An Ode to the Clarinet and other Rambles from Fran's Corner


Hello! Thanks for your enthusiasm about my first Fran’s Corner of the season. I am back in my corner with some thoughts to share with you. Several readers wrote to me to say how much they enjoyed reading Chris Theofanidis’ comments about his Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet that premieres at our first concert, July 11th. Perhaps he will send me more about his work during the next few weeks.

I want to tell you that I first heard of Chris Theofanidis when I went to the San Francisco Opera for the premiere of his opera, Heart of a Soldier, on Friday, September 10th, 2004. The opera ended two hours before the 11th! I went because it was part of a mini-subscription series and I went somewhat reluctantly. I was looking forward to the classical operas included in the series. I was stunned and overwhelmed by the music and immediately very curious about this American composer. The opera is the true story of Rick Rescorla, the Head of Security at the Morgan Stanley offices at the World Trade Center. He led and rescued thousands from the South Tower and perished on his last descent from the upper floors on 9/11/2001. It is a riveting emotional musical experience that tells of Rick and his best friend, his divorced wife, and a woman whom Rick loves. There are many sub-stories in the opera, each one emotional and gripping; each set to intense vocal narratives and melodic lines. The final scene left the audience hushed and in tears as smoke poured from the stunning skeletal structure of the South Tower. The instrumentation was often spare and brought many hints of Theofanidis’ Texas background in the use of American musical idioms. His use of orchestral color and wandering melody was what I noticed most.

Theofanidis wrote these words about his opera score.

“I write very tonal accessible music…the things that I tend to go around humming are the things I try to bring to my writing.”

Years later, I heard his Muse performed, a commission based on Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, No. 3.  It is so very different and so wonderfully embracing of the Baroque masterpiece while creating a new intriguing contemporary setting. Please do go to You Tube and listen to some of this music before you hear “our” new work!

As always I ramble freely; going from one subject to another without transition.  Next: This week the great news is that Alex Fiterstein, our Clarinetist for the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet, sent me a second chapter with his views of the piece. These paragraphs have heightened my excitement and impatience as I look forward to my first exposure to the work. I know they will do so for you as well. Read these excellent remarks below. I quote them in full. You will see that first he answered a question about what clarinet he is using. I will write about the instrument after you read the whole letter.

Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein

Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein

“Hi Fran,

Just got back from a very busy week in China. Hope this will work well for your blog: Yes, the Quintet is for Bb clarinet. Here’s what I can say about it at this point:

The first movement “The war in heaven” starts with dotted rhythms in unison (and fortissimo!) clarinet and strings announce the beginning of the movement, after a short interlude in the strings the clarinet enters forte in the low register and begins a melody with big leaps that leads to another “announcement” in fortissimo of the clarinet and strings. The Clarinet continues trying to reach higher and higher until the opening dotted rhythm returns, this time marked “Explosive” and continues longer while the viola plays 16th notes and the cello trills wildly. Eventually the clarinet takes over the viola 16th notes in the low register and rises higher. The dotted rhythms continue to become more important and in the forefront as the movement develops. Theofanidis uses the clarinet in its best registers and with a wide dynamic range.

The second movement is titled “Aria for a lost beauty” and starts with the string quartet (without vibrato), the clarinet enters eventually in a quiet voice. Again Theofanidis uses the large dynamic range of the clarinet from pp to FF. The dotted rhythm statement returns in this movement as well...What is the meaning of this rhythm played by the clarinet and strings?

The clarinet ends the movement with a whispering repetitive melody marked “Irrational, Spry”.

The third mov. “Fire and Magic” is driven by rhythm. Triplets in the viola and cello and occasionally in the 2nd violin are driving this movement while the clarinet makes broader, soaring gestures.

Looking forward to the premiere with the great Ariel Quartet and seeing how this piece develops through our rehearsal process.” 

This insightful commentary is an excellent example of an analytical appreciation of the material and the emotional setting of the Quintet. To pursue his threads further, Alex refers to the clarinet voice and the tonal settings of the work. I would like to delve into this subject further.

The parts of a clarinet

The parts of a clarinet

Here is a bit about sound: the musical terms most often used to describe instrumental sound are tone color and timbre. Timbre (from the French for bell, sound of a bell) is most often defined as the “character of a sound as distinguished from its pitch” (Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians). To paraphrase several respected sources, it is the auditory response that lets us distinguish one instrument from another, though each may be striking the very same note or pitch and doing so at the same level of loudness. Does that make sense? You would not think a clarinet sounds like a viola, would you? If you are curious and interested in a fuller discussion, and yes, quite a technical explanation of timbre, go to or even Wikipedia and the definition given by the Acoustical Society of America.

