The clarinet is one of the key instruments in classical music and was also prominent in the Big Band movement of the 1940s. It is a single-reed woodwind pitched to B-flat or E-flat. The clarinet is an instrument that took a while to evolve into the sleek piece of boxwood that is widely recognized today.
The precursor to the clarinet was an instrument called the "chalumeau." The chalumeau was a petite woodwind with 7 holes and a range limited to barely more than 1 octave. Because of this limit and the fact that the chalumeau was difficult to play, the instrument was ripe for modification.
The credit for inventing the clarinet usually goes to Johann Christophe Denner, although his son Jakob is often proposed as the real inventor. The date of the process of invention dates back to the late 1600s and early 1700s. The clarinet became the first reed-blown musical instrument with a bore shaped cylindrically rather than having one that was cone shaped.
The first clarinets were made of boxwood and were pitched in C. They had 6 finger holes and 2 keys, though a 3rd key was added not long after. This 3rd key had the effect of extending the range of the instrument. The reed used to play these early versions was 15mm wide and was actually attached to the mouthpiece with a piece of twine.
The clarinet did not become fully accepted into most orchestras until around the middle of the 1700s when 2 more keys were added and the end received its familiar bell shape. Up to this point, the clarinet was mainly used for solo performance. It was not until the 19th century that the instrument became a standard part of the orchestral canon.
The bass clarinet was invented in 1772 by Giles Lot. The modern day bass clarinet, however, traces back to Adolphe Sax's modification introduced in 1838. Sax also was responsible for the saxophone and the bass clarinet actually resembles that instrument more than a traditional clarinet. The bass clarinet never made it as standard orchestral instrument, but it has been utilized for several classic compositions.
Mozart was the first major composer to add music written specifically for the clarinet. His use of the clarinet in his symphonies helped introduced the instrument to classical music. Although he used clarinets sparingly, he actually wrote 3 different musical compositions especially for renowned clarinetist Anton Stadler and his "Clarinet Concerto" remains one of the most important works ever written for the instrument.
Anton Stadler was the first to achieve fame playing the clarinet but hardly the last. Interestingly, many of the most famous clarinet players came to attention not as a result of classic music but because of the affinity for the instrument by jazz composers. One of the most famous names in all of 20th century music is Benny Goodman, who played the clarinet. Others include Pete Fountain, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman.