Stephen Fox



performances and masterclasses




articles and research projects

clarinet making


Mühlfeld's Clarinet

Stephen Fox

The central position of the works of Johannes Brahms and his contemporaries in the clarinet literature, and of late nineteenth century music from Germany, Austria, Russia and Eastern Europe in the orchestral repertoire, make it of interest to clarinetists to know something about the clarinets for which this music was composed and on which it was first heard.

Clarinettists know Carl Baermann as the author of his famous clarinet Method, and as the son of the virtuoso Heinrich Baermann (for whom most of Weber’s clarinet music was written).  A further legacy of Carl Baermann was the design of the Baermann system clarinet, which was the dominant clarinet in the German musical world in the second half of the 19th century, and is the direct ancestor of the instruments used in Germany and Austria today.

The association of the Baermann clarinet with Richard Mühlfeld and hence with the music of Brahms is alone sufficient to make its acquaintance worthwhile.

Origin and conception

Carl Baermann (1810-1885) was born and raised in Munich, living in the shadow of his illustrious father Heinrich.  From an early age Carl played clarinet and basset horn, accompanying his father on several concert tours (the two Konzertstücke for clarinet, basset horn and piano/orchestra by Felix Mendelssohn were composed for such a tour in 1833).  He began playing in the Munich court orchestra as a teenager, succeeding Heinrich as principal clarinet in 1834 and serving in that position until his retirement in 1880.

One of Baermann’s colleagues in the Munich orchestra was the flautist Theobald Boehm (1794-1881).  Beginning in 1812 and culminating in 1847, Boehm systematically and fundamentally transformed the Classical flute into the modern instrument which we know as the flute today.  Baermann followed and admired Boehm’s work; this, along with the inadequacy of existing clarinets to cope with the increasing technical and volume demands of orchestral music, inspired his own quest to develop a new clarinet design.

Not being an instrument maker as Boehm was, Baermann worked with established Munich woodwind builders to realize his ideas, for a time Benedikt Pentenrieder (1809-1849) but primarily Georg Ottensteiner (1815-1879).  The Baermann system clarinet, developed in collaboration with Ottensteiner, was finally patented in 1860.

A primary antecedent of the Baermann clarinet was the pioneering design of Iwan Müller of 1810, with its rationalized lower tone holes, keys mounted on metal posts, pad cups with stuffed pads, and levers for the right thumb.  However, to call the Baermann a “Müller with extra keys”, as some writers have done, is perhaps to overemphasize the stature of the Müller (which is given more prominence in modern books than it actually had in its own time) and to discount unfairly the work not only of Baermann but also of other makers whose ideas were incorporated into Baermann’s design (notably Adolphe Sax, to whom the first use of ring keys on the clarinet is attributed).

The Baermann clarinet can be viewed as the German answer to the so-called “Boehm system” clarinet of 1843 (actually designed by Hyacinthe Eléonore Klosé and Louis-Auguste Buffet; Theobald Boehm himself had nothing to do with it).  In each case, a clarinetist/teacher combined with an instrument maker to produce a modern clarinet which was immeasurably more facile, ergonomic, consistent and powerful than the more primitive instruments that preceded it.  In detail, though, the “Boehm” and Baermann designs provide a revealing comparison of opposite philosophies.

Compared with the clarinets of the Classical and early Romantic periods, the “Boehm” clarinet was virtually unrecognizable, with its fundamentally different fingering pattern, “French” bore shape (with a long, flaring expansion in the lower joint), wider mouthpiece and reed and, within a few years of its introduction, use of tropical blackwood as the body material.  The Baermann clarinet, on the other hand, combined state of the art keywork and proper placement and sizing of the tone holes with as many characteristics of the Classical clarinet as possible:  the traditional fingering pattern, Classical bore shape (with a mostly cylindrical lower joint), small mouthpiece and reed, and boxwood body.  Consequently the Baermann retained much more of the Classical clarinet’s tone and personality than the “Boehm”.  This approach was continued with the Oehler and other German and Austrian designs that succeeded the Baermann from the 1890s onwards:  gradual evolution to address technical deficiencies without tampering with the central character of the clarinet.


The following description applies to the most typical Baermann system clarinets, as defined by those made by Ottensteiner.  Examples from other makers followed this model for the most part.  In addition, some other clarinets built in Germany in the late 19th century, while not being strictly Baermann system, incorporated some of its features.

As mentioned, the body of the Baermann clarinet is made of boxwood (frequently stained dark so that it resembles blackwood, however).  As with modern German clarinets and those of the Classical period, the bore of the upper and lower joints is mostly cylindrical, only expanding out into the bell from just above the bell tenon.  The main bore diameter of various specimens ranges from 14.7 to 15.0mm.

The fingering chart reproduced from Baermann’s original Method is given below.  Besides showing fingerings, it includes an accurate drawing of the clarinet.

