Dec 8, 2013

A 6-key Clarinet

Some years ago, I think in the late 1980s, one of my students (Eric, an eighth grader), said, "My grandpa's been fixing up an old clarinet. Do you want to see it?" I said, "Sure, bring it in next week." I was expecting a junker, or maybe an Albert system clarinet from the early 1900s, or...whatever.

At his next lesson, Eric brought in a cardboard mailing tube, and pulled out an instrument that looked like a recorder (German blockflöte or English fipple flute) but had a few keys, and a clarinet mouthpiece. It was a clarinet, but obviously a very early one. Grandpa (Doug) had filled a hairline crack, replaced the string windings that this instrument had instead of tenon corks, and replaced the pads. He had used felt for the pads, probably because the original leather ones were so deteriorated that they looked like felt to him.

The clarinet had 6 keys. I recall them this way: a register key, an A key, a RH little finger Ab/Eb key, and LH little finger keys for E/B and F#/C#. These keys had a flat, square area to hold the pad. A sixth key for LH C#/G#, differently shaped with a round area for the pad, had apparently been added later. The mouthpiece was ebony, with grooves to hold the string that was used in those days instead of a ligature. The mouthpiece tip, unfortunately, was broken. The clarinet was made of boxwood. It had a stamp on it that had a not-quite-legible maker's name, and "Paris."

I talked with Doug. He said that the instrument had been in his family at least since he was a kid (probably in the 1920s), disassembled, in bad shape, in a cigar box. His parents would say, "Now don't throw that away - that's a clarinet!" Doug kept it, and finally one day when he was much older, he decided that it was time to fix up that old clarinet. He was a fix-it kind of guy. So he did what seemed right, then sent it in with Eric.

I asked around, and found an early-music expert at Stanford who told me that 5-key clarinets were standard from around the 1750s until as late as the 1820s, and that the 6th key was often added to 5-key instruments in the early 1800s. I wondered how long that clarinet had been in Doug's family, and how it made its way to California (I never found out). The Stanford guy sent over a piece of leather that would be the appropriate material for pads. Doug used it to replace the felt pads. Then he bought a little block of ebony, and carved a new mouthpiece. It looked right, but of course it's a fine art to make a mouthpiece, and it didn't play. So he went to the next solution - he turned a new barrel on his lathe, with a diameter on one end to fit the clarinet, and a diameter on the other end to fit a modern mouthpiece. Now it was playable.

It seemed to play in the key of C (although in the 18th and 19th centuries, tuning standards varied wildly - see this Wikipedia article). Doug loaned me the instrument for six months. There was just one condition: I would learn to play it, and record something for him to listen to. What a privilege! I found a fingering chart somewhere, and eventually recorded him a couple of simple Handel pieces. The clarinet had a nice sound, but without the volume or projection of a modern instrument. Fingerings were of course not quite the same as a modern clarinet. Above high C, though, Boehm fingerings seemed to work. One problematic note was second-space Ab. The best I could find for that was to press only the register key - pretty stuffy, and out of tune. This instrument gave me an appreciation for what it took to play those Mozart and Stamitz pieces, in the era that they were written.

If Eric is out there somewhere and happens to read this, please leave me a comment!


Here's a nicely written up history of the development of the clarinet.

For some pictures of early clarinets, and current prices on antique instruments, here's one place to browse. The 14th and 20th ones down from the top of the page (#4611 and #4580) resemble the one described here.

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