Originally published in The Clarinet 48/2 (March 2021). Printed copies of The Clarinet are available for ICA members.
Collaboration with Boehm and Oehler Clarinets
by Barbara Heilmair
The clarinet, like several other wind instruments, has two primary forms. Both the Boehm (“French”) and Oehler (“German”) clarinets are recognized as being equipped to play music at the highest level of performance standards, and outstanding artists around the world play them. In many music festivals and higher education institutions that have an international reach, both systems are present. However, combining Oehler and Boehm systems in professional ensembles is still an exception. There has been some controversy involving concepts of tradition, national schools of playing, aesthetics, geographically and culturally formed musical tastes, acoustical phenomena, and career considerations. Before sharing insights from my own collaboration and recording project with Oehler and Boehm clarinets, I will discuss the two clarinet systems and their history.
Around the middle of the 19th century, the development of the clarinet took two distinct paths which led to two main schools of clarinet playing: the French Boehm-system clarinet and the German Oehler-system clarinet. Today, the Boehm clarinet is used around the world, except in Germany and in some other German-speaking countries. The system began in 1840 when French clarinetist Hyacinthe Eléonore Klosé (1808–1880) and instrument maker Louis-Auguste Buffet (1789-1864) transferred parts of Theobald Boehm’s flute keywork to the clarinet.
The Oehler clarinet, on the other hand, is the primary clarinet system used today in Germany and parts of some other German-speaking areas. It is based on the 1900 instrument by Oskar Oehler, a refinement of the 1860 German clarinet by Carl Baermann and Georg Ottensteiner.1 From that point on, different schools of clarinet playing and teaching developed, blossoming into different geographical and cultural variations of aesthetics in sound, playing style, teaching approach and literature.
In the past, representing one system or the other has often become a polarizing factor for musical institutions and for performance. In the present time, these divided perspectives regarding the two systems have evolved to become more inclusive while regional tastes and cultural influences persist. For example, the Berlin Philharmonic as well as other orchestras in Germany still require one to play the Oehler system. Combined-system collaborations within ensembles remain uncommon.
Excellent and encompassing research has been done on this topic by Stephanie Angloher in her dissertation on the German and French clarinet systems. She reports that artists such as Dieter Klöcker, Karl Leister, Reiner Wehle, Sabine Meyer and Chen Halevi have emphasized the importance of the individual musician’s ideas, musicianship, and personal expression over system considerations.2 Regarding the overall sound of the two systems, Reiner Wehle has observed that Boehm and German clarinets nowadays tend to sound more similar than a few decades ago, due to changes in mouthpiece-reed setups worldwide.3 Sabine Meyer, who is married to Wehle, confirms that we sometimes cannot even tell the difference between Boehm and German clarinet sound anymore.4 Additionally, Reiner Wehle, who has spent some time studying in Paris with Guy Deplus, reminds us that different systems also exist for other wind instruments
such as oboe, bassoon, and horn; difficult situations may arise when having individual players switch between instrument systems depending on literature or ensemble.5
Karl Leister’s statement goes further when he describes sound as “something very personal, as a color of our voice, as vibrations of our soul.”6 Therefore, Leister does not even use the expression “German sound.”7 For him, it is imperative that one “breathes soul into the instrument instead of putting the instrument itself forward as the center of attention.”8
Combining the Two Systems
The question remains: What happens when the two clarinet systems are combined in an ensemble?
