The Basset Horn Explained

with Jim Moffitt

Date Posted: June 20, 2016

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How did you get experience playing the basset horn?

Jim Moffitt: My first teacher, Harvey Hermann, had a variety of clarinet ensembles that I participated in beginning in high school and continuing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Harvey annually organized large clarinet choir festivals where there were as many as 80 clarinetists (from A-Flat sopranino to B-Flat contra bass) playing together. One of the music professors at the U of I was aware of this interest in clarinet ensemble music and suggested that I, and a couple other clarinet students investigate the basset horn music of Mozart, so we did. The U of I had 3 basset horns and the music library, one of the best in the U.S., had all of the Mozart music, so we presented performances of it. When I moved to Chicago, I played the music there also, with members of the Chicago Symphony. Today, it seems to me that many more clarinetists are playing basset horn, which is great.

When was the basset horn used?

Invented around 1770 by Anton and Michel Mayrhofer, it was pitched a fourth lower than the traditional clarinet (F) and is described to have a rich tone. In the early 1800s, many people would tour around and perform solos. It was an instrument that lived a short life, but when it did here are some pieces that were written for the instrument:

Mozart really liked the sound of the basset horn. So much that he wrote piece specifically for his clarinetist friend, Anton Stadler.

Some pieces written for Stadler include:

·         Serenade for Winds in Bb Major “Gran Partita” K. 361

·         Die Zauberflöte K. 620—An exciting part written for the instrument!

·         La Clemenza di Tito K. 621

·         Requiem in D minor K. 626

·         Other Masonic works

Next we have Felix Mendelssohn:

Heinrich and Carl Baermann talked to Mendelssohn and wanted a piece for that instrument. These two pieces for basset horn, clarinet and piano came out as a result of working with Mendelssohn:

·         Concert Piece No. 1 in F minor, Op. 113

·         Concert Piece No. 2 in D minor, Op. 114

As the orchestra started to grow, the basset horn fell into an obscure use because of its inability to fit in an orchestra. It’s hard to find something until Richard Strauss resurrected the horn in his operas. Here are some of Strauss’s opera examples I know of and have performed:

·         Elektra, Op. 58

·         Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59-- big duet and huge sectional playing.

·         Daphne Op. 82-- big part.

·         Capriccio Op. 85-- beautiful and virtuosic basset part.

On a side note, John Yeh, has done a great job getting pieces written for basset horn. You’d be surprised but there are many composers who still write for it. Looking in today’s clarinet world, the basset horn has a modern design compared to the original instrument—it looks more like an alto clarinet. There is also another instrument, the basset clarinet which is straight and is longer than an A clarinet. 

Do you have any tips?

You just have to get used to it; don’t be afraid! When we first started out at Illinois, the horns needed some attention. Once repaired, it was just like any of the other clarinets, you just have to get familiar. Find a good mouthpiece and you’re all set-to-go. The Vandoren Alto mouthpieces are so consistent. Just try one and see for yourself.

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