The Clarinet's history

How old is the clarinet?

Fifteen years ago for me, a German clarinet and bass clarinet player, the answer to this question seemed very simple, and so I wrote and later translated my clarinet page:

The first clarinet was created by the instrument maker Denner in Nuremberg, Germany, around 1700. So it is a bit older than 300 years.

It practically had no ancestor because it was not an improvement of an already existing single reed cylindrical bodied instrument. It was a revolutionary change to chalumeau, which was no clarinet yet because it could only play in its lowest register, it played a 10 tone-scale and was hardly ever in tune. The new clarinet, however, could be used by serious musicians, play complex Trumpet and Oboe solos, and especially after the additional improvements by Iwan Müller some years later became the new star of the wind section.

Over the years I got a lot of emotional and sometimes even angry mails claiming that the clarinet has been around for a very long time locally, and I began to look into the subject a bit more differentiated. Today I think the statement is still correct, however, it all depends on the definition of clarinets, and that I should shed more light on the facts and better explain the different points of view. So this article gets a bit longer.

How old is music - and what is music?

There isn't a simple answer to both questions, neither for the age of music, nor for a simple definition what music is that would be agreed by everybody.

The difficulty in finding a good answer often starts with finding a clear definition for what you asked for in the first place. In this case we need a definition of what music is. Let us agree just for our purpose that music is referring to man-made music only. This may seem obvious, but for example the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras and many others would have objected. So let us say music is "the expression of a sequence of sounds over time, having a melody and a rhythm, that gives some recognizable patterns (for example repeating lines and refrains), with the purpose to enjoy, to entertain or to engage an audience or - in special cases - just the musicians."

This definition would exclude sounds with instruments for practical purposes like signalling trumpets, marching drums - as long as they are only supporting marching - or bush "telegraph" drums, transporting messages - but it would include drums for providing dance rhythms. Regarding clarinets we can ignore this aspect because it is unlikely somebody would use clarinets for such practical purposes. Music - of course - can be pure singing, involve instruments or it can be both.

We are discussing music's history, and it is very likely that singing was the first form of human music. Unfortunately singing leaves no tangible trace, there are no remaining instruments and even well-painted pictures of singers are difficult to identify. Any picture of dancers or a drummer, a harpist or flute player (or clarinettist) won't need an explanation, you will understand it when you see it.

The picture on the left is a symbolic scratching you can find in a lot of places where North American Indians lived, like in Arizona. They had a very early developed culture (yes, the farmers we owe tomatoes, potatoes, mais etc. to). This image, you could call it an icon, is believed to being *very* old, possibly some of the paintings could be some thousand years. Today the being is called Kokopelli. It could be wrong, but to most people this guy looks very much like a wind instrument player, using a flute, a didgeridoo or something similar, and he appears to have fun doing it... This could well be the oldest image we have of a wood wind player.

A proven answer to the question "How old is music?", or rather, "how old is wind music?" depends on finding artefacts that human beings have used to create sounds in a way that somewhat transported a rhythm and a melody. Although singing is probably the oldest form of music, and drums will probably have been the oldest instruments, neither singing nor drums which are made from organic material (wood and skins) would leave clear traces, especially not in warm and moist climates (like in Africa). So it comes as no surprise that the oldest relicts archaeologists found that are clearly musical instruments are rattles and hollow tubes from bones about 0,5 to 2 cm inner diameter, about 20 - 50 cm long, with 4 to 6 holes drilled into it that could be used as tone holes with exact distances. Some have marks on their outside to indicate the distances. They would create well defined notes when being blown as a flute. Until today nobody could come up with a plausible idea for a different purpose.

By now the oldest example was found in southern Germany. It is assumed to have been a flute produced from a swan's bone. You can date organic objects with the C14 method very precisely, and this piece was made between 35.000 and 40.000 years ago. For a time when drills were still unknown, it is remarkably precise.

Pic: Ancient swan-bone flute, 35.000 years old
Ancient swan-bone flute, 35 - 40.000 years old

It was re-build and found to be tuned to a nearly perfect pentatonic scale (like chinese music today). This pentatonic scale is probably no coincidence; other very old instruments seem to have the same scale which tells us that folks already had a clear idea about sound systems. The interesting thing is: You only need a scale system if you want to play a given melody and if some musicians want to play it together, at least one plays while others sing. This old artefact with the perfect scale is no full proof for wind ensembles, but you better get used to the idea that musical instruments and woodwind ensembles played in the Stone Ages already - so making music in ensembles seems to be less a hobby of a few today but a basic part of being human. And because singing and drumming are likely still much older, and there are indications that even Neandertalers used rattles and drums, man-made music existed likely before the arrival of modern man itself.