Chen Halevi, professor of clarinet at the Hochschule für Musik in Trossingen, Germany, has witnessed many student ensembles with combined systems and has not observed any problems resulting from using different clarinet systems together.9
All things considered, one can also observe a track record of successful combined-system professional ensembles. Here are some examples:
- Sabine Meyer (Oehler clarinet) and Julian Bliss (Boehm clarinet) with their 2007 album Krommer Concerto for Two Clarinets, Spohr Clarinet Concerto No. 4, with Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, EMI Classics
- Michele Zukovsky: playing the Oehler system in an American orchestra, besides being the longest-serving female woodwind player in the history of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (1961-2015 until her retirement)
- Jozsef Balogh and “InterClarinet”: clarinet ensemble comprised of professional members who are playing on Oehler and Boehm clarinets (current)
Michele Zukovsky recently gave me her insight on using Oehler and Boehm clarinets together in an ensemble:
Many years ago, when I played with my husband, Charles Zukovsky, in the orchestra, it was heaven, for he also played Wurlitzers. It could have been that we were playing the same brand! And we played out of tune together! (…) Playing with Boehm clarinets is what I did in my orchestra for 40 years, and it was like a pretty good marriage. They [Oehler and Boehm instruments] are both clarinets, so it was okay. And also, on both the German and the French clarinets, along with the change in mouthpiece style, it got easier and easier for everybody. We all started to have the same goal; to have a nice dark sound that blends. Vandoren mouthpieces are going in that direction, and the cane itself is now darker and softer sounding since the ’80s. So, while it is not incredible, it is now fine. In the ’60s, where people had more identifiable sounds from different areas, it would have been quite difficult.10
Jozsef Balogh was also kind enough to share his insights with me. In a description of a past recording project with German and French clarinets, he writes: “We came from completely different schools, we played on different instruments and reeds, yet that is not heard in the recordings. Because we finally got there, to our music.”11
Both clarinetists seem to confirm a mind-over-matter situation and that sound differences could hardly be heard after a while. According to Angloher, we have arrived at a point where ensembles with combinations of clarinet systems have become more widely accepted by professional clarinetists, especially for chamber music and double concertos. There are hesitations towards combining the two systems within orchestral sections where the factors of homogeneity and alignment of playing traditions seem to have more importance than individuality or contrast within a section.12
The basis for a successful performance with different clarinet systems should be a shared musical vision that includes common ideas on tuning, tonal timbres and performance style.
It has sometimes been suggested that intonation differences would lead to significant difficulties, discouraging any collaborations between French and German clarinets. While I agree that intonation needs particular attention due to the acoustical facts of both clarinet systems, I think the two systems are compatible in ensemble settings, provided the performers prepare accordingly. Intonation in combined-system ensembles has several angles to it. First, because of their acoustics, all clarinets show tuning inconsistencies even though the finest instrument makers have worked on resolving the issues. “And as the maker is usually an intelligent person, he leaves us with a clarinet which is imperfect but predictably so. … These faults are present in all clarinets, but in a greater or lesser degree,” writes Jack Brymer.13 Clark W. Fobes reminds us that every clarinetist has an active role in making good intonation happen:
Despite … technical sophistication, musicians are ultimately left in the performance situation with their ears as the arbiter of pitch. This ambiguity of science and musicianship regarding the production of musical pitches places the job of physically tuning a musical instrument in the category of art, subjective at best.14
In summation, we are looking at a complex intonation situation on every clarinet that requires ongoing active listening as well as skills and knowledge to handle them.
Second, Boehm and Oehler system clarinets indeed have different intonation tendencies. There is an excellent general overview provided by Angloher.15 I would like to point out that, while these differences exist between the two clarinet systems, they generally affect the same areas (e.g., low register or throat tones), and they are usually not opposite from each other.
Skeptics could wonder here: With an instrument that is already complex in terms of intonation, should one avoid making matters even more difficult by adding another instrument that has different tendencies? Would “problem areas” on the clarinet be highlighted in such settings?
There are a few points to be considered. Overall, intonation as an art is a complex topic.
Intonation needs to be individually imagined, anticipated and produced by each player. One should not have to rely on other instruments as a reference to be able to play in tune. If a player has learned to independently imagine and produce an intended pitch on the clarinet within a musical context, then tuning with any other instrument, including another clarinet, should well be possible. The usage of different clarinet systems alone does not automatically mean that there are going to be intonation problems, and there can even be issues with intonation within a group comprised of players with only one system. Even within the same brand of instrument, using the same clarinet system, there can be intonation issues because of the many variables involved. Admittedly, it is easier to play in tune if you play with someone who has a very similar setup and playing tendencies.
As a first step in rehearsing, I would recommend to assess the actual tuning situation with the help of a tuner, and then to decide on the necessary steps for balancing intonation. Fobes gives some excellent advice on how to measure and document intonation inconsistencies in the article mentioned above.16 Along those lines, clarinetists can keep a written chart of their individual intonation tendencies on hand in rehearsal and practice.
