German clarinet methods during the first third of the nineteenth century: Backofen, Müller and Blatt.

Los métodos alemanes de clarinete durante el primer tercio del siglo XIX: Backofen, Müller y Blatt.

Cobo, C. Rubio, E.

UAM - Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
UAM - Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

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ABSTRACT: In the early nineteenth century, Europe had a significant number of clarinet teachers, performers, composers, compositions, instrument designs and methods of learning, known by many scholars as “instrumental schools”. The present article focuses on teaching based on the historical and constructive aspects in Backofen’s, Müller’s and Blatt’s methods and examines the foundations of the future “German Clarinet School” from the point of view of these works, with aspects such as the instrument’s evolution throughout time, the playing position, breathing, embouchure, types of articulation, tonalities used and hand-made reeds. Tables and statistical graphics are included to summarize these items.

KEYWORDS: Instrumental teaching, clarinet, Backofen, Müller, Blatt.

RESUMEN: A principios del s. XIX, Europa tenía un importante número de profesores de clarinete, intérpretes, compositores, composiciones, diseños del instrumento y métodos para su enseñanza, conocidos por algunos estudiosos como las "escuelas instrumentales". Los diferentes estilos y formas de tocar el instrumento en estas escuelas fueron reflejadas en sus interpretaciones, que cambiaban dependiendo de su situación geográfica.

El presente artículo se centra en la enseñanza basada en los aspectos históricos y constructivos de los métodos escritos por  Backofen, Müller y Blatt, siendo examinada la fundación de la futura "escuela alemana" desde los punto de vista registrados en estos trabajos.

Particularmente, examinamos aspectos como la evolución constructiva en este tiempo, el lenguaje musical trabajado, la respiración, embocadura, tipos de articulación, uso de los registros, el proceso manual de elaboración de cañas, la expresión musical, los ornamentos y la transposición.

PALABRAS CLAVE: Enseñanza instrumental, clarinete, métodos, Backofen, Müller, Blatt.

1. Introduction

Throughout clarinet history, several instrument "schools" have existed. These schools have been renowned for their famous performers, various different teaching methods and use of the same language.

Most of the top performers from Germany and its surrounding areas played concerts all across Europe and were published in French or Italian, with the exception of Backofen. The majority of studies already published in this field can be divided into two groups: historical and educational.

Authors of studies with a historical focus include P. Weston (1971), who made an exhaustive collection of performers, virtuosos, composers and clarinet teachers throughout history. J.M. Diago (2006) wrote an exceptional article describing Müller’s system in detail and, at a later date, E. Hoeprich (2008) expanded works published by Weston and Rice on the history and historical development of the clarinet.

P. Weston (1976) published a book dedicated to teaching the clarinet. In this same area, I. Pearson (1999) also carried out a study on the history of the embouchure. As part of a study on the German school, S. Köhler (1997) and A. Rice respectively carried out analyses and translations into English of Backofen’s and Müller’s methods.

Our research aims to analyse the evolution and influence of the German Clarinet School as a primary and archetypal way of teaching. It also aims to ascertain the technical developments and interpretive contributions of this school in that it defined a kind of sound and certain technical aspects that are considered characteristic of German technique.

We used translations and analyses to give us an idea of the different approaches adopted by different authors when it came to theoretical, technical and interpretive aspects. We then carried out a qualitative study to identify which had been used by each author. Tables and statistical studies are included to check and demonstrate the different uses of the aspects studied about clarinet position, breathing, embouchure position, tonalities use, articulation or registers.

Finally, focusing on quantitative methodology, we elaborated a study of the percentage use of specific resources that were common to all methods to ascertain the importance given to them by different authors.


2. Historical aspects.

Through illustrations, the section on historical aspects examines several clarinet fingering charts which show the evolution from Backofen’s classical clarinet model of five keys to Muller’s of thirteen. Blatt presents the instrument in a similar way to Lefèvre, and the French author shows the upper joints or corp de réchange.

