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Symphony No. 6 Bass Clarinet

I had a question about Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony. The famous clarinet solo about mid-way through the movement is "completed" in the score by a bassoon (which plays the last 4 or 5 notes, which are beyond the range of the Clarinet in A). However, the tradition is for these notes to be played on a bass clarinet instead of a bassoon (despite the fact that there is no bass clarinet part in the score at all)--the idea being that the bass clarinet can better handle the extremely soft volume specified (and probably also because there is less of a timbre change between the clarinet and bass clarinet than between clarinet and bassoon).

So I was wondering, where did this tradition start? Did it perhaps originate with Tchaikovsky himself? Also, since Tchaikovsky wrote bass clarinet parts in other works of his (like The Nutcracker), why did Tchaikovsky not just use a bass clarinet in Symphony No. 6?

I had a little theory about this--namely that in Tchaikovsky's day the bass clarinet was more commonly used in orchestra pits (for operas and

ballets) and not commonly used in symphonies, so perhaps Tchaikovsky figured that he had better not score a symphony with a bass clarinet, since a symphony orchestra might not have one. On the other hand, someone I spoke with recently brought up the fact that Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony has a very prominent bass clarinet part--I countered that Manfred was a very large scale work and would need a lot of extras, anyway, unlike Tchaikovsky's numbered symphonies, so including a bass clarinet was not a big deal.

However, I don't actually know the real story behind all this bass clarinet vs. bassoon business--I'm just hypothesizing--so I was wondering what the Tchaikovsky experts have to say about this. Does anybody know the real story?


Michael Nichols
2nd Clarinet, Sherman Symphony Orchestra, Sherman, TX

The bass clarinet was rarely used in 19th century symphonic music. Composers of non-programmatic symphonies such as Bruckner and Brahms never used it, although the instrument does appear in a few larger French scores (Franck's D minor and Saint-Saens' "Organ" symphonies, for instance). The bass clarinet occurs sporadically in programmatic pieces, including a few of Liszt's symphonic poems and the "Dante Symphony", Tchaikovsky's "Manfred" and "Voyevoda", and a handful of Dvorak's later overtures and orchestral works. The earliest composers to use the bass clarinet consistently in their symphonic music were Mahler and Richard Strauss.

During Tchaikovsky's time, the bass clarinet was much more common in the theatre than in the concert hall. Wagner used it most of his mature operas, beginning with Lohengrin. The instrument appears in Meyerbeer's "Les Huguenots", Berlioz's "Les Troyens", Tchaikovsky's "Pique Dame" and "Nutcracker", Dvorak's "Rusalka", Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration of "Boris Godunov", and many other contemporary operas.

To the best of my knowledge, the first opera to use the bass clarinet is "Les Huguenots" (1836) by Meyerbeer, and the earliest symphonic works to employ the instrument are Liszt's "Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne" and "Tasso, lamento e trionfo" (both 1849). (Incidentally, Antonin Dvorak's opera "Cert a Kaca" ("The Devil and Kate", 1899) has a part for contrabass clarinet (!), though this is usually played on the bass clarinet.)

I hope this information is helpful.

Nicolas Krusek
Vancouver, Canada

Dear, Michael.

I do not know who had first performed or had directed to play those notes with a bass clarinet instead of a bassoon. It is certain that a bass clarinet can better handle the "each-fermated" pppppp four notes than a bassoon especially in the compass. However, I do not think it is good idea. It sounds something comfortable or warm, while it attaches to ff-stroke of tristan chord(c-g-a-es). It is strange. The compass of those four notes is almost the same as that in the beginning a bassoon plays with pp. Then, please imagine a bass clarinet play at the introduction. Does not it sound strange? It is important that it is hard to play, I think. Motif in the introduction substantially in E minor, that is, motif of main theme in B minor, quotes the tune on which Beethoven by himself titled in French "La grande sonate pathetique". Moreover, those origin is opening motif of Bach's Mathew Passion in E minor, "e-----^fis^g_fis-----^gis^a_gis"_fis_e ("la-----^ti^do_ti" "ti-----^ ♯do^re_♯do").

