Tuesday, May 22, 2012: If It Looks Like a Clarinet

Clarinet and basset horn

Veronika Hofmanová and clarinet (l), with Barbora Trubenekrová, basset horn (r).

If It Looks Like a Clarinet …

If it looks like a clarinet and sounds like a clarinet, be careful. It could be a horn.

To add to the confusion, this variation on “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck” applies to a horn that looks almost like a saxophone.

But it’s not a saxophone, either. It’s a basset horn.

Not to be further confused with a basset hound.

A basset horn was included in a graduate’s concert at The Prague Conservatory May 10. The institute which has trained so many world-class, famous musicians received the gift of a new basset horn from the Unicorn Systems company. Jiří Mráz, the company’s general manager, officially presented it.

“The basset horn is a rare instrument,” admits Ludmila Peterková, clarinetist and professor at the Conservatory. “But the students must learn to play it because it’s used in chamber music and orchestral works, by Mozart for example.”

She tells Opus Osm, “Our school had one very old instrument with different fingerings and bad intonation. That’s why the gift of the basset horn was so appreciated.” The clarinet professor herself went to Paris to select the instrument for the school.

“Every instrument is different,” she explains. “It depends on the wood, and also on your taste – which sound you prefer. That´s why it’s best to go to the factory, where the professionals can also make small adjustments, if needed. Finally this instrument was chosen from three models with advice from the French player Romain Guyot, who has played the basset horn for many years.”

At the concert, her student Barbora Trübenekrová played the new instrument, with Veronika Hofmanová on clarinet, in Mendelssohn’s Concert Piece for Clarinet and Basset Horn. You can hear a selection from the piece in the video excerpt, below, of the Conservatory’s Symphony Orchestra, Miriam Němcová, conducting.

The basset horn sounds like a smoky, throaty clarinet, pitched lower than the standard clarinet. Nobody’s too sure who first came up with the idea, but it’s generally believed the basset horn was invented around 1770 in Germany. The name comes from the term “small bass” and its original shape, a curved horn. Today it’s usually built in a straight shape with an upturned bell at the bottom.

Other names you might run into are the French contre-clarinette or the term used in 18th century London, the clara voce. Mozart and Mendelssohn wrote extensively for the instrument, but it had virtually disappeared by the mid-1800s. Dvořák experimented with it a bit; but only when Richard Strauss’ Electra was performed with a basset horn, in 1909, did interest in the instrument revive.

Mrs Peterková explains more: “You can play a basset horn while sitting,” she says of the long, heavy black-and-silver instrument, “but some people play it by standing, supporting it with a rope around the neck. This is better for your hands, and you have more physical power and air, but it’s more difficult to play this way.”

In fact, the instrument is so heavy, some websites speak about the advantage of special braces for either the instrument or the player, to avoid stress injury to the wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders, and neck.

Who would have guessed that an 18th-century horn could have so much in common with tennis? — oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

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