How old is clarinet music ?

So the oldest wind instrument found until today (2019) was a flute, and old pictures and written descriptions from Sumer and Egypt (5000 years ago), later Greece and Etruscans (3000 - 2000 years ago) show and describe ensembles with flutes, kitharas (harp-like instruments), tamburin-like percussion instruments, rattles and others. Flutes found and flutes on pictures were tubes about the length of modern flutes, sometimes longer, open on both ends that are blown over one end like the pipes of a panflute, the syrinx, but having 6 tone holes. They were mostly played with one tube, sometimes more than one at a time.

The Reed instruments that you blow into and which could be double-reed (oboe-like) or single reed (clarinet-like) instruments appeared later (3000 years ago). The ancient Egyptians had different names for each type, so candidates for "the first clarinet" were well known at that time. The instruments' bodies were found in grave sites. They are about the size of today's recorder, but there were never any reeds or mouth pieces attached, so it remains unclear, whether they were actually double reeds or single reeds (or could be used for both). Many of those wind instrument were coming in pairs, like the Aulos, then having only four tone holes each - otherwise as a single instrument they could have 6 to 9.

Ancient single reeds:
Zummarah and Arghul

Pic: Etruscan Aulos, a double-oboe
Zummara - an ancient wind instrument, a modern version as played today

The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians had at least two types of double-tube single reed instrument with six tone holes: The Zummarah and the Arghul. Today they are used in folk music in the middle east and look very much like the ones on the Sumerian, Egyptian and Greek pictures. They are simple double pipes with cylindrical bores, with their single reeds being cut out of the tube itself, of from another piece of reed you could use as a mouthpiece. You can see it in the enlarged part of the picture above with the "mouth piece" that the reed is "the wrong way around", that is, the tip doesn't point into the mouth. The modern players put the whole mouth piece into their mouth hole, so they do not touch the reed with their lips to control it either. Both tubes are bound and glued together. This solves the problem with the limited number of tone holes you can close with one hand:

The Zummarah has two nearly identical pipes, both with tone holes, fixed in parallel. The player can close the parallel tone holes with an overlapping finger over both tubes - see video).

The Arghul has a drone or bordun pipe, that is a permanent bass sounding pipe, and a short melody pipe (singer pipe). Only the singer pipe has tone holes used. Not only because of the drone but also because of the acoustic relationship the sound resembles very much that of a bag pipe. But while the celtic bagpipe uses a wind bag to play permanently, the Indian snake charmer and the Chinese have a round hollow plant body the size of a coconut for that, the player of the old instruments had to use full circular breathing (blowing up the cheeks). This can clearly be seen on 3000 year old pictures, too, and is still the practise - see this video of a modern Arghul.

Because of the cylindrical bore these rather short instruments produce a tone an octave lower than a flute of the same size. They are sometimes called "Arabic Clarinets", but strictly speaking they are no clarinets, because they cannot be overblown to the upper register and you cannot play uninterrupted scales with it. This is very much in contrast to early flutes, with which you can play any melody you want, both in pentatonic and in 12-tone-scales, up to two octaves. This would have worked even on 4000 year old models.

Many people with Arabic (or Persian/Greek) musical background do not think this point is relevant because the music before Islam does not need a wide compass or scales, and the systems do not have 12 notes like in western music, but 24, in quarter-scales.

In today's Indian, Persian and Arabic music, however, this was no problem: The scales in middle Eastern music are limited in range, but uses half- and quarter tones a lot (making it very difficult or impossible to play on a modern clarinet). They make a lot of use of finger-forking and half-fingering; it is safe to assume the musicians used similar methods 4.000 years ago. Chinese however, having pentatonic scales, have added a speaker tone hole, so they can play up scales several octaves with precision (this only appeared in modern times).

My own understanding of African and Asian music is very limited. Let me suggest you get an idea first hand and browse some time to the wealth of examples (like on youtube) to hear for yourself. Watching and listening shows that music is not at all a language that everybody understands... It clearly is music, but the emotions the artists express and the educated listeners understand are not at all comprehended by people from other regions.