The 6th Symphony and the 3rd Piano Concerto are the last orchestral works of Tchaikovsky's. And both, after the accompaniment of the strings, a bassoon begins to play each motif. This is the same way at the beginning of Mozart's "Requiem". Therefore, I suppose it as follows. Tchaikovsky composed this symphony as "Pathetique=the Passion", that is, "Requiem".

Best regards,

Kamomeno Iwao

A few more observations on Tchaikovsky's bass clarinet writing:

To the best of my knowledge, Tchaikovsky's bass clarinet parts are always written in treble clef (transposition by major ninth), unlike those of his contemporaries—Liszt, Wagner, Franck, and Saint-Saens—which are notated in bass clef (transposition by second). Furthermore, many of Tchaikovsky's Russian successors wrote bass clarinet parts in bass clef, including Rachmaninov, Khachaturian, and Shostakovich.

I am curious to know why Tchaikovsky chose to notate this instrument in treble clef. Perhaps he learned from the examples of Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov, or Dvorak?

I also notice that Tchaikovsky almost always writes for bass clarinet in Bb, even in sharp keys. (He uses the bass clarinet in A only a few times in The Nutcracker, Act 2.) This is easily explained, as the Bb instrument has always been more common, although Liszt, Wagner, Mahler, and many later composers use the bass clarinet in A quite frequently.

Any other thoughts on this subject would be greatly appreciated.

Nicolas Krusek

Hello, Nicolas

I do not know about other composers, however, I think it very natural that Tchaikovsky wrote the parts of bass clarinets by treble clef. Because the fingering of a bass clarinet is quite the same as soprano(common-type) clarinet's. Real notets of soprano clarinets are transposed by major second or minor third below, and bass clarinets by major ninth(or minor tenth). I think that Tchaikovsky had probably known it.

Best regards,

Kamomeno Iwao

As an amatuer clarinetist, I suspect that pragmatism regarding clef use for bass clarinets [and all clarinet parts that I have played: alto, Eb soprano, contra-alto and contra-bass] is the deciding factor, as using the treble clef keeps the fingering consistent.

Similarly, I have never seen a bass clarinet in A but I have seen parts in scores for such an instrument. I can't really believe that anyone would actually own two bass clarinets and have them in the pit or on stage with them, but I suspect players transpose the A part when playing the Bb instrument. As evidence for that, the A clarinet can play a semitone lower than the Bb but the bass family [I have Bb bass, Eb contra-alto, Bb contra-bass] all have an extra key giving the low Eb [as written for the clarinet], thus enabling the full range of an A instrument to be covered by a Bb instrument, so only one instrument is required for all music.

A thought on the original proposition about using a bass clarinet instead of a bassoon in T's 6th - the conclusion depends, I think, on whether one believes that the composer [or his interpreter] intends those few notes to 'stand out' or to 'fade out'; once you make that decision, the instrument is determined.

PS the contra-bass clarinet is a fabulous instruments whose bottom notes [down to the lowest concert Db on a piano] are truly 'earth-moving' - I have accompanied church choirs many times and the instrument blends wonderfully with voices, providing a true bass that does not intrude in any way but gives a rock-solid foundation to the harmony.

Len Matthews

I have two Selmer basses! And yes, sometimes I have them both on stage with me. I've been a professional player for over 30 years and generally I transpose A parts, but sometimes I dig my A bass out of the loft and use it to get me out of a hole if I have to play something at short notice which is somewhat atonal and the transposition is hard to assimilate. The tuning on it is fairly apalling so it's a desperate measure!

Treble clef: I think there's some sort of tradition, something to do with French and German notation, but I fell asleep while it was being explained to me. Treble clef is easier for clarinet players who pick up a bass only rarely, but I find bass clef better (it's a bass instrument after all). Clarinet players are conditioned to respond to leger lines down to low E but modern basses go down to low C - too many lines. Contemporary composers often write busy bass parts right at the bottom of the range but in treble clef. They would be so much easier to read in bass clef.

Mike Huntriss

Having read through a lot of Soviet scores I researched the subject of bass clarinet notation in an orchestration book and indeed the "French" system calls for the use of the treble clef and the "German" system for the use of the bass clef.

However, the text warns, these are only labels because it is not hard to find examples of French composers using the bass clef and German composers using the treble clef.

Nevertheless, the "Soviet school" indeed seems to have been taught the "French" system

Gary Goldberg

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