Clarinetists around the world have recently been discovering that engagement with early instruments can radically expand their musical horizons. Taking account of original conditions of performance (insofar as they can be determined) has the capacity to bring significant new perspectives to a player's artistic life. Different historical clarinets present satisfying technical challenges, and their range of response can be a visceral experience, both physically and aesthetically. In particular, one might want to argue that the nuances available from most early clarinets (or copies) are well-nigh impossible to match on the modern instrument. Perhaps the very design of the familiar Boehm instrument encourages a tonal homogeneity that has diminished the clarinet's rhetorical potential.
As historical performance has become more widespread, the remarkable popularity of the modern clarinet is gradually being matched by its historical counterparts. Furthermore, it has become increasingly difficult to sustain the argument that period instruments are somehow more difficult to play within their own idiomatic repertoire. At the same time, it must be admitted that some fluent players of Boehm-system clarinets have been content to overload their early clarinets with anachronistic mechanisms and to pay scant attention to matters of style. Indeed, each period clarinetist, unwittingly or otherwise, establishes an individual position on a spectrum that ranges from historical fidelity to practical expediency. Some clarinetists have a genuine love of old instruments, while others have wanted to get as close as possible to the aesthetic of modern instruments—disguised in boxwood.
In any case, opportunities now exist to commission copies of various types of early clarinets and to perform a range of repertoire using instruments that come close to what a composer would have known. Given sufficient dedication, any experienced and open-minded player can achieve technical command over a wide range of clarinets.
Investigating the Past: The Evolving Panorama
More than a century ago the French instrument maker and musical pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch remarked in his seminal book, “we can no longer allow anyone to stand between us and the composer.” The movement he helped to found has been well documented in Harry Haskell's The Early Music Revival, an account of the activities of musicologists, editors, publishers, makers, collectors, curators, dealers, librarians, performers, teachers, and record producers.