Are those the first clarinets, then?

The answer to the question "how old is the clarinet?" depends on "Are Zummarah and Arghul clarinets?". This depends on your definition of clarinet; because if you accept the following to be a clarinet:

then - TADAAA! - we would have found the oldest clarinet being a bit less than 4000 years old, it was first played somewhere in the Middle East or Northern Africa.

But for me and most modern musicians (at least European style), to be a clarinet it also needs:

However, if you are coming from the Middle East or Asia, and you want to be proud of your people's and maybe ancestors' contribution, then it is all right to call the Zummarah a pre-clarinet - and by the way, there isn't only the Zummarah, there are a lot of similar instruments in India and China. You can state that there is a linear 4000 years history and you'd be right, but you should know that those are non-overblowing instruments, and exactly the overblowing is making an instrument a clarinet.

Romans and Islam expansion move oriental music to the North and West

The Romans used many of the middle east and Egyptian instruments and brought them into their provinces. This included brass, flutes, early oboes and a simple bassoon as well as harps and guitar like instruments. There even were single reed cylindrical pipes as bagpipes and organs (organs that we now think of religious instruments were used in the circus in Rome). In the medieval age music was played in churches, in aristocratic courts, by knights and minstrels, and in more simple forms in taverns and markets. But clarinet like instruments rather seem to be played by lonely shepherds.

A lot of the world's music practice changed because of the expansion of the Islam; the cultural heritage of the the Middle East and Africa was completely mixed up in a rather short time. Some arts and practices were "officially" accepted by some religious leaders, others were preserved only in remote areas or in private, others again were banned and nearly lost. The Quran itself does not forbid music explicitly, rather more radical preachers do. They only allowed the "sung" recitation, everything else was a distraction - especially music that was beautiful in itself without an acceptable purpose. Most didn't want to go so far - however there was the risk of forgetting the rich knowledge of the antique civilisations (Sumer, Egypt, Persia, Greece).

The development of modern music in today's world got a push by the failed Muslim expansion into Europe by the Turkish between 1500 and 1683: During the two besieges of Vienna by the Turkish armies they did not only leave a devastated country and countless victims, but also new habits like the coffee house and a wealth of musical instruments and performance practices unknown before to Europeans. European music was quickly and forever changed from some rather simple, often religious practice using simple strings, brass and Organs, radically changing it into a modern orchestra with exciting new woodwind, brass and percussion.

Was there a direct ancestor of the clarinet in Europe?

Yes, there was an instrument like that: The Chalumeau (spoken: Shaloomoh). It was used widely all over Europe, coming from the mediterranean, at least in the medieval. In northern Europe we just do not have natural hard or hardening reeds like Arundo Donax or Bamboo; it had to be brought here, today it grows here as well, too. The name Chalumeau comes from Greek/Latin, where "Calumus" means pipe. The Chalumeau always was considered a shepherd's instrument, that had to be played solo. Unfortunately no working Chalumeau has survived - only some specimen in museums. It looked like a recorder and sounded like the lower octave of today's clarinet. It had two disadvantages:

Therefore the chalumeau was uninteresting for most composers and serious musicians, and was hardly ever used in compositions except for some shepherd scenes.

The "invention" of the clarinet

Around the year 1700 the instrument maker Denner in Nürnberg has analysed, understood, solved and documented the problem of the single reed and cylindrical body wind instrument. It is believed he was the first to understand that when overblown a cylindrical pipe does not play the octave of the base tone like a recorder or an oboe would, but the result is the twelfth tone (one and a half octaves higher).

What happens when you play an upward scale on an instrument like the recorder? On a simple recorder there are seven tone holes for the lowest octave (as you have got 10 fingers) and there is a speaker hole or octave hole under your left thumb. "Overblowing" or opening an octave hole usually only a bit or half makes woodwind instruments sound exactly one octave higher than the note would sound without overblowing (except for the clarinet, as I will show below).

Woodcut print: oldest description of clarinets, 1740
Fingering for scales on a simple recorder

So to play the lowest tone, you put all your fingers on the recorder and play the C. Then lift the finger off the lowest tone hole and it becomes a D. Continue with E, F, G, A, B and then all normal tone holes are open. To go higher, you need the high C. Theoretically, you would put all fingers on all tone holes, but lift your left thumb. The recorder plays the base tone one octave higher. Then you continue with D, E and so on. In practice the high C is not played like this, but you use a fork fingering.

