3- Clarinet technique

Instrument range and registers



In his Méthode de clarinette (1802), Lefèvre divided the range of the clarinet into three registers.(example 1) Buteux, in a re-edition of Lefèvre's method1, adapted to the innovations of the instrument and to technical developments retains this same division. It is interesting to note that these two authors do not explicitly speak of registers. Indeed, Lefèvre speaks of "three kinds of sounds" 2 and Buteux speaks of "three sounds of distinct natures."3 This choice of vocabulary seems to support the idea that each register has a different character, as explained in the first chapter.

Thus, the first register, called Chalumeau, is described as very soft and extends from low E to B flat. The second is called the Clairon (middle register). It is more sonorous and brilliant and extends from B to C sharp. Finally, the Aigu (high register) extends from D to counter C and is described as "difficult to soften",4 even of a "sour nature" by Buteux.5It seems that this register can become too bright, even aggressive, and that it is necessary for the clarinet player to take care to avoid this trap.

Frédéric Berr, in his Traité complet de la clarinette (1836), as well as in his Méthode complète de clarinette (1836), explicitly speaks of registers.6 7He chooses to divide the range of the instrument into four registers. Although he keeps the same terms, as the two other authors, and almost the same range for each register, he distinguishes himself by speaking of the register Intérmédiaire (intermediate) to refer to the last five notes of the Chalumeau. (F sharp-B flat) and by choosing to place C sharp in the Aigu.8 In the Traité, he specifies that it is very rare in the music of his time to have to play notes above the high G.9 This is why the example 2 does not go further.

In his writings, Frédéric Berr seems to distance himself from the idea of assimilating each register to a specific character. Thus, he does not describe each register with adjectives as Lefèvre and Buteux do, but merely explains their range. Moreover, the differences between registers even seem to be seen negatively when he writes:


"In order to avoid the criticism that the clarinet has been accused of producing a great difference in timbre between the chalumeau and the clairon, it is necessary, when making a scale, to reinforce the last notes of the intermediate scale and to soften the first notes of the clairon. [...] When switching from the clairon to the aigu, the same principle of strengthening the muffled timbre and sparing the more piercing must be observed."10


The idea of a pure and equal sound throughout the range of the instrument already appear in Lefèvre's method.11 Frédéric Berr speaks in his method of "pure sounds and equal timbre."12 This research for a homogeneous sound throughout the entire range of the instrument was one of the objectives of the various innovations brought to the instrument. It is today one of the characteristics of the modern clarinet school. 


Instrument innovations


In Paris, the first decades of the 19th century witness important innovations in the manufacture of the clarinet. Xavier Lefèvre, in the first clarinet method of the Conservatory, describes a 6-key clarinet.13 (example.4)  The  sixth key, allowing to play the C# of the Chalumeau register or the G# of the Clairon, already represents a recent evolution. Indeed, the instrument in use during the late 18th century was rather a 5-key clarinet.14 Lefèvre attributes the addition of this key to the instrument maker Baumann15 (example 3). According to Eric Hoeprich, Baumann had established his workshop in Paris during the last decade of the 18th century,16only a few years before Lefèvre's publication. The innovation is a major one. Before this invention, C# could only be played with a fork fingering. This note was particularly out of tune, so that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish it from a D natural.17

Only three decades later, in 1836, Frédéric Berr published his two pedagogical works (Méthode and Traité) for a 14-key clarinet. (example 5) The author discusses these innovations at the beginning of his treatise. Iwan Müller brought a 13-key clarinet to Paris around 1810.18 The seven new keys make it possible to play one or two different notes as shown in the example 6. (Some keys are used in the Chalumeau register as well as in the Clairon register. It is the speaker key that allows to switch from one register to the other)

The fourteenth key, added later, makes it possible to make a trill B-C (Clairon register) with a good intonation, which was not really possible with the F chalumeau key (no.5 in the  example 6).


Thanks to these new keys, the use of fork fingering for certain notes is no longer the only possibility. The example 7 shows that each key corresponds to a main note it allows to play. 

This means that each note can be played with a full sound and a more precise intonation. Therefore, the clarinet becomes a more homogeneous instrument, especially in the Chalumeau register which was probably the most imperfect on a 6-key clarinet. Thus, for Frédéric Berr, this new system makes it possible to play chromatic scales with ease and good intonation, a greater number of trills, and to have several fingerings for the same note.19 Indeed, the old fingerings remain valid which allows, according to the context (intonation, melody) to make a fork fingering or a fingering with a key.

Buteux also describes in his method a “Müller system” clarinet.20 (example 8) The 14th key adopted by Berr does not appear in the writings of Buteux. This can be explained by the fact that the Müller system was developed in different ways by different clarinet makers. Berr speaks for example of Jeanssen who had invented scrolls to slide from the key of C to Eb in the Clairon register.21It is therefore likely that this fourteenth key was a particularity of the instruments played by Frédéric Berr, more than a widespread system.


