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The bass clarinet is a single-reed instrument in the woodwind family, and is the largest clarinet. It is made of wood or plastic resin, and has a standard range of four octaves. Invented in the late eighteenth century, the bass clarinet has been a regular member of symphonic orchestras and concert bands since the early 1900s.
A standard bass clarinet is typically made of grenadilla, African Blackwood, or plastic resin. The body is composed of two straight black sections with metal keys. At the bottom end a metal bell curves up, and on the other end a metal neck curves the mouthpiece toward the player. Most bass clarinetists use a short stand at the base or a neck strap to distribute the weight.
Four octaves is the typical range of a bass clarinet. It plays in the key of concert B-flat, one octave lower than the more common soprano clarinet. By using an extension key, professional bass clarinets can reach a concert B-flat just over two octaves below middle C, or B-flat1 in scientific pitch notation. Music rarely calls for any note higher than B-flat5, but an expert player can play much higher on a high quality instrument.
Most bass clarinets use the Boehm fingering system, like the majority of the clarinet family. An extension key and an extra register key are the only differences between the keys of a bass clarinet and those of a soprano clarinet. These keys are only present on intermediate and professional instruments.
Experts in music history are unsure exactly when the bass clarinet was developed, but a man named G. Lott invented a “basse-tube” in 1772 in Paris, France. In 1793, Heinrich Grenser created a “klarinetten-bass” in Dresden, Germany for use in marching bands instead of the bassoon. By 1838, a Belgian manufacturer named Adolphe Sax built an instrument that quickly became the standard.
One of the first compositions using the bass clarinet was Saverio Mercadante’s opera Emma d’Antiochia, which opened in 1834. Beginning in 1845 with Tannhauser, composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner began popularizing the instrument through his many operas. Soon other composers, such as Franz Liszt, Giuseppe Verdi, and Giacamo Puccini began including it in their compositions.
In the twentieth century, the bass clarinet became a standard member of every symphony orchestra and concert band. The instrument is also present in marching bands and jazz combos. Although bass clarinets are rare in popular music, the Beatles featured them in “When I’m Sixty-Four.”