Fiterstein also speaks of the large dynamic range and the vast tonal range of his instrument in his paragraphs above. This is another conversation entirely. Timbre refers to quality of sound, not pitch, or dynamic differences or for that matter how long a given note lasts when played. I do suggest you familiarize yourselves with the sound of the clarinet before the opening concert. In the Quintet the clarinet timbre is combined with the colors that the string quartet instruments bring to the piece. The individual timbre of each of the four strings (the upper register, violin, the alto voice of the viola and the tenor/baritone cello) combined with the woodwind makes up the texture or amount of richness, thickness, or layers of sound within the work.

Descriptive words for instruments such as reedy, mellow, bright, warm, harsh, sweet, even clear and murky, are used to describe timbre and thus, sound quality. Most instruments can produce sounds of disparate tone quality. Do listen for these differences within the music you hear. It is fascinating to hear a given instrument produce many different “shades” of tone. According to Fiterstein, the clarinet score in Quintet will go from almost strident lines to long melodic phrases.

Cartoon by artist Matthew Diffee

Cartoon by artist Matthew Diffee

One further note about the clarinet to either help or confuse you. Do you know what a transposing instrument is? The clarinet and some other woodwinds as well as some Brass instruments are transposing instruments. What you see is not what you hear! For example, there are several keys associated as the home keys for the family of instruments that are clarinets. What do I mean by that?

There are high, alto, bass, and contrabass clarinets. When the soprano B flat clarinet, that is used so very frequently in classical and in jazz settings and in this case for Theofanidis’ piece, “reads” a written C in a score, it sounds a B flat concert pitch. Each written note is a full note higher than it is sounded. It takes a student of the instrument time to be comfortable with this, but also the system allows easy changing of instruments as the fingering stays the same for each clarinet, whether it be in the key of B flat or E flat. A written C for any of these clarinets will produce the sound of the key of the particular instrument. In other words an E flat clarinet sounds an E flat concert pitch when the musician plays the written note C in the score. And the B flat clarinet, yes, you’ve got it, sounds B flat when the score calls for the note C. This is by no means a full explanation of transposing instruments.

A disassembled clarinet in its case

A disassembled clarinet in its case

As for the structure of a clarinet, it is most often made of African Blackwood. It is made up of five major sections: the mouthpiece with the single reed, the barrel (a tuner for the clarinet), a two part straight cylinder tube with holes and keys, and the bell. Be aware the use of the word “key” here does not refer to a home tonality, but rather to an opening and closing device on the instrument that is part of the sound system for the instrument.

All this is way too complicated to explain thoroughly here. I recommend the web site for a great overview of instrument’s construction. I do wish to point out here that a clarinet must be held by a finger…in this case…the right hand thumb, leaving only nine fingers to open and cover the many tone holes and the overblowing hole on a contemporary clarinet. Thus there is the necessity for keys that slide to quickly open and close the holes. The addition of copper or silver, or even gold keys to open and close the tone holes, has increased from one or two large keys in the early 1700s for the first clarinets to seventeen of eighteen keys on a contemporary B flat and other clarinets. Again not very easy to grasp, I know.

For more information about the single reed instrument, the mouthpiece and the fact that fingering remains basically the same for all the different keyed clarinets, do go to one of the sites such as or

I may have thoroughly confused you, or perhaps with some luck, piqued your interest to delve into further confusion, or sadly bored you; but a little “tech behind the scenes” information seemed appropriate. Just wait until I expound on the Viola! That will be next time as the gorgeous Brahms String Quintet in F Major doubles the viola. If you want to be ahead of the game, look up what clef the viola uses to read a score. Do listen to a recording of the Brahms “Spring” Quintet, in F Major, Op. 88 and Schumann’s only Piano Quintet. NB: It is my all-time favorite chamber work. Perhaps a quiet listen to Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 would be a Clarinet treat before the first concert. The texture, color, and timbre of five instruments as they form each quintet will certainly be explored in my next Fran’s Corner.

If you have any questions, comments, or requests please send me an email at

Enjoy the green Vermont June days! I shall be back about July 4th.

- Fran

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