Low tone - full sound
The bass clarinet is considerably larger than the Bb clarinet - more than a meter (approximately 40 inch) tall, having keys of nearly half a meter (20 inch) in length. The barrel is an S-bent metal piece, and the bell is bent up and forward like a saxophone's. The instrument is much to heavy to hold in your hands while you play so you either use the thorn (pointy or with a rubber ball) or a special carrying construction usually fixed around shoulders and chest.
The first bass clarinets were developed as early as 1800. A wind instrument of that size requires a perfect key system. Alternatively you can bend the corpus several times so the tone holes get closer to each other in order to cover them all with your fingers. Not having perfect keys, early instrument builders chose that way, so that the first bass clarinets did look more like a snake rather than an ordinary clarinet (see picture).
Francois J. Fetis, a Beligan music scientist, wrote in 1832: "You saw this big, or better huge, instrument and expected to hear hard, rough tones; nevertheless it was a full, strong and soft sound. ... " The Italians therefore called the instrument glicibarifono (pronounce: gleetchee bariphono, meaning "sweet-deep-sounder"), today they call it Clarone.
Yes, looks like a saxophone (it is no coincidence!)
1836 the composer Meyerbeer introduced the bass clarinet in his opera "the huguenots" in a grand recitativo - just at the same time when the famous Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, developed a bass clarinet that was quite similar to today's model (which used the improved keys). It is since then that everybody (especially Wagner and Verdi) employed the bass clarinet in compositions for large scale ensembles, the symphonic band music and even in popular music. Because of its shape the bass clarinet is often confused with a saxophone - although it is acustically rather a distant relative... nevertheless in the modern form it has got the same father with Adolphe Sax.
Noted in B flat, violin clef
The bass clarinet notes are written in B flat, usually in the violin clef (rarely in the basso clef), it just sounds an octave lower than the Bb clarinet. There are no A bass clarinets, nevertheless some composers require them (exactly when the Soprano clarinet player changes his instruments from Bb to A, because we go to #-keys). The bass clarinet player has to transpose then. In contrast to the soprano clarinet's voice, that is possible with bass clarinets, since there are only few extremely quick movements and "jumps" required. The bass clarinet usually has calmer movements - comparable to the contrast between violine and violoncello.
- 4 special bass keys
Awesome tone range
The bass clarinet's tone range is wider than any other wind instrument's - it can play as low as a bassoon (in order to make it possible to play bassoon-voices, the instrument makers use four additional keys; the professional instruments therefore reach down to deep C - that sounds as B flat), and as high up as a soprano clarinet.
Widest dynamics of all woodwinds
The bass clarinet's dynamic is even wider than that of a normal soprano clarinet, the Saxophone is the only other woodwind that has a similar range. Yes, brass plays louder, but then they have problems with ppp, especially in begginning of a phrase up high. A bass clarinet easily can start playing a phrase in a nearly unhearable pppp with any tone you like. If you don't know how, try to carefully muffle the tone by putting the tongue on the lower part of the reed. You can easily play a crescendo up to the loudest ffff and go back.
Want to be a film star?
Listening to film music you find the bass clarinet quite often when the composer wants to increase the thrill, like when something is slowly approaching...
At the end of the 20th century the bass clarinet experienced a career even in popular music. In the nineties it was a kind of kult instrument in Europe, but that trend seems over now. In comparison with the saxophone the variance in sounds you can produce on a clarinet is limited, a sax is easier and faster to learn, and looks good. Plus saxophones fit well into the electronic pop music styles of the early 21st century.
Should I buy a cheaper bass clarinet that goes down only to E flat?
Professional instruments today always go down to C (sounds as B flat). But there are bass clarinets that only reach down to E or E flat. They are a bit shorter, because the lower joint can be about 25 cm (about 10 inch) shorter, and have 4 keys less. That makes them considerably cheaper. The manufacturer will tell you that they are of the same excellent quality and that the four lowest tones will only appear - if at all - in newer pieces, where you can easily replace them by transposing an octave up. Yeah, sure.
One point in playing the bass clarinet is the sound of the deepest register, and whenever composers in the last 50 years or so wrote a bass clarinet solo, you can bet it made use of the wide compass down to the deepest tones. There are not many solo parts in wind orchestras or symphonies for bass clarinets, and if they are there, you want to be sure you are not limited by your instrument. So if you can afford it at all, do not buy a short instrument!
The composer wants a deep C - your instrument can't play it - what do you do?
