The Versatility of the Clarinet

A tribute to the clarinet’s many varied outfits and personalities


You probably will have heard at least something on this list already, perhaps without even realising. The clarinet has a chameleon-like ability to change styles at the drop of a hat, and while there might not be many solo clarinet pieces that saturate everyday life (unlike, say, the piano), you’ll find the clarinet cropping up all over the place, lending its sound to some memorable moments in the repertoire. This list is a tribute to the clarinet’s many varied outfits and personalities, ranging from cats to pagans via dinosaurs. Read on to find out more…

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

It just wouldn’t be right to start a list like this without a nod of the head to Gershwin’s jazzy masterpiece. The iconic clarinet slide (or ‘glissando’) which starts the piece is loved the world over, and sets the mood for the collision of jazz and classical styles in this pioneering piano concerto.

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf (1936)

From bombastic and brassy to subdued and classy – there’s a reason Prokofiev chose the clarinet to represent the cat in his musical fairytale. The quiet, cheeky melody perfectly conjures up a cat strutting along, tail in the air, aloof and proud. Of course, it wouldn’t be a cat without a good screech – and this happens later in the piece when the cat shoots up a tree, suitably accompanied by the clarinet’s frantic wail.

Gershwin: Promenade (Walking the Dog) (1937)

While we’re on the animal theme, let’s quickly revisit Gershwin, who wrote this number for the film Shall We Dance in 1937, after which the Promenade went on to have a life of its own on the concert platform. Starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, this music accompanies a dog walk around a cruise ship (as you do), and oozes 30s charm and sophistication – all down to the clarinet, obviously.

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (1892)

The music of Tchaikovsky’s classic Christmas ballet is a yuletide staple for many, and while perhaps the most famous clarinet moment in his concert suite is the bass clarinet in the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, providing a comical counterpoint to the dainty footsteps of the celeste, the whole score is full of wonderful clarinet moments. The suite is a bit of a gateway drug. Try the full ballet and you won’t be disappointed.

Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring (1913)

You get real bang for your buck with this one. Within Stravinsky’s infamous ballet depicting scenes of pagan Russia we find prominent moments for the whole clarinet family, and it’s a great chance to hear the bass and E-flat clarinets in full swing. Many may remember The Rite of Spring from Disney’s Fantasia, the bass clarinet bubbling up like some primordial gunk, the E-flat shrieking over the orchestra like some demented pterodactyl – gosh, I really know how to flatter, don’t I?

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 (1808)

To finish on a more refined note, and to invoke the seminal Disney movie once more, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is peppered with wonderful clarinet writing. What strikes me here is the versatility on display even in this work, almost a whole century before the next most recent on this list. Beethoven really uses the clarinet to its full potential, ranging from lyrical, yearning melodies to a chirpy, jittery folk dance later in the symphony.

What are your favourite clarinet moments? What are the best pieces that show off the clarinet’s versatility?

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