The Baermann clarinet is slightly more complex mechanically than the “Boehm”.  There are 21 tone holes and the mechanism has a total of 23 key parts, many of them artistically designed and intricately interconnected, and incorporating numerous thoughtful details.  (Comments in certain English books - for example, Rendall - which dismiss the Baermann system keywork as “crude” or “clumsy” are misguided and cannot have been made with much direct knowledge of the instrument.)  There are ring keys for both the left and right hands.  A particularly commendable point is the use whenever possible of one single tone hole with two different keys instead of separate holes (for example, the right and left hand Eb/Bb keys), an acoustically desirable practice which was forgotten on later German designs.

The fingering is virtually the same as that of modern German or Austrian clarinets, and hence similar to that of the “Albert” or “simple” system, with a couple of significant exceptions:

Firstly, there is usually no upper F/C side key for the right hand (this key does exist on the otherwise Baermann system clarinets of Osterried/Gerlach, however).  This might seem an odd omission, particularly as some earlier clarinets (the Griessling & Schlott played by Heinrich Baermann, for example) had this key; one can only assume that Baermann had a good reason for not including it, partly perhaps an insistence on preserving the left hand second finger F as a primary fingering.  Instead, the F is fingered using a cross key for L2, which in addition is lifted by a longitudinal key for the left hand third finger.

Secondly, the low F#/C# key is articulated, with an auxiliary lever for the right thumb, to allow trills and fast scale passages between E/B and F#/C#.  Though artfully designed, this is less convenient than the “patent C#” used on Oehler and Albert/simple system clarinets.  The low F/C key (like the thumb lever a relic of the Müller clarinet) is cross hinged with the touchpiece on the same side of the hinge as the pad; in practice this works as well as the later, longitudinally hinged design.  Sliding between little finger keys can be largely eliminated courtesy of the thumb lever and alternate left hand levers for Ab/Eb and Bb/F, and by the use of the alternate fork fingering for upper Ab.  The Ab/Eb key is provided with a roller, as are, on most examples, some or all of the four left hand lever keys.

The keys are unplated nickel silver, as opposed to the brass used on earlier instruments (the gold plating on reproductions by one modern maker is not historically authentic).  The keys mostly pivot on nickel silver hinge pins (as on some modern German bassoons), and most have nickel silver flat springs, riveted to the keys.  (Both of these last features could be seen as rather old fashioned, since some French makers had been using steel flat springs and rod screws for decades previously; however, the use of nitric acid for staining the wood makes this avoidance of steel in the mechanism advisable.)

The mouthpiece is made of blackwood (never ebonite); it is small and tapered, more so than a modern German mouthpiece, which in turn is narrower than a French mouthpiece.  The windway is tapered considerably towards the bottom and is somewhat longer than one might expect.  Often there was a silver or nickel silver insert for the table and tip, to prevent the facing from warping.  The reed was tied on with string.

The joint sockets on at least some examples are metal lined (as on modern oboes).  The tenons are wrapped with thread, not cork.

Ottensteiner is the best known maker of the Baermann system clarinet, though there were a number of others, in Munich and elsewhere in Germany.  Examples of other Munich builders are Wilhelm Hess Jr. (1841-1880) and his successors Anton Osterried (1829-1912) and Gottlieb Gerlach (1856-1909); also Martin Lehner (1855-1915).


With any historical instrument, it is of course impossible for us to know exactly how it was played in its day, and what concepts of tone, volume, articulation, etc. were aspired to by the players of the time.  One can only apply what documentary knowledge is available and try honestly to bring out the characteristics that the instrument seems to want to exhibit.  The presence of the continuing and generally conservative tradition of German clarinet building and performance also provides us with a guide to instruments in that tradition.

In the case of the Baermann clarinet, we are aided greatly by the presence of his Method, the Vollständige Clarinett-Schule (see below).

The intonation and evenness of the scale on the Baermann clarinet are close to modern standards, with only a few notes - notably low register A and Bb and second finger middle F, all of which tend to be sharp - needing special attention to play them in tune.  Bottom E and F are somewhat flat, as on most modern clarinets.

The right thumb lever for F#/C# takes some getting used to, and can be awkward when playing standing.  The longitudinal left hand key for middle F also feels strange at first.  Otherwise the fingering technique can be as fluid as on a modern clarinet for a player practiced in non-Boehm systems.  In fact, one comes across passages - for example, the two especially challenging bars in the second movement of the Brahms Quintet - which involve simpler and more economical finger movement on the Baermann clarinet than on the “Boehm” system, once alternate fingerings are exploited.

The mouthpiece, with a facing similar to modern German mouthpieces, feels familiar to players used to the German style of playing, requiring perhaps only a slightly more flexible embouchure and correspondingly softer reeds.

