The E flat clarinet is a member of the clarinet family. It is usually classed as a soprano clarinet, although some authors describe it as a “sopranino,” “petite,” or “piccolo” clarinet. Smaller in size and higher in pitch than the more common B♭ clarinet, it is a transposing instrument in E♭, sounding a minor third higher than written. In Italian it sometimes referred to as a quartino, generally appearing in scores as quartino in Fa.
The E♭ clarinet is used in orchestras, concert bands, marching bands, and plays a particularly central role in clarinet choirs, carrying the high melodies that would be treacherous for the B♭ clarinet. Solo repertoire is limited.
The E♭ clarinet is required to play at the top of its range for much of the time to take advantage of its piercing quality. Fingerings in that register are more awkward than on the lower part of the instrument, making high, fast passages difficult.
Use in concert and military bands
Towards the end of the eighteenth century the clarinet in high F took this role until the E♭ clarinet took over beginning sometime in the second decade of the 1800s.
Although the E♭ is somewhat of a rarity in school bands, it is a staple instrument in college and other upper level ensembles. Unlike the B♭ soprano clarinet which has numerous musicians performing on each part, the E♭ clarinet part is usually played by only one musician in a typical concert band. This is partially because the E♭clarinet has a bright, shrill sound very similar to the sound of the piccolo. It commonly plays the role of a garnish instrument along with the piccolo, and duo segments between the two instruments are quite common. The E♭ clarinet is often heard playing along with the flutes and/or oboes.
Important soloistic parts in standard band repertoire for the E♭ clarinet include the second movement of Gustav Holst’s First Suite in E-flat for Military Band (for two E♭ clarinets) and his piece ‘Hammersmith’ (also for two E♭ clarinets), Paul Hindemith’s Symphony in B-flat for Band, and Gordon Jacob’s William Byrd Suite. The E♭ clarinet is also a featured player in modern wind band repertoire, such as Adam Gorb’s Yiddish Dances, where it takes on a solo role for much of the five-movement piece.
Use as children’s clarinet
While most E♭ clarinets are built and marketed for professionals or advanced students, an inexpensive plastic E♭ clarinet dubbed the “Kinder-Klari” has been produced for beginning children’s use. It has a simplified fingering system, lacking some of the trill keys and alternative fingerings.
The slightly larger D clarinet is rare, although it was common in the early and mid-eighteenth century (see the Molter concertos below). From the end of that century to the present it has become less common than the clarinets in E♭, B♭, A, or even C. An Ouverture by Handel for two clarinets and horn was probably written for two D clarinets. D clarinets were once commonly employed by some composers (e.g., Mlada (Rimsky-Korsakov)) to be used by one player equipped with instruments in D and E♭ — analogous to a player using instruments in B♭ and A. In modern performance (especially in North America and western Europe outside German-speaking countries), it is normal to transpose D clarinet parts for E♭ clarinet.
A composer’s choice of E♭ vs. D clarinet is often hard to discern, and can seem perverse. The choice does not always put the music in the easiest key for the player. For instance, the original version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1 is for E♭ clarinet while the orchestral version is for D. Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe is scored for E♭ clarinet, producing some very difficult passages in B major which can be played on a D clarinet in C major. Another famous example is the D clarinet part of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche.
Solo and chamber literature for the E♭ (or D) clarinet
Solo literature for these instruments is sparse. The following are notable:
Johann Melchior Molter: Six Clarinet Concerti (D; among the earliest extant clarinet concerti).
Concerti by Jerome Neff and William Neil.
Ernesto Cavallini: Carnival of Venice variations, Fantasia on a Theme from Ultimo Giorno Di Pomeii, and (with Giacomo Panizza) I figli di Eduardo 4th (all for E♭ clarinet and piano).
Henri Rabaud: “Solo de Concours” for E♭ clarinet.
Amilcare Ponchielli: Quartetto for B♭ and E♭ clarinets, flute, and oboe, with piano accompaniment.
Giacinto Scelsi: “Tre Pezzi for E♭ Clarinet”
William Bolcom: “Suite of Four Dances for E♭ Clarinet”
Manuel Lillo Torregrosa: “Teren Rof”, “Vivencias”, “Obviam ire siglo”, “Angular”: Concerts 1, 2, 3, 4 for E♭ Clarinet and Band
Arnold Schoenberg: Suite, op. 29 (E♭, B♭, and bass clarinet, violin, viola, violoncello, piano).
Anton Webern: Drei Lieder fur Singstimme, Es-Klarinette und Gitarre Op.18.
Orchestral and operatic music using the E♭ (or D) clarinet
Parts written for D clarinet are often played on the more popular E♭ clarinet, with the player transposing or playing from a written part transposed a semitone lower.
Orchestral compositions and operas with notable E♭ or D clarinet solos include:
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (E♭)
Maurice Ravel: Boléro (E♭)
Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (D)
Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (D and E♭)
Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No. 6 (E♭), The Age of Gold (E♭) Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (E♭)
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 1 in D Major (E♭)
Other orchestral compositions and operas making extensive use of E♭ or D clarinet include:
Béla Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle (1&2 double E♭), Miraculous Mandarin (E♭ and D)
Leonard Bernstein – Candide, West Side Story, On the Town, Divertimento for Orchestra, Slava! A Political Overture
Aaron Copland – El Salon Mexico
Edward Elgar – Symphony No. 2
Leoš Janáček – Sinfonietta
Gustav Mahler – Symphonies Nos. 1 (2 E♭s), 2 (2 E♭s), 3 (2 E♭s), 4, 5 (D), 6 (4th movement for D), 7, 8, 9, 10
Carl Orff – Carmina Burana (Orff)
Sergei Prokofiev – Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, 6
Maurice Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé, Piano Concerto in G, Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, The Tale of the Priest and His Workman Balda
Richard Strauss – Ein Heldenleben, Eine Alpensinfonie, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Sinfonia Domestica
Igor Stravinsky – The Firebird (D), The Rite of Spring
After 1950, works using E♭ clarinet are too numerous to note individually. However, among those where the instrument is featured beyond what would be considered normal in recent music are John Adams’s Chamber Symphony, where two players play E♭ and bass clarinet and “double” on soprano and Adriana Hölszky’s A due for two E♭ clarinets. The extended techniques of the B♭ clarinet, including multiphonics, flutter tonguing, and extreme registers, have all been imported to the E♭.