So now for one reason or another your bass clarinet only reaches Eb, but the melody goes down further. That is bad for you; but you have to decide what to do now:
- leave it out: If the part is not crucial and the tone is not part of a melody or has to be there because it belongs to an accord - not playing this one note is a possible solution. Especially when bari-sax and tuba play the same note in ff, hardly anybody will notice.
- play the one note you haven't got exactly an octave higher - that is OK theoretically and in harmonics, but hardly ever sounds good, and definitely not if it is a part of an important melody.
- play the whole melody or phrase - at least a part of it - an octave higher: It is a better solution in the sense of melodical impression, but less satisfying in general sound; especially if you should be the only prominent bass instrument in that part, but you play a tenor voice instead.
- if you are good in harmonical theory and have a look at the score, maybe you can replace the missing tone by the quint (five notes above) or a terz (three above). But that only works depending on other harmonical lines around you.
Usually it is wise to talk with the conductor, if there is one.
+ Great sound
+ less practising necessary than with sopranos
- very expensive
= An instrument for you?
Considering the bass clarinet as your instrument, some points are clear:
The voice hardly ever is technically so demanding that you have to rehearse or practise jumps and runs for hours like soprano clarinet players have to quite often. Even the second and third sopranos have to work harder there. But still you have to be technically good; and the long levers and keys require strong hands and some power. Intonationwise the instrument is less demanding than the soprano clarinet. With embouchure you can do more when playing the higher clarinets, because the mouth's volume is smaller compared to the bass clarinet's volume. And: People tend to hear small deviations better in higher pitches than in lower.
You may find it surprising but you won't need much more breath or lung volume for a bass clarinet to play the same piece as you need for a soprano. The problem is that the type of voice that bass clarinets play is not the same as the soprano's: Long and very long legato-lines, often loud ones with crescendo have to be mastered, and while the soprano is hardly ever alone and can work as a team (breath intermittently), bass clarinets are often single. In arrangements you get the cello-part: Beautiful, but then a violoncello doesn't have to breath... ;-)
The bass clarinet is nothing for the primadonna-type: If you really need to play an important solo part that everybody will hear and remember and you need that in every concert to feel good, then the bass clarinet will not become your favorite instrument (maybe you should consider switching to E flat?)
If the orchestra doesn't provide a bass clarinet, that is, if you have to buy your own instrument, you better not be financially limited. Having to spend less than 5.000 Euro (or US-Dollars) for a good bass clarinet would be a bargain. You may find used ones, shorter ones (see above) and instruments from synthetic material (ABS, Resonite) for much less, but even when you buy a "cheap" bass clarinet for 3.000 Euro you better not be poor. You always should be aware that you could be having the same fun with a trumpet costing 800 Euro.
Save time and money buying saxophone reeds
Many bass clarinet players (including me and my wife) play bass clarinet using sax reeds. There are people who will call this impossible, but it works well for me. For german bass clarinets you can use alto sax reeds, for boehm bass clarinets you can use tenor sax reeds. I do it not only because of the price (about 50%), but it is a question of availability: Good reeds are available for saxophones in nearly every small music shop at the corner all over the world, while bass clarinet reeds often have to be ordered in advance. You may as well try an internet mail order business, but there, too, you can't rely on having them the next day.
What to do with the bass clarinet in the break/pause?
There are always those guys who will disassemble the instrument, sweep through the parts and put them into the box, after having checked and re-oiled all keys etc. - but many of us don't. In a concert break you can as well hold the instrument in one hand and your beer or champagne in the other (looks great as long you have the upper arms of a bodybuilder ;-)
If you have about 70 Euro to spare you can buy an excellent bass clarinet stand (the same stand as for bassoons, a heavy solid steel thing with a big rubber cup). You can leave the instrument there, and nobody will kick it over. You really need such a stand if the bass clarinet is one of two instruments you play in the same concerto, and you don't want to place the expensive instrument on the floor where somebody may step on it. The floor still is a safer place than putting the instrument on a chair. So, if you must, turn the mouthpiece of the instrument up (prevents breaking the reed), and put the bass clarinet onto its opened case on the floor in an open space where people can see it rather than putting it on a chair (NEVER do that!).
You may as well find an empty corner where you can safely lean the bass clarinet into - but hurry, bassoonists and bassist and lots of other instrumentalists are looking for the same places! Beware: Do not try to lean your expensive instrument into a door frame of a door that may be opened from outside, even if it is locked at the moment!