Advances made on the classical clarinet led to the instrument becoming one capable of playing in all tonalities and whose evolution we will see through statistical studies.

Backofen was one of the few European artists of this period who dealt with the study of the basset horn, highlighting the problems that came with tuning the instrument. He proposed the study of pitch and its correction by pressure or relaxation of the embouchure, widening or reducing a specific hole and studying the violin. He also described how to maintain and clean the instrument.

Within the historical context of his time, Backofen explained that both composers and performers lacked a thorough understanding of the instrument. Many of the performers were originally oboists or played the recorder.

Backofen recommended that composers should have previous knowledge of the capabilities of the instrument before letting their imaginations run wild, composing pieces that were impossible to play.

The author demanded full dedication from the performer in order to achieve the passage’s full potential. He also emphasised the register of the instrument, which was established from E2 to C5.

Backofen performed a preview of this statistical study of tonalities to be displayed later, explaining that the tonalities most used in the classical clarinet were G, D, A. Bb, and Eb major. These tonalities were used to avoid the notes with a dull sound or the absence of a homogeneous register in another scale or mode due to the instrument’s structure. In order to use these tonalities and see the different fingering positions adopted to reach these notes, the chromatic clarinet fingering scale included by the author can be consulted on page 10.

Müller did not include theoretical explanations, offering a brief and straight-forward method to provide complete instruction on how to play the clarinet. Other methods such as that of Lefèvre already included such explanations. Like Backofen, he included a chromatic fingering chart scale with all the new positions and keys that allowed the execution of these notes. Due to new keys, the author focused on the possibilities of implementing the instrument tuning. The main advantage of his clarinet was that it was able to play all tonalities. The classical model depended on the upper joints.

Blatt contributed a third point of view to the historical and theoretical perspectives of earlier methods: the aesthetic education of the student through fragments composed by the author or his contemporaries such as Spohr, Weber or Cartellieri. Blatt believed that the ideal student should have a good ear, a strong physique with a developed chest, good teeth, well-formed lips, a strong and tough mouth, good lungs and medium to thick fingers.

He advised students to begin studying the clarinet at the age of eleven or twelve. As Backofen had previously, Blatt included a brief explanation of the health care practices that should keep the clarinettist in good health. He also documents a very important historical fact: the invention of the clarinet in 1701 by J. C. Denner, explaining that he did not know if that particular instrument was pitched in A, Bb or C. This date was six years before the death of the conductor, who was based in Nuremberg.


3. Clarinet playing position

The only illustrations we have of how to pick up the clarinet appears in Lefèvre’s method in France, Blatt’s in Germany, and The Clarinet instructor, Willman and Hopkinson in England. The recommended position was generally to hold the elbows high, a position most common to oboists, who were the first to play the instrument, although in Germany elbows were held lower so that the mouthpiece could be placed with reed downwards as we will see in these different methods.



Table 1 – Evolution of position.


4. Breathing

Breathing was treated in the methods studied from three different perspectives: the position, the physical and interpretive. Backofen explained breathing through practice, starting with long notes structured exercises grouped in pairs of 2, 4 and 8 bars. These bars ended with a long figure. It was recommended that these were cut to allow for a breath. Later, he used structures of 3 and 5 bars to finish with 6 and 8, developing lung capacity.

Müller’s exercises are not designed to develop this capability. The author based his work on the presentation of technical advances which involved the patent of his instrument. The structure of the phrases were in many cases more than ten bars, with very short notes and did not allow for any rests or pauses between them.



Table 2 – Summary of breathing aspects.


5. Clarinet embouchure

Embouchure is an important aspect studied throughout clarinet history. The most important difference throughout Europe was that German performers were ahead of their time in being the first to place the reed downwards. The position of the lips usually depended on their proximity to the ligature.


Table 3 – Embouchure position.


Backofen offered a brief explanation of this aspect without demonstrating agreement or disagreement with positioning the reed upwards or downwards. He claimed that he had heard very good musicians who used either of these two methods, attributing success to the custom of playing and achieving a good sound. Only this method allows the performer to choose the most useful position for himself.

