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.