Johann Christoph Denner, instrument maker of Nürnberg, is usually given credit for the invention of the clarinet between the years 1690-1707. Although his invention consisted of little more than an improvement on the old "chalumeau," he no less deserves the honor for which he is noted. As a successful maker of flutes, oboes and bassoons, he mused over the puzzling fact of why the chalumeau would not "overblow" to the octave as would the flute, oboe and bassoon. He thought if he could extend the compass of the instrument upward he could make a valuable instrument.

He soon determined that this instrument did not over-blow to the octave but to the twelfth i.e. when all the finger holes were closed and the lowest note (fundamental) was sounded, the next note to be produced - by increasing the blowing pressure - was the note a twelfth above, and not an octave. Example: low G overblown would be a D, twelve notes above the G. He also discovered that this note was produced much easier if he bored a little hole higher up on the instrument near the mouthpiece. This became the "speaker or register key," and in fact, did make over-blowing  to the next register much easier.

The speaker key that Denner added to the Chalumeau was placed up near the mouthpiece end of the instrument and acted as a little vent hole which caused the higher notes to sound as a result of the splitting of the whole air-column of the instrument into smaller vibrating segments. When a vent hole such as this is added to a cylindrical pipe, the higher notes produced are an octave and a fifth (twelfth) higher than the fundamental or lower note scale which is produced by the cylindrical pipe without the vent hole. When a vent hole is placed in a conical pipe e.g. saxophone and oboe, the upper notes produced are an octave above the lower or original scale. This is the main difference between the acoustics of the clarinet as compared to those of the oboe and saxophone which are conical pipes.

But he was immediately beset with other practical problems. He could see that the over-blown twelfth would give him an increased range at the top of the instrument, but he did not see how he could bridge the gap in the scale between this top series of notes and the top of the then-known scale. After experimenting, he built a chalumeau which had a scale of one octave from G below the treble clef to G in the staff to which were added notes at the bottom and the top. This octave G to G was played by covering and uncovering eight finger holes just as if the instrument were an open-pipe like the flute or oboe. Below the low G was the bell note F played with all fingers down. This gave Denner a series of nine notes from low F to G on the second line treble, but he still had a gap between his treble G and the over-blown C (using low F fingering). In the top of the scale above the eight finger holes he added two keys which were sprung shut over two holes drilled opposite each other. One of these keys was operated by the first finger of the left hand and the other - on the back side - by the thumb.

When one key was opened A was obtained, and when both were opened together, Bb was sounded. This gave Denner eleven notes, but the thumb key, or Bb key, gave him something else. This key also acted as a "speaker key", and when it was opened - all other notes being closed - C on the third space treble could be played with some of the same fingerings used on the notes in the lower series. This now gave him a scale from low F to C in the treble clef and several notes higher, possibly to F on the top line treble clef, or two complete octaves. This  vent hole enabling him to attain the upper register also caused a major problem with the tone of the third line Bb. The note is "fuzzy" and "stuffy" because the vent hole was used to produce a pitch at the top of the lower scale - Bb on the third line treble clef - and it was also used as a vent hole for making the instrument play the upper notes.

Jacob Denner - one of Johann's sons - at a later time, added a key at the bottom of the instrument so it could produce low F, low E coming from the bell with all holes closed. This completed the first series of notes from low E to Bb in the staff, with the second series coming from B natural on the third line in the treble staff. This three-keyed instrument was very well known during the first half of the eighteenth century. The low F# and G# were later added by Barthold Fritz making the five keyed clarinet the one most familiar to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. See Figure #1. It wasn't until 1810 that Ivan Müller brought out his celebrated thirteen keyed clarinet which included several trill keys, and in 1843 the adaptation of the Boehm system to the clarinet by H. E. Klosé. See Figure #2

Figure #1

Figure #2

New innovations on the clarinet have been slow in coming, not many in number, and hardly any which has contributed to the improvement of the instrument's mechanism and thereby enhancing playing facility. In 1952 a new "acoustical correction" was added to the clarinet called the S-K mechanism. This innovation was a collaboration between Frank Kaspar in Ann Arbor, Michigan and William Stubbins at the University of Michigan. The McIntyre brothers in 1958 came out with a new clarinet which included new mechanisms intended to improve the 'throat register.'- it was never successful. Rosario Mazzeo, bass clarinetist of the Boston Symphony from 1933 to 1966, probably made some of the most important and lasting contributions  to the clarinet, and in 1961 the Mazzeo system was adapted to the Selmer clarinet. We as players are willing to struggle with our present systems, and for the most part, overcome quite successfully the myriad of mechanical and intonation challenges.

Taking clarinet development to another level, one would be remiss not to mention the custom hand-made clarinets by makers such as Guy Chadash in New York City and Luis Rossi of Santiago, Chile.


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