Another way to see how the reed was placed is through the illustrations of the methods. In three figures, Backofen included two clarinet fingering charts and a basset horn. Although the author proposed two possible embouchure types according to habit or taste, in all three figures the reed was placed in an upward position.

Müller expressed no preference over the placement of the reed, but proposed solutions to achieve more or less sound through the embouchure. The author suggested solving this problem by playing around three lines with the mouthpiece further in or out of the mouth to increase or decrease the volume. He explained that the mouthpiece could also be responsible for achieving better tuning with a correct barrel.

Continuing with these positions, the author recommended taking the mouthpiece in deeper for more sound in the upper register. Furthermore, the mouth was responsible for colour changes in the musical expression.

The author then explained that if the recommended position for the two or three lines was not respected and little embouchure was adopted, the sound produced would be poor and narrow. If the mouthpiece was taken too far into the mouth, on the other hand, the performer would produce uncontrolled sounds unpleasant to the listener.

In response to the method’s illustrations, Müller preferred place the reed downwards. Finally, it was recommended that this position was more natural and produced no unpleasant or troublesome feelings amongst the public who listened.

In Blatt’s method, the clarinet reed appears placed downwards. He explained after this illustration that the upper lip enveloped the teeth and should not touch the mouthpiece.

Following Vanderhagen’s explanations offered at the time in France, Blatt proposed a kind of muscular training related to the mouth to avoid fatigue of the lips. The author attributed the purity of sound of the instrument to a good placement of the lips on the mouthpiece, obtaining a full and secure sound.

To control registers, Blatt suggested taking the mouthpiece deeper into the mouth to obtain more control over high notes, following the previous suggestion offered by Müller. One drawback of placing the reed upwards was that the upper lip suffered more and the performer could not keep a relaxed face because the upper lip was smaller and less able to cover the teeth easily.


6. Articulation

Diction was adapted by the German language to the position of the tongue when pronouncing the syllables TI and DI. The rest of Europe followed the French influence with the syllables TU, TE and DE. Articulation was worked on in all registers from the beginning, unlike some methods, such as that of Blasius in France who chose to work from C3 to G3. Other proposals in this period included that of Vanderhagen who suggested working with the mouthpiece only.


Table 4 – Articulation use and types.


Included in the German methodology’s treatment of articulation are the mouthpiece position, explained above, conditioned articulation types and the way in which emission was worked upon. Backofen explained that there were three main types of articulation: the tongue, lips and throat. The first of the three seems to be the most natural. The other two methods were rejected because of how difficult they made it to acquire speed. Furthermore, articulating with the throat was less natural. This problem was solved with the tongue.

Although this statistical study indicates the use of articulation, the authors could not include this aspect due to the resistance offered by the reed or the difficulty of adapting it to the student's progress. Backofen recommended leaving composers greater freedom for the performer to give the piece the musical feeling they saw fit. He included various explanations of how to do this and provided practical lessons.

He was also one of the authors who focused most on this aspect, summarising the principal ways of articulating, in groups of 3, 4 and 6 notes.

Müller explained that he considered it a mistake to believe that the quality of a good sound and a coup de langue depended on the mouth position adopted by the performer.

The major determinants of this position were whether the reed faced upwards or downwards and how the lips were positioned. In the latter aspect, lips covered the mouthpiece to a greater or lesser degree. If the lips covered the mouthpiece less, the final contact of the tongue on the reed would change.

Articulation was presented as an aesthetic resource, recommending moderate use to achieve a good effect. Excessive use could become unbearable if performed continuously. The abuse could lead to a cooler musical colour and remove liveliness and spontaneity. Finally, the author recommended listening to a violin in order to imitate this instrument in the execution of legato and staccato.

Blatt defined clarinet articulation compared with the movement of bow string instruments. In this way, the author distanced himself from the tendency to articulate with lips and blow air. This explanation was already reflected in French methods such as those written by Vanderhagen and Blasius.

