of it consisting of transcriptions of works for basset horn. Up to the 20th century only a small handful of works were written for the instrument. Examples include Franklin Stover's Pastorale & Passepied for alto clarinet (or basset horn in F) and piano. Also note Frank McCartey's Sonata for alto clarinet and piano. The instrument has become mildly more popular with contemporary composers, and especially those writing music for clarinet choir.[citation needed]

Differences in nomenclature[edit]

In contrast with other families of instruments such as for example the saxophone, the terms used for the different sized clarinets are less well established and are not without discrepancies. The term bass clarinet is clear enough but the familiar B and A clarinets are not commonly referred to as sopranos and there is no "tenor" instrument as such. Some writers have considered that the alto clarinet might be better referred to as a "tenor".[15] Considering the wide range of the clarinet (more than three octaves) and focussing on the first two octaves, this would compare better with the classifications given to the voice (SATB) or to the saxophone family. The "soprano" clarinets in B and A share their lowest octaves with the alto saxophone (minus a semitone in the case of the B clarinet). In the case of the E alto, the range usually extends to a tone below that of the tenor saxophone. It is clear that the "soprano" clarinets in B, A, and C are perfectly capable of taking on the higher lines in a score, but they achieve this by playing largely in their "clarion" and "altissimo" registers. The lower instruments are, for obvious reasons, exploited much more in their "chalumeau" registers and this, by comparison is quite low. Also, since the time of Mozart and the clarinettist Anton Stadler, composers began to favour the rich sonorities of the lower tessitura of the clarinet and this may partly have contributed to the clarinet family being pitched further down against its counterparts in the wind section of the orchestra where it will often take on the lower parts.[citation needed]

Alto clarinet parts in wind bands[edit]

In the late 1940s, there was some discussion over whether the alto clarinet should be eliminated from the standard wind band.[16] Arguments used include its relatively low volume and that its part is often doubled by other instruments,[17] and the expense. Because of this, publishers of band music for elementary and junior high school players tend to leave parts out for alto clarinet. Mature bands utilizing more sophisticated arrangements quite often have a seat dedicated to alto clarinet, so in the majority of American high school and college bands, a complete family of clarinets is encountered in the modern wind band.

The alto clarinet is an integral part of the clarinet choir, where it often doubles the melody in octaves, and is often used as a middle solo voice between the treble and bass voices.


  1. ^ Rendall, F.Geoffrey (1957). The Clarinet. Ernest Benn Limited. 
  2. ^ Rendall, F. Geoffrey (1957). The Clarinet (Second Revised Edition). London: Ernest Benn. pp. 145–46. 
  3. ^ a b c Hoeprich, Eric (2008). The Clarinet. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 132–5, 357. ISBN 0-300-10282-8. 
  4. ^ Libin, Laurence (1995). "Alto Clarion". The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (The Metropolitan Museum of Art): 53. 
  5. ^ Eliason, Robert E. (1983). "George Catlin, Hartford Musical Instrument Maker (Part 2)". Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 9: 21–52. 
  6. ^ Shackleton, Nicholas. "The development of the clarinet".  In Lawson (ed.), Colin (1995). The Cambridge Companion to the Clarinet. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 32. 
  7. ^ Albert R. Rice. From the Clarinet D'Amour to the Contra Bass: A History of Large Size Clarinets, 1740–1860. Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 9-10.
  8. ^ "Basset Horn Concerto, Op.90 (Schneider, Georg Abraham)". IMSLP.  Despite the title, the solo part does not use the notes below low written E characteristic of a basset horn.
  9. ^ Berlioz, Hector; A Treatise upon Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration; Elias Howe; London: 1900. p. 131.
  10. ^ Pauli, Hansjörg (Autumn 1958). "On Strawinsky's 'Threni'". Tempo. New. Ser., No. 49.: 16–17+21–33. 
  11. ^ Igor Stravinsky, Threni: id est Lamentationes Jeremiæ Prophetæ, Hawkes Pocket Scores no. 709 (London: Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Limited, 1958). The fingered low C (sounding low F) occurs in b. 234 and 237, on pp. 37–38.
  12. ^ White, Eric Walter (1979). Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works (second ed.). Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press. p. 533. ISBN 0-520-03985-8. 
  13. ^ The woodwind section in Apollo and the Seaman includes three oboes, cor anglais, E clarinet, two B clarinets, alto clarinet in F, bass clarinet, three bassoons and a contrabassoon
  14. ^ Forsyth, Cecil, Orchestration, 1955, London, Macmillan & Co. pp. 282–85.
  15. ^ Scholes, Percy A. The Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford. p. 192. 
  16. ^ Sawhill, Clarence E. "The Problem of the Alto Clarinet" and Rohner, Traugott. "Shall We Eliminate the Alto Clarinet?". In Woodwind Anthology. Evanston, IL: The Instrumentalist. 1972. pp. 208–12. ISBN 0-686-15891-1.  (Both reprinted from The Instrumentalist, 1948.)
  17. ^ The latter is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: knowing that not all bands may have the instrument or the player, many publishers are in the habit of having the part doubled by other instruments (usually 3rd clarinet or alto sax) for "safety". This in turn has led some conductors to treat the instrument as dispensable, since they almost always find its part covered by other instruments in the scores they receive from those publishers.[citation needed]