Beyond these brief explanations on the mechanical aspects of these innovations22, it is interesting to ask how these innovations changed the musicians' view of this instrument which can be spoken of through the idea of the clarinet’s character.



Character of the clarinet


In the first chapter, the specific character of each instrument is discussed. This designates both which musical character best suits the instrument but also its technical possibilities and limitations. Lefèvre writes:


"The range, variety and quality of clarinet sounds makes it different from all other wind instruments. It can take on all the characters that the composer wants to give it. It also renders well the warrior's hymn and the shepherd's singing; it has the advantage of embracing the most opposed genres; but its execution is limited, it cannot do everything, the artist is annoyed, sometimes even stopped when the composer, following only his ideas, gives the clarinet badly fingered solos [...] "23 


The author then gives examples of passages that, in his opinion, are impossible to execute. These examples are intended primarily for composers to ensure that they do not use them in their music. In particular, Lefèvre advises against the following passages:

- transitions between different registers. (Bar 1,2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

-some sequence of notes made difficult by the obligation to slide between the keys (Bar 3, 4, 56, 57)

-some sequence of notes made difficult by the use of fork fingerings. (Bar 52, 53, 54, 55)


Thus, the clarinet was perhaps able to express a great diversity of character, but the composers had to be aware of its limitations.

As a result of innovations in the instrument, these limits tend to disappear. Buteux retains Lefèvre's lines on the diversity of character that the clarinet can express, but specifies that:


"this richness of means belongs only to the thirteen-key clarinet, the instrument as it was originally established was excessively limited and the performer was often unable to render the intentions of composers, especially when the latter did not know the limits of this incomplete instrument."24


Thus, according to Buteux, the new clarinet can now do everything and the hard work can overcome any difficulties. This statement will quickly sound somewhat optimistic. Only a few years later, the Boehm-system is adapted to the clarinet by Hyacinthe Klosé and Louis-Auguste Buffet jeune. In a text included in the 1844 patent, Buffet states that the Müller-System, at first considered perfect, still had many defects. With his innovations, the instrument reaches a new degree of accuracy.25 

Frédéric Berr also develops the idea that the new instrument has more possibilities. According to him, the clarinet has become the first of the wind instruments and "comes closer to the violin in the execution of difficulties."26

Making the observation that music for the clarinet had evolved little in Xavier Lefèvre's time, due to the limitations of the 6-key instrument,27he explains that the composers of his time, taking advantage of the innovations brought to the instrument, used it more frequently in their works. He refers in particular to Rossini who knew how to make full use of these new possibilities in his operas.28 But he points out that the evolution in the manufacture is not enough in itself. It is also necessary that the education of the performers follows:


"It is indispensable today that young clarinetists assiduously devote themselves to knowing and following good methods of singing, style and expression, following the example of the first violinists. "29


A very clear connection between clarinet and violin can be seen in Berr's writings. Concerning the violin, Rousseau and Castil-Blaze write:


"There is no instrument from which a more varied and universal expression can be obtained than from the violin."30 31


In fact, this idea of a closer connection between the violin and the clarinet was one of the goals of the innovations given to the clarinet. In the introduction to his Méthode pour la nouvelle clarinette et clarinette alto (1821), Iwan Müller, the clarinetist at the origin of this new system, explains that his ambition was to give outdoor music, consisting mainly of wind instruments, the same means as those used for strings in the symphony. In this music for wind orchestra, the clarinet can now be used like the violin.32 He goes on by saying that the improvement brought to the instrument makes it possible to hear in the open air with wind instruments, music of the same value as that heard in the salons, played by string instruments.33 


Thus, it appears that the progress of the manufacture are susceptible to give a new dynamism to the composition. In particular, Müller and Berr defend the idea that the clarinet having been perfected, it can now be used by the best composers for their most ambitious works, which were previously mainly intended for strings.



The term embouchure refers to the way the mouthpiece is positioned in the mouth in order to play. The embouchure plays an important role in the sound technique. Lefèvre states that:


"The embouchure of the clarinet is very important because the purity of the performance depends on it"34 


Principles of the embouchure and reed position


During the period studied, one of the important evolution in clarinet technique concerns the position of the reed.


At the beginning of the 19th century in France, it is still customary to play with the reed above,. that is to say with the reed placed against the upper lip, contrary to modern practice.It can be seen in the images taken from Lefèvre's method. (Example 10)

This author explains that the mouthpiece must be positioned between the lower lip and the upper lip, neither too far in the mouth nor too far out. The goal is to find a position of the mouthpiece that allows a good sound emission while keeping control of the reed, and to prevent the teeth from touching the mouthpiece.35 

In his Traité (1836), Frédéric Berr advocates an embouchure with the reed below: "The advantage of playing the reed below is demonstrated by the most skillful clarinetists."36He refers here to German clarinetists and in particular to Baermann: "The famous Baermann made us hear in 1818 in Paris pianissimo sounds that were completely unknown in France."37