Overblowing also works on clarinets, but the effect is different: The clarinet does not overblow to the eighth tone on the scale (an octave - which is exactly double the frequency) but to the twelfth tone. The Italian word for 12 is duodecimo, and so we call the speaker tone hole /key not only the overblowing key but also the duodecime key key.

That means when playing a C on the clarinet and then you open the speaker tone hole, you will not hear a high C (like on a recorder or an oboe) but a high G = the twelfth tone of the scale.

While you need 7 tone holes for continuous scales on recorder or oboe (to play the 8th tone on the scale just play the first tone with overblowing), for an instrument that jumps into the 12th tone you will need 11 tone holes (the 12th is the first with open speaker hole).

Why is the Clarinet more than an improved Chalumeau?

So the first thing Denner had to do was to make the chalumeau a bit longer so he could add four more tone holes. But because we only have got 10 fingers you cannot close 11 tone holes plus the speaker hole with your fingers, in consequence you need two keys at least. Denner added those, and then you have the clarinet.

It was the breakthrough, but Denner and later his sons experimented for a long time, until they finally managed to build an instrument, that would not only play the lower register well but also the upper one, without sacrificing to much of intonation (that is correctness of the tone frequency). In order to do this he added two additional holes close to the duodecime key. The remaining problems with intonation the player had to correct with his embouchure.

Woodcut print: oldest description of clarinets, 1740

Woodcut print: oldest description of clarinets, 1740
I added the photo of a Denner clarinet to give you an idea how good this was.

The German text on the description of 1740 says: "Clarinetto, that is a wooden wind instrument invented by a Nuremberger at the beginning of this century. It is not unlike a long oboe, except that it has a wide mouthpiece. This instruments sounds from afar rather alike a trumpet and it reaches from the Tenor f up to the 2-dashed a, at times up to 3-dashed c.

On the left, the key table says (from top to bottom): Thumb-key, Thumb-hole, Forefinger-key/hole, middle finger (hole), ring-finger (hole), then right hand: forefinger, middle finger, ring finger, small finger."

The first clarinets were still very simple and looked much like a larger recorder. They had two keys, later three (our description depicted here shows two: left thumb and left forefinger). The new instrument already had a wider tonal range than oboes or trumpets of that time. And one could play it relatively loud and execute technically difficult runs and jumps besides, which would be impossible on a trumpet. Therefore one at first replaced the high trumpets, the so-called "clarini", with the new instrument. The name "clarinet" might have come from that.

So the clarinet was not just an improved Chalumeau, those two keys made it a completely different instrument. The result was sensational: It was heard in orchestras very soon. Vivaldi wrote or re-wrote three concerti grossi in 1740 already, and Händel composed an Overture in 1748, where he demanded clarinets in d.

It is widely accepted that it was C.H. Denner, who invented the instrument, and it is only he who is mentioned in a note published shortly afterwards (the Article above only writes about a "Nuremberger"). Lately it is being discussed whether there might have been others, but there is no proof for that.

It can do all what a chalumeau did previously, plus it gives you two more registers and 3 octaves. There is no reason to buy a chalumeaus any more, because a chalumeau-player could play clarinet as well (well, except that they have to learn to handle the different overblowing.)

In consequence the chalumeau died out quickly - there was no point in buying one if you could have a clarinet at nearly the same price. Nevertheless today we have kind of a renaissance of the chalumeau, and some companies begin to re-build that instrument; both in a traditional and a modern form (see this Video at Youtube of a modern form by Germany instrument maker Kunath).

So the clarinet was, in contrast to most other instruments, not developed in a stepwise refinement of already existing instruments. It was invented in a revolutionary step 1700.

What followed in the first years was a landslide success, once there were notes to play for the new instrument. In 1760 the famous (and at this time leading edge) Mannheim Orchestra already had a budget for two clarinet players, both musicians were at the same time oboe players, too. From 1778 on they were clarinet players only. Not long after that Mozart wrote his famous works for clarinet - including the concerto for basset clarinet in A (often called concerto for clarinet in A) - that are technically extremely demanding. Even with today's instruments they are a challenge for professional musicians.