The sound is sweet, clear and compact, encouraging delicacy and subtlety in playing, but capable of power when necessary.  The sweetness stems partly from the general German clarinet characteristics of the largely parallel bore and the greater use of fork fingerings than on the “Boehm” system (most especially high C).  The wooden mouthpiece and boxwood body contribute significantly to the tone quality; having fewer tone holes than modern clarinets might also play a part.  In tone as well as in construction, one could describe the Baermann clarinet as midway between clarinets of Mozart and Beethoven’s time and those of the 20th century.

As is always the case with period instrument performance, playing the music of composers such as Brahms, Reinecke and Gade on the Baermann clarinet, especially with a mid-19th century piano, opens one’s ears to the sounds and textures experienced by contemporary listeners, illuminates the structure and idioms of the music, and demonstrates how intimately composers understood the capabilities of the instruments of their time.  In particular, it brings out of the music the transparency and clarity that too often are obscured by the heaviness of modern instruments.

The Vollständige Clarinett-Schule

Baermann’s famous Method, the VollständigeClarinett-Schule, embodied his lifetime of experience and interest in pedagogy; it was also published in part to explain and promote his clarinet.  Written between 1864 and 1875, it is an extensive and comprehensive work in two main volumes and a number of sections (much more than the volume of technical exercises with which Western clarinettists are familiar).

The first section is text, containing a cursory description of the history of the clarinet and typical 19th century-type nutshell instructions on playing technique and music theory.  Of greater interest, however, is an exhaustive description of all the alternate fingerings available and when and how to use them, which is invaluable for not only learning to play the instrument but also what to aim for when building reproductions.

Also included are progressive studies and a number of solos with piano accompaniment, which are useful to students and teachers of modern clarinets.  These etudes display Baermann’s considerable proficiency as a composer of clarinet music.

The complete Method is available in a modern reprint (in German), published by Johann André Musikverlag, Offenbach-am-Main.  Unfortunately this is a printing not quite of Baermann’s original, but of the 1917 revision by Oskar Schubert for the Oehler system clarinet; the differences, however, are infrequent and obvious enough not to cause confusion.

Richard Mühlfeld

A description of the Baermann system clarinet would be incomplete without mention of its most famous performer, Richard Mühlfeld (1856-1907).

A largely self-taught musician, Mühlfeld played both violin and clarinet.  He joined the court orchestra of the Duke of Meiningen as a violinist, but within a short time his ability as a clarinetist became evident, leading to his appointment as principal clarinet in the orchestra.  He kept this position for the rest of his career, despite being courted by orchestras as far afield as St. Petersburg and Boston.  His later association with Brahms catapulted Mühlfeld into international prominence as a chamber musician, until his premature death.

The story of Mühlfeld’s introduction to Brahms in 1891, leading to the latter’s renunciation of his decision to retire from composing and his inspiration to produce the Trio Op. 114, the Quintet Op. 115 and the Sonatas Op. 120, has often been told.  While this account is perhaps somewhat romanticized, it is quite certain that without the stimulus of meeting Mühlfeld, even if Brahms had composed such significant chamber music at that point in his career, he would never have considered using the clarinet as the central instrument.  It is equally probable that without the example of these works of Brahms, much of the rich 20th century repertoire of solo and chamber music for the clarinet might not have been written.

Mühlfeld’s playing style was apparently quite individualistic and somewhat outside the Germanic tradition of clarinet performance.  In Germany he was lavishly praised; Brahms nicknamed him “Fräulein Klarinette”, “meine Primadonna” and “the nightingale of the orchestra”, and Clara Schumann described his playing as delicate, warm and unaffected, with perfect technique and command of the instrument.  Reports of his concerts in England, however, were at times uncomplimentary, his interpretation, tone and technical execution being called crude and even comical; and in Vienna he was not regarded as equal to the best local clarinetists.  In part at least, these contradictory opinions might have stemmed from Mühlfeld’s reported use of vibrato and his fiery, extroverted approach to performance, both perhaps attributable to his background as a violinist.  (That these characteristics in a clarinettist should arouse admiration in some listeners and hostility in others will not be a surprise to us in the present day!)

Mühlfeld played on Baermann system clarinets built by Ottensteiner from early in his career, and remained faithful to them until the end of his life, despite the fact that by 1907 the design had been superseded by more advanced models such as the Oehler.  A pair of Ottensteiners formerly owned by Mühlfeld and dating from 1875 still survive in the Staatliche Museen in Meiningen.  They were the subject of an article in the May-June 1989 issue of The Clarinet by Nicholas Shackleton and Keith Puddy; in the same year Puddy used the Bb clarinet for a recording of the Brahms Sonatas.


While it is not expected that all clarinettists will actually acquire and perform on historical clarinets, it cannot fail to deepen and enrich our understanding and appreciation of music to know something about the history of our instrument and the characteristics of clarinets from various periods and performing traditions.  It is hoped that this article will help to illuminate this important phase in the evolution of the clarinet.