Albert System Clarinet, in a nutshell

image Terry Stibal, an accomplished musician and historian, regales us at the Woodwind Forum with yet another synopsis from the musical world. The pictures are from the Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments.

A long time ago, there was this guy named Anton Muller. Ol’ Tony was the first really innovative clarinetist who looked at the original horn (with perhaps four or five keys) and decided that he or someone could do better. As a result, he (or someone else) “rationalized” the clarinet, adding a number of “extra keys” at that time, and produced a clarinet that, if not completely capable, was pretty capable of playing in all keys.

image From that starting point, the two main clarinet “systems” were launched. Once the resistance of the various “official” boards that governed music at a national level was overcome, the new instrument (let’s call it the “simple” clarinet) rapidly displaced the older, cross fingered to the nines horns.

Closeup pics of the systems:

(Incidentally, Tony was also the one responsible for the screw ligature. Prior to that it was string, string and more string.)

Then, a fellow by the name of Klose (you may have heard of him) decided that he could do better. He reworked the Muller clarinet, adding the system of axles, rings, and relocated tonehole openings that was pioneered by Boehm, the flute perfecter. In doing so, there were two major differences introduced in what became known as the Boehm clarinet (more properly the Klose/Boehm, but let’s not split hairs).


On the Boehm version of the clarinet (pretty much set in stone since the 1830’s), the elimination of cross fingerings resulted in the left thumb equals F natural and first finger equals Bb scheme that you know and love. This in turn meant that the two “fundamental scales of the horn” (F major and C major with the register key) were a straight progression up the horn (lifting one finger after another, without any diversions). And, that’s where the Boehm clarinet remains today, with detours like the Mazzeo best left unsaid.

image Meanwhile, the Mueller clarinet didn’t remain static. Through various makers, additions were added to the “original clarinet”, mostly as improvements. (One of the major ones, the so-called “patent C#” would be useful on a Boehm horn if anyone offered it.) As these improvements were added, certain makers (including one Albert, a French or Belgian maker) became associated with certain sets and thus was born the Albert “system”.

Like Boehm clarinets, Albert horns come in various forms with additional keys, higher quality of manufacture, and so on. Unlike Boehm horns, made by a variety of firms, the “Albert” system, really just a significant improvement to the Mueller clarinet, became associated with just the one firm. At one point, most of the makers made “Albert” horns, including Selmer, Buffet, Noblet, and (I think) B&H.

These days, they are seldom made. The last one that I have heard of was a replacement made for Woody Allen. His prized Albert horn cracked through and through, and the manufacturer (do doubt at great expense) produced a new one. Other than that, they are not being made from new these days.

But wait, there’s more. Several German manufacturers went a few steps further. One Oskar Oehler took the Mueller clarinet to its ultimate conclusion, creating something that is often called the “Oehler system” in the process. While similar to the Albert horn, the Oehler instruments incorporate extra keys, venting and some perverse “improvements” that have led to a clarinet that is the “same” while at the same time is quite different.

On all three “systems”, a Bb is a Bb (on a Bb pitch horn). However, there are differences. One is the infamous sharp facility offered by the Albert/Oehler horns. In effect, it’s easier to play in sharp keys on one, this due to the fork fingerings that are retained (albeit in modified form). There’s no thumb ring on the “German style” horns, and thumb down gives you F#, not F. Ditto the right hand; first finger down is B natural, not Bb. Sort of like the sax on the left hand, but not at all like the sax for the right.

The other is the very obvious non-duplication of the little finger keys. Instead, you have the patent C# and a couple of other alternatives. Not as facile as a Boehm, and neither measure up to a full Boehm.

(This may be one of the advantages seen in the Albert by some saxophone players; those Albert little finger keys look a hell of a lot like those on a sax. However, if I had my druthers, I’d opt for the Boehm if I was playing only one horn; it’s a lot simpler than is the Albert/Oehler.)
And, there are other differences. Bore sizes are different; an Albert blows “more freely” than does a Boehm. The Boehm and the Albert take a different mouthpiece than does the Oehler; the Oehler uses a very tight lay and a very hard reed.

Finally, the cost. You can pick up a decent cheap Boehm horn, either student, intermediate or pro, on the secondary market. You can pick up an Albert horn, either student or pro, on eBay, but it’s going to be as old as Methusila, and it will almost certainly require a rebuild. You can purchase a German (“Oehler”) clarinet, in one of many different models, but it’s usually going to cost you a lot more.

Nothing is “wrong” (per se) with any one of the three “systems”. There have been spectacular players on all three horns. For example, Lazarus, he of the method books and long tenure as a top British clarinetist, played the Albert horn to the day of his death. (That’s one of the reasons that there are several odd etudes in his method; they were written with Albert fingering issues in mind, and thus don’t really seem to be up to the difficulty level on the Boehm horn.)

However, for the last ninety years or so, almost all clarinet players outside of Germany, Austria, Russia and (in part) The Netherlands have been taught on the Boehm. The Albert has slowly faded (except for the occasional outlier like me) until it’s sort of like Welsh – spoken by a few but for the most part ignored. Meanwhile, in their own little Teutonic ghetto, “German style” players keep the Oehler horn (and its simpler cousins) alive and very well.

