The alto clarinet, extremely similar to the bassett horn, is an overlooked member of the clarinet family. Pitched in Eb (a middle C played on this clarinet sounds the same as a Eb a sixth lower on the piano) this clarinet is not to be confused with a soprano clarinet, which is sometimes called an Eb clarinet.
There is a similar instrument pitched in F, which gives us the clarinet known as a basset horn. The other difference is that the basset horn does not have a curved neck like the alto. This instrument is often played using a neck strap since it is 32 inches long.
The alto and basset horn has never really been popular with composers of any era, though Mendelssohn wrote concert pieces including the basset horn with the Bb clarinet, and it was also included in compositions by Mozart and Richard Strauss.
The alto version of the clarinet has been overlooked by modern composers for various reasons. One is that this clarinet is particularly hard to play and keep in tune. There is also the consideration that modern developments mean that the regular clarinet and bass clarinet are agile enough to cover a huge range, making the alto and basset horn obsolete.
Today the alto version of the clarinet is mainly used in military bands and clarinet-only ensembles (clarinet choirs). The basset horn is usually used in playing 18th century music on authentic instruments. Often parts originally scored for the basset horn are now played on an alto
version of the clarinet.
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