At that time clarinets had five technically questionable keys. It is hard to imagine that you could play that music with those instruments at all, but it must have been possible, as the critics were excited (and you must not think that they did not know what quality in instrument making and playing was - it was the time when string instruments like Stradivarius violins were built...)

Further development after Denner until today: An Evolution

With every new musical and technical challenge craftsmen and players strived to improved the new and by far not perfect instrument. This development is similar to biological evolution of living species. Usually it was in small steps, shows forking, interdependencies of workshops and sometimes dead ends. Today several systems survived, on the one hand the German System (a step-by-step improvement of Denner's System), that is played mainly in Germany and Austria. Then there are forks that technically and from the looks remain German-style: the Albert System or simple system that is used in Jazz and the oriental clarinet, both are similar to a German clarinet of around 1870.

The rest of the world use the Boehm System which introduced radical changes. "Rest of the world" means approximately 80% of all the world's classical players - and in many countries like France, UK and USA it is nearly 100% of the classical population. The quickly growing number of classical musicians in nations like China and India use the Boehm system, too, nearly 100%.

Pic: clarinet evolution
Clarinet Evolution - simplified

There were two most critical steps in the development that I will discuss in the following chapters:

Iwan Müllers Keys

Iwan Müller was a clarinet player and instrument maker who revolutionised not only the key mechanics. He lived both in Germany and in Russia. While old keys had a simple pivot-mechanic and felt pads, and hardly ever were reliable, he developed the spoon-key with leather pad and sunk-in holes with a conical ring, as you find them on instruments today:

alte Filzklappe Löffelklappe versenktes Tonloch

Altogether Müller's clarinet had 12 keys. It was not so far away any more from what Germans play today. Next to this Müller changed the reed roughly into the form we use today, and developed the ligature. Unfortunately the Paris Conservatory did not accept his developments in 1812, because the French firmly believed (some still do today) in the specific charakter of scales. This would be destroyed by a clarinet that could easily play chromatically - that is: in all scales. Until then clarinets could only play one scale. People say conservatories are conservative ;-)

Klosés instrument (the Boehm system) gains acceptance in France and in the rest of the World

Shortly after this the German flute maker Theobald Boehm brought about two improvements to the instrument making world: On the one hand, he created a mathematical basis for the perfect calculation of the position of tone holes and on the other hand, he invented the ring key. The ring key makes it possible to cover a hole larger than the finger that lies on the ring key. On this basis the Frenchman Hyacinthe Klosé developed the "Boehm" clarinet model, his instrument maker Buffet started building it in 1839. Being French himself, he was better prepared to deal with the gatekeepers of the Parisian Music Academy than Ivan Müller, his instrument was accepted and is played in the whole world today.

The Germans stay on their own way

In the German speaking countries the Boehm system did not become standard, here instrument makers improved the Müller System. The actual German system is called "Oehler" and is technically as good as the current Boehm System (German System fans would tell you that its sound is by far superior, but that is a question of taste). I give you a short overview over the development, the systems and their differences here. Actually it seems you find more differences in the heads of the players, of how the instrument should be played and how they should sound, than you find technical differences between the instruments.

Other (old) systems - look like ancient Germans, but sound very different

You see a dixieland band and the old clarinettist plays on something, that is definitely not Boehm - it has got the the wooden sliding rolls of the German systems, but looks much simpler... Then this probably is an "Albert" clarinet, an old descendant from the Müller system, that has survived in Jazz and in Oriental Music (Turkish, Klezmer). It is still being built today for this purpose.

Oriental clarinet players often play on a descendant of the German clarinet that is often tuned to G, having a wide mouthpiece and soft reeds, bending notes and playing glissando. Similar instruments are often used by Klezmorim (=Yiddish players) and Gipsy style players.

Broadening our horizon...

While I was writing this, I realized that at least my understanding of music history was very limited. This history for wood wind instruments probably took place rather outside of European history books. Yes, European classical music was commercially successful worldwide, but it was definitely simple compared to what happened in the rest of world. It's fascinating to look at the wealth of music through examples (on YouTube, for example) - even though you may not understand a word they're saying (Chinese, Indian dialects or Turkish), and you suddenly realize that classical music is only a small slice of the whole.

About the saying you often read in newspapers or hear on TV "... music is the language that everyone understands at once" I can now only laugh heartily: After 10 minutes of Youtube from Central Asia, South America or Africa you understand why. But it is only the "at once" part that is wrong, and you can do something about it :-)