Now, what about the Romero clarinet? Wanna know about that one?

Terry L. Stibal
Leader, Sounds Of The South Dance Orchestra
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About Gandalfe

Just an itinerant saxophonist trying to find life between the changes. I have retired from the Corps of Engineers and Microsoft. I am an admin on the Woodwind Forum, run the Seattle Solid GOLD Big Band (formerly the Microsoft Jumpin' Jive Orchestra) a GOLD sax quartet, and enjoy time with family and friends.
This entry was posted in Clarinet, Collectable, Music Instruments, Vintage. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Albert System Clarinet, in a nutshell

  1. Pingback: Top Ten Post (since I moved from Windows Spaces) | The Bis Key Chronicles

  2. Ray Kireilis says:

    Enjoyed your page.
    I am looking for a playable Albert. Other than ebay, do you have any suggestions?

  3. Gandalfe says:

    You often see them listed on the clarinet bboard, sax on the web, and woodwind forums sites. You can also do a search such as:

  4. John Dawson says:

    I picked up a beauty…an ebonite boosey and hawkes low pitch model which I had refurbished with leather pads. I love it. I play it with a vandoren m30 mouthpiece and it’s bang in-tune.

  5. Ed says:

    Hi – Alberts are still highly prized by players of Greek, Turkish and Romany music – Saleas, Selendrini, Cagri, Pazarentzis etc., and a vintage Buffet Albert fetches a hefty price. Modern makers include Hammerschmidt, Ozdemir, and Amati. Alive and well!:) Nice article!

  6. Troy Thornton says:

    I picked up a pair of Buffet Alberts at a second hand store out in the middle of nowhere on the tip from somebody who saw them. I Bought the pair in their original case from 1888 for $100.00 and my repairman is now in the process of doing a complete overhaul on the A. They don’t have upper and lower joints, but rather one joint with a separate barrel and bell. I have looked on Ebay, but rarely see any old clarinets that are restorable. I do have a couple Boehms (A and Bb) that I found on Ebay (1914) that I currently play, but I was lucky. Those had a complete overhaul too, and fortunately they turned out to have a fairly good sound. I like to keep them as authentic as possible and do not polish the keys. In my view, polishing the keys would ruin them.

  7. miko sloper says:

    german eBay often has some sweet horns for sale. same for UK eBay.
    i love my albert-system C-clarinet.
    can anybody fill in the story of the difference in bore between albert and boehm? and why the difference in “blowing freely” (what does this mean?)

  8. jj says:

    The name of the guy is not Anton Muller but Iwan Muller . A clarinetist from lettonia.

  9. Eberhard says:

    this guy’s name was indeed “Iwan Müller”, he was born in the hanseatic city Reval (called Tallin today), but he spoke German most of his time (some Russian, too, French and English), had German parents and considered himself to be German – and at that time that was perfectly normal. Mozart wouldn’t have said he was “Austrian” either… Müller lived in the Baltics, in Germany, Russia, started a factory in France, worked in the UK etc and died in Bückeburg (Germany)

  10. Barrie Marshall says:

    My No1 clarinet is an Albert System, I also play Boehm System, I bought my instrument off Ebay, when it arrived it had no serial number, no makers name and a plastic barrel, not the original, it did not fit correctly leaving a slight gap between it and the upper joint, I thought it would be awful, I put my Vandoren 5JB mouthpiece on it and was blown away by the sound it made, a big sound and fine in the upper register and higher, the top F is perfectly in tune as is rest of the instrument.

  11. Pingback: Romero System Sax and Clarinet, in a Nutshell | The Bis Key Chronicles

  12. Dennis L Maher says:

    I have played saxes for 50 years and struggled to be able to finger a Boehm clarinet. Last month I studied various Albert and German clarinets because of my love for New Orleans music. I bought a good Paul Dujardin (1918-1929?) 4 ring Albert system Bb LP clarinet. I have been playing for a week and love it. It takes practice to learn the fingering variants, but having only one way to play C/F, B/E, and C#/F# is such a relief. I used to play a lot of recorder, so the forked B and F, and thumb F# don’t bother me too much. Let’s see if I can switch back and forth to and from sax without making stupid mistakes.

  13. Barrie Marshall says:

    I posted earlier, I dug out my pair of E.J. Albert clarinets freom under the bed a couple of weeks ago, I have been playing my Selmer Centeredtone Boehm for some time now, my Bb Albert sounds magnificent, I have no idea why I stopped playing it, tone and projection are great and the bottom E makes the building shake, I was given them some years ago by a gentleman who was much older than me on the stipulation I played them, If I didn’t he would want them back as they were a gift from his deceased wife, I’m playing the Bb Frank!

  14. Werner Bläser says:

    Maybe we should mention that a german system (- on which I learnt to play clarinet – still have one) and the Albert system are not the same. The fingering might be the same. But the tone is different (because of a different bore??). German system clarinets produce a typical soft, almost fuzzy sound which is apt for classical music exclusively. An Albert has a very sonorous, almost sharp sound, particularly in the low region. You could never play Sidney Bechet’s “Blue Horizon”, or similar pieces, on a german system or a Boehm. It would sound very disappointing.

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