One other essential element to keep in mind is the overall pitch calibration of the involved instruments. Players need to know at what level their instrument and mouthpiece are calibrated (A = 440, 441 or 442). It would be ideal to play on instruments with the same pitch calibration.
In a situation with different instrument calibrations, it is necessary to find a common “middle ground” for tuning with the help of other equipment parts, or by applying balancing procedures. This may initially require some time because of the many parameters involved; adjustments can be made with various mouthpieces, different length barrels, barrels that change the length by rotation or tuning rings. Pulling out or pushing in at the different joints of the clarinet can also provide balance within the instrument. In an extreme case, an instrument maker can make permanent changes to individual notes by working on the tone holes, levers and pads. Some experimentation may need to happen. The idea is to settle the overall tuning in the first stages of collaboration.
Finally, other aspects such as embouchure, attack, and the use of air influence intonation, and it is thus a good practice to get to know your partners’ intonation tendencies. It makes a significant difference to have access to well-maintained equipment, as well as the assistance of talented instrument technicians and knowledge or guidance on tuning procedures, and to be actively listening and adjusting.
Expressing A Common Musical Vision
Depending on the available time frame and the musical scope of the ensemble, discussions on the use of timbre and group sound might arise. What does someone mean by talking about a “dark” or a “brilliant” clarinet sound, and do these sounds only occur in certain instruments? What is influencing the tone color on the clarinet? Which passages might be more or less playable on one or the other clarinet system?
Numerous scholars have published research on the acoustics of the German and French systems, often with a focus on the spectrum of overtones as a characteristic of sound. Jean-Roger Miller,17 Gregg Miller,18 and Miwa Tagaki19 have analyzed the relationships between instrument hardware, mouthpiece-reed-ligature setup, airflow/pressure, and several other factors. More importantly, the studies also show that there is a great importance of the player’s anatomy (cavity of the mouth) and of the use of the airflow that creates acoustical and subjectively heard differences in the sound. Such body of research on the subject can be used as a reference in relation to clarinet acoustics in this setting.
For further performance considerations, it is helpful to know about the concepts of national schools of clarinet playing and the history of literature on both clarinet systems. Instrument makers, performers, and composers all infuse their work with ideas of musical aesthetics which are related to their culture and time. Each of the two clarinet systems has tendencies that reflect their musical environment throughout history.
While all literature can be played on either clarinet system, performers can make choices for ensemble part distribution, knowing the tendencies of each clarinet. For example, some scholars argue that the Boehm clarinet is particularly well-suited for playing French music, with its tendencies to feature agile technical passages. The instrument with its well-projecting and sometimes more brilliant sound would be ideal for highlighting precise lines within a filigreed texture as can be found in many French compositions. The German clarinet, on the other hand, with a full and stable presence, would support the aesthetic of roundness and a bigger sound mass as it appears in some German Romantic compositions.
A lot of creative work can go into exploring the balance of sound within a diverse setting of clarinet timbres. What blend of ensemble sound is appropriate? Does it depend on the musical context? Can these passages inherently call for more homogeneity or more contrast? Can these effects be efficiently produced with the instruments present? What is the influence on the part distribution and seating in the ensemble?
In 2019, I recorded a CD with clarinetist Rolf Weber, principal clarinetist for the Bavarian State Theater at the Gärtnerplatz in Munich, Germany, and pianist Kazue Tsuzuki (Hochschule für Musik, Munich, Germany).20 On this album, we are playing together on clarinets with different systems; the Oehler and Boehm systems.
For our trio collaboration with two different clarinet systems, we chose literature that allows the ensemble to highlight some of these elements. For instance with Iwan Müller’s Duo Concertante in Eb Major, Op. 23, and Carl Baermann’s Duo Concertant, Op. 33 – two German compositions – we had homogeneity of sound and equality of parts as our overall ensemble goal. We placed the German clarinet on the slightly more prominent first part, to highlight the connection with the German clarinet playing tradition. The part features all clarinet registers in elaborate, yet grounded slurred solo lines. At the same time, in Baermann’s composition, there is a bouncy triplet variation with big leaps and interesting articulation in the second clarinet part that sounds effortlessly agile on the Boehm clarinet, a fact that has fit our parts distribution very well.
