Bass Clarinet – Most Flexible Auxiliary Wind

Never underestimate the usefulness of the bass clarinet: perhaps the most flexible of all auxiliary winds. If I were told that my small orchestra commission allowed for only one dedicated auxiliary player, I would probably choose the bass clarinet every time. Why? Well, if we look at the most commonly used auxiliaries of the other winds – piccolo, english horn, and contrabassoon – each one can be easily doubled by an existing player for occasional solos or support within a work. While this is also true of bass clarinet, I’ve always found it better to have a third clarinet player covering the part throughout.

Bass clarinet has the widest range of pitch and dynamics; it can blend more easily than its fellow auxiliaries; it is more agile than english horn, not to mention contrabassoon; and, it can free up the bassoons for soloing and higher-pitched harmonic and rhythmic support. It is also much easier to find a competent player with a first-rate instrument than is true for english horn or contra. Of course, piccolos are ubiquitous, and are nearly as responsive as C flutes in every way – but they can be easily doubled, during which time the second flutist’s absence does not affect the tone of a melodic line or harmonic position as radically as it might with the reed instruments.

In the excerpt below from movement 1 of my harp concerto, the bass clarinet part runs the gamut of possibility. Fig. M: part of a chordal line with horn, bassoon, and tremolo strings. Bar 251: a doubling of arco, then pizz. double basses, allowing the bassoons to support the sweeping cello melody. Fig. N: a combined melodic passage with bass trombone and lower strings. Bar 264: four-part harmony with bassoon, bass trombone, and cuivre horn III. Bar 268: soft doubling of double bass pizz. About the only thing that’s not here is a featured solo – but the music didn’t allow for it. Anyway, the point is that over the same section of music, another auxiliary instrument might be making half the contribution.

Bass Clarinet Most Flexible Auxiliary Wind

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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