In the music of mid-century Russian/Soviet composers, it's common to assume that bass clarinets extend to low-C and that Bb clarinets might have a low Eb key. I know from many sources that this was a problem for Western clarinetists playing this music who had basses that went to low Eb and Bb sopranos that went to low E (as they do still). Now, most professional Western clarinetists have low-C instruments and Western composers since the 1970s have been writing extensively for these notes.

My question is has there been research done (or supported theories) on why Russian clarinetists started using clarinets with these extra notes and which composers first began to use them? (Stravinsky, writing for Parisian audiences did not use these notes in his bass clarinet parts). Thanks!

(extra bonus if the history of the low Eb key on the Alto clarinet comes in; I know that it was not standard in mid-century English alto clarinets; nor, I believe, American and French? Of course now it's absolutely standard)

  • Fantastic question, really looking forward to seeing if anyone can provide detailed answer here. One query - I presume this sentence should refer to bass clarinettists? Now, most professional Western clarinetists have low-C instruments
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 21:05
  • Yes, only bass clarinetists there. Few clarinetists have a basset clarinet (to low C; useful for historically informed performances of the Mozart clarinet concerto and quintet), and I've never met anyone who had a basset in Bb (useful only for one solo in La Clemenza di Tito). Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 16:13
  • The notes you mention are all in the instrument's pitch I assume (and not in absolute)? Do note that in Rachmaninov's symphony No. 2 (1906–07) there is a bass clarinet in A, which means that the low C in the "regular" Bb instruments is a low D in the A instruments Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 2:56
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    Speaking of odd low clarinet keys. In one work, Schoenberg calls for contrabass clarinet in A. An instrument that as far as anyone has been able to find, never existed. Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 17:06
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    I confused the trivial transposition, you are right. As for the range of bass clarinets in A, one should look at Wagner who wrote for them (like in Lohengrin). Looking at Rice's book (see my answer) there is a small section about this; I can edit it into my answer. Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 5:44

1 Answer 1


I have really tried to find an explanation for this since I came across your question. I read some 130 pages in From the Clarinet d’Amour to the Contra Bass A History of Large Size Clarinets, 1740–1860 by Albert R. Rice, but it covers periods only up to late 19th century.

Some Google searching found 2 threads (one mentions the other which mentions Rice's book - small world) bringing up your point: here and here.

I resorted to ask Rice myself; it took him less than 2 hours to reply.

Thank you for the interesting inquiry concerning clarinets.

It is my understanding that Russian clarinetists were playing German-made bass clarinets during the first half of the 20th century when Shostakovitch and Prokofiev wrote their bass clarinet parts. Both of these composers knew the woodwinds played by professional Russian players and they would have written their low Ds and Cs because they were available on the instruments. The Heckel Company in Biebrich is known to have exported their woodwinds all over the world, and their 1906 catalog indicates that they offered bass clarinets in C, Bb, or A with a low E, Eb, or D.

He continues with the alto clarinet,

Their alto clarinets were offered in F or Eb with a lowest note of E. However, other German makers such as Kruspe in Erfurt offered alto clarinets with low Eb keys. In addition, the Zimmermann Company was established in 1875 in St. Petersburg by Julius Heinrich Zimmermann, who by 1905 had factories in Leipzig and Moscow where woodwinds were very likely produced.

And gives sources for more information,

More can be found on Heckel instruments in the latest issue of the AMIS Newsletter where a review by James Kopp discusses two recent books on the Heckel firm on pages 22-24. http://amis.org/publications/newsletter/2011/44.2-2015.pdf

On the soprano clarinet,

The use of a soprano Boehm-system clarinet with a low Eb key was quite popular in Italy and Spain during the 19th and into the 20th century. Italian players like the full-Boehm system clarinet because they preferred transposing A clarinet parts and playing them one instrument. As a result many makers of German and Boehm-system clarinets offered an optional low Eb key.

I guess these models reached Russia through German makers in this case too.

As for the first composers and pieces to use the extended range, he writes:

There are histories of the clarinet during the 19th and early 20th centuries written in Russian. If you are close to the New York Public Library or the Library of Congress, you find them and photocopy the sections, then have them translated to determine who were the earliest composers in Russia to use the extended range.


Albert R. Rice

What a champion this guy is, send him his well-earned reputation points :)

The chain of events as I see it is: extended range clarinets were made available to Russia --> players bought them --> composers were aware of this and wrote for them. This is in contrast to cases where composers request (demand?) instruments which players then need to get.

I can only assume, myself, that Western players and composers were more familiar with the French models which, to my knowledge, didn't reach the extended range but had advantages in tone quality, sound production, intonation, fingering etc.

I can reply to him if you need additional information or clarification.

Michael, I think that you are rather close to NY. If you want to copy those sections he mentions I can take care of the translation.

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    Wow!!! Thank you! I'll try to get that info from the NYPL next time I'm there for research or see if the Harvard library (just down the street here) either has them or would acquire them. This is awesome!! Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 15:50
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    This is possibly one of the best answers on this site. Thank you sharing, Michael and 'user1803551'!
    – Chris
    Commented Dec 10, 2015 at 20:58

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