In the case of Adolphe Leroy’s and Eugene Jancourt’s operatic Duo on Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” arranged by Rolf Weber, our focus for the clarinet encounter was more on featuring differences. The original arrangement for clarinet and bassoon is based on a concept of pairing instruments that contrast from each other in tonal range and expressive characteristics as with different singers’ roles in an opera. Rolf Weber’s arrangement for two clarinets highlights elements of dialogue and interplay between the two clarinet parts. The feel for contrasts is inherent in the music and can be found in the different ranges, roles, and rhythmic material present in the two clarinet parts. Either part is suitable for featuring the German or Boehm clarinet.
My favorite type of setting in the context of different clarinet systems might be passages with repeated music, played by a different clarinetist each time around. In these situations, one can hear the subtle differences that are happening between the notes on each instrument. Both Franz Cibulka’s s’Zwitscherl Für Zwei and Charles Camilleri’s Divertimento No. 1 for Two Clarinets and Piano include such a passage. In these cases, there is perfect equality for each clarinet part and a beautiful idiomatic effect. Any part distribution would be appropriate as well. All in all, our part distribution decisions have been based on personal preferences and with the instruments we were playing in mind.
Just Do It!
With an ever-growing number of education and performance events which include players using different clarinet systems, it appears relevant to be informed about both systems. There is a lot to be discovered and learned for students and professional musicians alike. I can certainly recommend it!
1 Oskar Kroll, “Die Klarinette. Ihre Geschichte. Ihre Literatur. Ihre grossen Meister” (Bärenreiter Verlag, 2001), 66.
2 Stephanie Angloher, “Das deutsche und französische Klarinettensystem. Eine vergleichende Untersuchung zur Klangästhetik und didaktischen Vermittlung” ( “The German and French clarinet system. A comparative study on sound aesthetics and didactic teaching”), Ph.D. diss, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (Munich: Herbert Utz Verlag GmbH, 2007), 232.
6 Angloher, “Das deutsche und französische Klarinettensystem,” 229. (Original text: “…etwas sehr persönliches, als Farbe unserer Stimme, als Schwingungen unserer Seele…“)
8 Angloher, “Das deutsche und französische Klarinettensystem,” 233. (Original text: “Weiterhin aber möchte er im Instrument nicht die Rolle einer gewissen Alibi-Funktion sehen. Für ihn ist es besonders wichtig, dass dem Instrument unsere Seele eingehaucht werden soll.“)
10 Michele Zukovsky, personal communication on combining German and French systems, July 5, 2020.
11 Jozsef Balogh, personal communication on combining German and French systems, May 19, 2020.
12 Angloher, “Das deutsche und französische Klarinettensystem,” 71.
13 Jack Brymer, “Clarinet,” Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides. (Schirmer Books, 1976), 82.
14 Clark W. Fobes, “Tuning and voicing the clarinet. Procedure and techniques,” Clark W. Fobes, 2000. www.clarkwfobes.com/pages/tuning-and-voicing-the-clarinet. Last accessed 7-2-2020.
15 Angloher, “Das deutsche und französische Klarinettensystem,” 71.
16 Fobes, “Tuning and voicing the clarinet.”
17 Jean-Roger Miller, “A Spectrum Analysis of Clarinet Tones,” dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1956.
18 Gregg Miller, “Acoustical Comparison of French and German Clarinets,” The Clarinet, Vol. 1/2 (1992), 24-27.
19 Miwa Takagi, “Wiener Klarinette versus Französische Klarinette” (“Viennese Clarinet Versus French Clarinet”), M.A. thesis, Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien (Vienna, 2000).
20 Barbara Heilmair, with Rolf Weber and Kazue Tsuzuki, s’Zwitscherl – Music for Two Clarinets and Piano (Centaur Records CRC 3837, 2020).
About the Writer
Barbara Heilmair serves as professor of clarinet and music history at Portland State University in Oregon. She holds degrees in instrumental pedagogy (clarinet) and clarinet performance from the “Mozarteum” University of Music and Performing Arts in Salzburg, Austria, as well as M.M. and D.M.A. degrees in clarinet performance from UCLA. She has specialized in clarinet choir teaching and, as a native of Germany, is familiar with both the German and French clarinet systems.