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Joined: Feb 2007
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I realise that if the music is in flats, B flat Clarinets are used, but I'm not too clear about when you would switch to an A Clarinet.

Let's look at the following example:

[Linked Image]

why did the composer (Shostakovich) switch from B flat clarinets to A Clarinets? Was it because it modulated?
I tried analysing the modulation and I thought it modulated from B flat major to A sharp major, however I am confused why the key signature (for the A Clarinets) has no sharps or flats (red circle, near the question marks), only accidentals.


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I am SO curious about this! I thought the A clarinet would get a key signature of G major so that when the tonic is played you would hear Eb matching the tonic of the other instruments (if it's in Eb major and not C minor). I am just learning a tiny bit about transposed instruments. It moves two notes as I expected, but in the opposite direction of what I expected.

But wouldn't this be primarily a transposition question rather than a modulation question.

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In theory, the A clarinet would have to get a G-flat major key signature here. However, if you look at the music, it is clear that it wouldn't make sense and in fact be confusing to the player. So he left out the key signature and applied accidentals where necessary. It's nothing new, Beethoven already did that in the Seventh.

And it's correct that clarinets were chosen according to the key: B-flat clarinets for flat keys and A clarinets for sharp ones (in the classical era, C clarinets were also common) due to keys with many sharps or flats being especially difficult on the clarinet. But with all the improvements during the 19th and 20th centuries, those difficulties became smaller and composers started choosing the clarinets according to their timbre, with not much regard to the key. The A clarinet sounds warmer and darker than it's brighter B-flat cousin. Also, it obviously goes a semitone lower.


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Thanks for the info, Mrenaud. My knowledge is still in its infancy. So does that mean the clarinetist has two clarinets with him, or would a different clarinetist kick in when it's a different clarinet being played?

I'm missing something in my knowledge here. I dismissed Gb major as the key because it is not two full tones up from Eb. Eb to F is one whole tone, and F to Gb is a semitone. So then I thought it would have to be a G major signature. And then I thought that a signature with a sharp would look odd, plus there is the question of how semitones are handled with flats vs. sharps.

So then I thought that if a key signature with sharps is not appropriate when there are key signatures with flats, the composer got around it by using C major (no sharps or flats) and fixing it up enharmonically with accidentals so that it functions like a G major signature (which I was fixated on) without looking like one.

By what you are saying I got it at least partly right.

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So he left out the key signature and applied accidentals where necessary.
So is C major a kind of "default signature" to get past thorny issues by creating a blank page so to say?

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Oops, I think I see my mistake. There is only a semitone between Bb and A. I should not have dismissed Gb - gotta hit the rudiments books again, metaphorically speaking.

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Should point out that Shostakovich uses the A clarinet for a few pages and then switches back to the B flat clarinet. In a different context though, what would make a composer switch back and forth?


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Mrenaud tells us that the different clarinets have different tone colour. And also that the two clarinets work better for signatures with sharps or flats because of how the notes tune to each other because of the physical properties of the instrument. I imagine it lies somewhere in what the difference is between a G# and Ab, and how that affects the colour of harmony and melody. I can't imagine there would be much of a range difference between a Bb and A clarinet.

Mrenaud? Someone else?

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Clarinets play flat keys more comfortably, and of course it's easier for the player not to have to cope with many accidentals or a key signature with many sharps or flats. So those are two reasons that a composer might choose an A rather than a B flat clarinet - to get the key into a flat key for the player, or to simplify the key.

There's a small difference in tone, and of course the A clarinet goes a semitone lower as has been said. Generally also A clarinets are more difficult to tune than B flat clarinets, no idea why. It may just be that the slight change in shape means it's more unstable around the register change.

Yes clarinettists have two clarinets and switch between them when necessary. Usually you keep the same mouthpiece. The composer has to allow time for the switch to take place: sometimes the time available is very short and the clarinettist is really struggling to get the right instrument! Also as an instrument is sitting idle it's not as warm as the one you're playing, so there's always a problem of tuning when you've just switched from one instrument to another.

(Yes, I play clarinet and have had to cope with all of the above. I also play bass clarinet so occasionally also have to switch between bass and 'ordinary' instrument).


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I am not familiar with this piece. Maybe the clarinet part descends to (Concert) C# later, where only an A clarinet could realize the part. If not, I don't see the reason, because if it doesn't go too low, both instruments could play the passage just as well. Maybe in the composer's time, the modern system didn't exist.


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