According to him, the lower lip, on which the reed is positioned, has more strength and flexibility. The embouchure has more endurance and makes it possible to execute the dynamics with more ease. This position of the reed also makes it possible to breathe without moving the embouchure, creates less tension in the face and facilitates articulation. Without being able to say this with absolute certainty, it seems that Berr recommends what is known today as the double lip embouchure, in other words an embouchure where the upper teeth do not touch the mouthpiece. Indeed, he warns against the tendency to bite the mouthpiece, observed especially in Germany, which is detrimental to sound quality and expression. Thus, the lower lip must cover the teeth in order to allow the reed to rest on it, then the upper lip envelops the mouthpiece but "without biting it"38 In the Méthode published the same year, the absence of contact between the mouthpiece and the teeth appears even clearer when he writes:


"The upper lip envelops the mouthpiece, without the contact of the teeth interfering with the quality of the sound."39

Albert Rice, in his book The Clarinet in the Classical Period (2003), writes in great detail on the topic of the position of the reed. It appears in his writings that the preference for the reed below is rather characteristic of the German school while the preference for the reed above is characteristic of the French school, and this since the 18th century.40 He states that the first clarinetist to illustrate the reed below was Iwan Müller who moved in Paris in 1811 and published his Gamme pour la nouvelle clarinette around 1812 and his Méthode in 1821.41 


However, as late as 1836, Buteux still gives arguments in favor of the reed above. He defends this choice, which distinguishes the French and German schools, by asserting that it brings sensitivity in execution, clearer articulation and vigor in all registers.42Thus, it is likely that the two ways of playing continue to coexist for many years.

Nevertheless, at the Paris Conservatoire, it is clear that Frédéric Berr prefers the reed below. He writes:


" I want, according to my conviction and in the interest of the instrument, that my students play the reed below, especially since after a two weeks' practice they become accustomed to it and prefer this way of playing to the old-fashioned way."43



Hyacinthe Klosé, student of Frédéric Berr and who succeeded him as professor at the Conservatory from 1839 to 1868 also defended this new tradition.44 Thus, if it is difficult to know how long the old French tradition of the 18th century lasted, we can however affirm with certainty that Frédéric Berr played an important role in this evolution. 


Embouchure and flexibility


Whatever the position of the reed, the lips apply a slight pressure on the reed and the mouthpiece. In clarinet methods, there is a lot of information on the variation of this lip pressure. The embouchure must be flexible in order to correct the instrument's defects.

Xavier Lefèvre explains that:


"The clarinet has some muffled sounds, others that are not quite accurate, some that are too high or too low, these are imperfections that need to be corrected. These defects can be modified either by the action of the lips by releasing them more or less, or by the fingering."45 


He then puts this principle into practice by detailing how to correct various imperfect notes in the Chalumeau register.(example 12)

For example, B flat is too high, so it is necessary to " release the lips ", in other words exert less pressure from the lips on the mouthpiece. On the contrary the E being too low, it is necessary to "pinch the lips", that is to say more pressure from the lips. Other notes require both a variation of the embouchure and a particular fingering. For example, it is necessary to pinch the lips and open a key to play the B natural in tune.

The notes of the other registers are described as generally more in tune and also easier to correct. It seems that a very slight variation of the embouchure makes it possible to play in tune the notes of these registers.

Finally, it is also the action of the lips that allows to modify the intonation of the enharmonic notes. These notes can only be played with one fingering and it is the clarinetist's ear that must guide him to play these notes with the right intonation, according to the harmonic context.46 


This principle is not out of fashion in the 1830s. Frédéric Berr explains that it is necessary to know which notes are usually too high or too low in order to be able to correct them thanks to the embouchure and specific fingerings.47Like Lefèvre, but in great detail, he writes about enharmonic notes. For example, C flat and B natural in the Clairon will not be played with the same pressure of the lips. The natural B, when it is a leading tone, is resolved on C. It must therefore be played slightly high, which corresponds to the way the instrument has been tuned. On the other hand, C flat is not a leading tone and is resolved on B flat. It must be played lower, by releasing the lips.48


Nevertheless, the examples given by Lefèvre concern exclusively the notes of the Chalumeau register which are the most imperfect. As explained above, the development of the 13-key clarinet helped to solve some of these problems and in fact, Frédéric Berr does not focus particularly on these notes. Moreover, having more keys offers more possibilities to correct intonation defects by means of fingerings. Therefore, although the principle of a flexible embouchure is still present in the 1830s, it is likely that these embouchure variations are less frequent and more subtle. This may appear to be one of the steps leading to the principle of an embouchure that does not move, which is widespread in France nowadays.

Example 3. Baumann clarinet  (Hoeprich's collection)

Example 10. Lefèvre49

Example 1. Lefèvre50

Example 5. Berr51

Example 12. Lefèvre52

Example 2. Berr53

Example 9. Lefèvre54

Example 6. Berr55

Example 7. Berr56

Example 11. Reed below. Berr57

Example 4. Lefèvre58

Example 8. Buteux59