When you picture an orchestra, what’s the first instrument that comes to mind? I’m guessing it’s not the bass clarinet. With violins and timpani getting all the attention, it’s quite easy to overlook this orchestral underdog, but I think it’s time we gave that bass clarinet some well-deserved love.
As its name suggests, the bass clarinet is a bigger, lower version of the standard clarinet, sounding about one octave below its soprano counterpart. Warm, deep, and earthy, it is often used to portray somber, sorrowful, or sinister scenes in music; composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov went so far as to call the instrument “incapable of joyful expression.” Fortunately, future composers and performers proved his judgment wrong, finding ways to highlight not only the rich darkness but also the bass clarinet’s vast dynamic range, velvety smoothness, obstinance, agility, and humor.
Here is a small selection of five beloved bass clarinet moments in orchestral literature for you to enjoy.
1) Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6, Mvt. 1
Mahler symphonies are full of wonderful bass clarinet solos, but this is one of the most famous, featuring a peaceful bass clarinet melody atop a nervous bed of violin tremolos and detuned bells. Bass clarinet players tend to either love or fear this piece, which has a sneaky way of showing up on almost every orchestral audition…
2) Ferde Grofé: “On the Trail” from the Grand Canyon Suite
In a piece that depicts a scenic but steady journey clopping through the Grand Canyon, the bass clarinet provides moments of humor and respite. In the several solo bass clarinet moments, our weary woodwind traveler seems to slow down and catch its breath while the rest of the orchestra waits. #relatable.
3) Dmitri Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, “Scherzo”
Wait, why is a violin concerto on this list? Because the opening of the Scherzo movement is an exciting trio between the violin, flute, and bass clarinet. Listen to this and you’ll hear the bass clarinet in peak agile form.
4) Peter Tchaikovsky: “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from the Nutcracker
When I asked host Alan Chapman to tell me his favorite bass clarinet moment, he immediately mentioned Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” While the shimmering celeste is technically the featured instrument here, that iconic bass clarinet solo steals the show! If you’re not already humming the “doodle doodle doooo” parts, you will be.
5) Esa Pekka Salonen: Wing on Wing
This piece includes not only the bass clarinet but also a contrabass clarinet — an enormous instrument that’s roughly 2.7 meters in length! You can hear the contrabass clarinet paired with the bassoon and strings right at the beginning and throughout.
So you see, there’s a lot to love about the bass clarinet. As bass clarinet legend Bennie Maupin says, “I tend to think that the bass clarinet is really from the future… It enables me to paint musically in a way that none of the other instruments that I play can do. It’s just totally wide-open for exploration…” How’s that for an endorsement?
Do you have any favorite bass clarinet moments in classical literature? Leave us a comment or request a piece for us to play on air!