Unlike the above, Blatt established a tongue movement other than a coup de langue. This movement allows or closes the air through the tube. He also insisted on coordination between fingers and tongue for a correct execution.



7. Registers

German methods tended to work on the combination of registers. Specific sections were dedicated to the middle register, as in Backofen, probably due to the soloist role of the clarinet in the orchestra at this time. Major tonalities predominated over the minor ones, especially at the beginning of this period. This was mainly due to the absence of keys.

The first exercises used were based on the scale degrees in C major including some thirds in long figures. Afterwards, arpeggios and dominant sevenths were added in different inversions. Later the work was done on tonal degrees I, IV and V of tonalities that did not exceed more than three accidentals.


Fig. 1 – Registers


Müller emphasised the use of minors, because their patent aimed to make it clear that the clarinet could be played in all tonalities. Most keys were added due to the interest of performers, composers and constructors to increase the difficulty of passages.


Fig. 2 – Tonalities used


Fig. 3 – Major tonalities used


Fig. 4 – Minor tonalities used


Amongst the major tonalities, the most used were C, G, F and D, conditioned for the first keys added to the instrument. Although the minor mode was less used, Müller included each and every one in order to demonstrate the value of his instrument in this respect.

Müller’s study suggested getting to know all tonalities to achieve a wide variety of sounds. He continued in the same area as Backofen, using chords in all tonalities and possible registers. For passages that involved key liaison difficulties, he advised that they be numbered and recommended adopted exact positioning.

Blatt proposed a rationalised learning of intervals. The author began with the study of major and minor scales in all tonalities in semibreves. As a novelty, in the study of the scale, he added a second voice performing melodic accompaniment as counterpoint.

Then, the work was structured according to series of intervals, studying thirds, fourths, fifths and eighths perfects, and sixths, sevenths majors. Later, he would add the ninth and tenth intervals. Such exercises would be transposed in all tonalities.


8. Handmade reeds

When it came to reeds German authors opted for a flexible and easy material, following the advice of the rest of Europe. They established general guidelines to define a good reed. Backofen and Blatt were two of the few authors that included a brief explanation on how to make a reed, including several images of the reed-making process. It is important to remember here that the invention of the reed machine dates back to 1869.


Table 5 – Reed process and materials


9. Conclusions

To conclude, German methods were the great alternative to the methodologies of France and the rest of Europe. Müller proposed the system of 13 keys as an alternative to Lefèvre’s system of 6, before Buffet’s and Klosé’s system of movable rings. These authors wrote about other instruments from the family, as important at that time as the basset horn.

German authors continued to eliminate theoretical content from the teaching of music, as did other European authors at the time, and adopted a body positioning with the elbows held lower, due to the placement of the reed downwards. This position was adopted by the rest of Europe a few years later.

Breathing was studied from three perspectives: the position, the physical and interpretive. Other European methods were not so accurate in this aspect.

In terms of articulation, diction was adapted to the German language to the beat of tongue when articulating the syllables TI and DI. France and other countries, on the other hand, proposed TU, DE and TE.

The use of a variety of tonalities was stimulated by the Müller design of 13 keys, which attempted to prove the great capabilities of his new instrument in terms of execution.

Both Blatt and Backofen explained how to make a reed manually, as had been briefly described previously by Lefèvre in France and then by Romero in Spain.         



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Blazich, J.M. (2009). An English Translation and Commentary on Amand Vanderhagen’s "Méthode nouvelle et raisonnée pour la clarinette " (1785) and "Nouvelle méthode de clarinette" (1799): A Study in Eighteenth-Century French Clarinet Music. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press.

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            (1977). More clarinet virtuosity in the past. London: Halstan & Co. Ltd.

Reference According to APA Style, 5th edition:
Cobo, C. Rubio, E. ; (2018) German clarinet methods during the first third of the nineteenth century: Backofen, Müller and Blatt.. Convergências - Revista de Investigação e Ensino das Artes , VOL XI (21) Retrieved from journal URL: