A Divine International Reform-ation...or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Buffet: Part II

While the last entry was devoted entirely to the Buffet Divine, this one will cover the remaining two instruments referenced in the title, the Peter Eaton “International” and the Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm model 187. (It turns out I had a lot more to say about the Divine than I thought I did!)

One of the most wonderful things about what I do for a living is that because I travel so extensively, I am frequently able to try out instruments that I never, ever would get my hands on otherwise. My recent trip to Japan provided me with several opportunities to try out instruments on my gearhead bucket list, and one of those instruments was the Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm clarinet. The Wurlitzer clarinet is absolutely LEGENDARY in the clarinet world, and has been the de facto instrument of choice for German clarinetists for generations. I have been fortunate enough to try out two different sets of Wurlitzer Oehler system clarinets over the last decade or so, and the reputation is well deserved. The build quality is second to none, and the wood they use is beautifully aged and dense. These days, of course, there are many more clarinet makers than there used to be, even in the world of the Oehler system, but Wurlitzer is still top of the heap, and their Boehm system clarinets are no less impressive.

I don't want this to turn into too much of a drudge-laden history lesson in the development of the clarinet, so I'm going to operate under the assumption that if you're reading this, you are at the very least aware of the difference between Boehm and Oehler system clarinets, and that you know that the clarinet that you and I and every high school band kid in America plays is a Boehm one. The Reform-Boehm clarinet is an effort to merge the facile key system of the Boehm clarinet (with additions and improvements that were originally part of the design, but removed in the early 20th century in a bid to simplify the mass production of the clarinet) with the dark, focused, rich, powerful, colorful sound of the German Oehler system clarinet. It is of course a matter of personal taste, but I find that the inherent tonal quality of the German clarinet to be vastly superior to that of the French clarinet. Wurlitzer's website has a lovely article on the Reform system, complete with musical examples of the improved functionality of the mechanism, which you can read here:


When I was in Tokyo, I went to a shop called Dolce, which is something of a paradise for woodwind junkies. In the clarinet salon, they had a set of Wurlitzer RB clarinets, in Bb, A and Eb, just BEGGING to be tried. I immediately commandeered the Bb and sequestered myself in a trial studio, whipped out my trusty Vandoren B40D German mouthpiece (my Old Faithful!) and went to town. With the very first note I blew, I was in love. Like, crazy scary restraining-order Tony-and-Maria kind of love. The focus in the sound is laser-like, but it's a dark, heavy-cored kind of sound. If it were visible, I'd expect the sound to be a dark velvety royal purple color. (Kind of like a Crown Royal bag, but in light saber form...) It played almost freakishly evenly throughout the entire range of the instrument, with absolutely no change in tonal character from the bottom to the top. It took a few minutes of conscious work to play without the automatic embouchure compensation one gets used to on one's own clarinet, but once I relaxed into it and found the right combination of airflow and embouchure control, the thing just sang. The intonation is EXCELLENT on this instrument. So much so that it almost felt incorrect...I was CERTAIN that the upper clarion was flat, but turning on the strobe tuner proved that to be most untrue. I think we're just so used to feeling and hearing that register of the clarinet sharp and having to compensate for it that NOT having to do that just seems...wrong. The solidity and darkness of the upper clarion and lower altissimo was also quite a unique experience. It just doesn't get thin up there!

The keywork on this clarinet is really what makes you realize that you're playing something quite different. The rollers on the right hand pinky keys, the wraparound speaker key, the left hand Eb/Ab, the resonance keys on the lower joint, the elongated RH1 Eb/Bb touchpiece, the double F/C toneholes...it's a mechanical masterpiece, and it isn't even the fullest system Wurlitzer has to offer. This particular model was lacking the LH3 ring on the upper joint, the C#/G# trill extension and the low E/F correction mechanism found on the model 185. Even so, I'd take it in a heartbeat :) The rollers between C/F and Eb/Ab are priceless, and extending the Bb/Eb side key makes its use completely reflexive and natural.

I do have to say, however, that the placement of the (fixed) thumbrest was almost agonizing, and caused me to have to stop a few times and shake out my hand because it was cramping so badly. It was almost comically high up on the lower joint. If I were ever fortunate enough to own one of these instruments, the VERY first thing I would do would be to replace the thumbrest with an adjustable one.

I recorded a short video of my experience with the instrument, and I think it's clear almost from the very first note that this is a very special clarinet indeed, and anybody who is interested in thinking a bit outside the box and exploring a different sound should very much consider getting their hands on one of these babies and giving it a try!

The last clarinet in this trifecta of awesome is the Peter Eaton International model. Many of you may not be terribly aware of Peter's instruments, but they are widely played in England, and are in fact direct descendants of the famed Boosey and Hawkes 1010 clarinets that the entire English school of clarinet playing was founded on. Peter makes 2 models of clarinet, the “Elite” and the “International”. Those of you who are familiar with the English school of clarinetting know that they use very large-bored instruments which have an almost unnaturally smooth, dark, beautiful (if somewhat inflexible) sound. Emma Johnson, Gervase de Peyer, and Reginald Kell are some of the most well-known players in this tradition. (All of whom, by the way, play or played either a B&H 1010 or a Peter Eaton). The Eaton “Elite” model is the traditional large-bore English clarinet, with the lovely creamy sound, and is totally incompatible with the mouthpieces that we Americans are used to using on our Buffets and Selmers. For this reason, he created the “International” model, with the more common smaller French-style bore, but retaining the thick walls and design features of the Elite (which are in turn based on the Boosey and Hawkes clarinets) such as the ringless flat-edged bell, the wide, flat tenon rings, and the “fingernail file” crosshatched textured LH F/C key.

This instrument (I tried out an A clarinet on this visit, btw, not a Bb. The only Bb they had was an Elite) is probably one of the top 5 A clarinets I have ever picked up, and was a revelation of tone color and legato playing. From bottom to top, it was rich and smooth, as though the sound were made of heavy whipping cream, and as near as I could tell in the confines of the trial room, capable of an enormous amount of projection despite the darkness of the sound. (I know, I know...THAT word again!) I was a bit worried that this incredible sound would come at the expense of response, but that turned out to be unfounded. Staccato playing was nearly effortless, which is surprising for an instrument of such weight, both tonal and physical. (This is a HEAVY clarinet. Like, Selmer Recital-heavy.)

The keywork is extremely solid and was very, very, very heavily silver plated. I cannot imagine anybody EVER managing to eat through the plating on this baby! The textured F/C lever was a nice touch, and I find the flat style rings to be quite beautiful. The wood was also very dense and beautifully tight-grained.

Intonation was very, very good throughout the range, with only a slight bit of flatness in the altissimo which was very easily dealt with. Low E and F were rather noticeably flat at large dynamics, but...it's a clarinet, so there you go. Intervallic response was top-tier, and upper register spoke very cleanly with a lovely lyric quality, rather like a fine dramatic soprano. (More Damrau than Dessay, if you know what I mean.)

I actually can't really think of any negative criticisms about this particular clarinet, save that the weight might be prohibitive to small players, or clarinetists with hand/wrist/forearm problems. Then again, that's what neckstraps are for, eh? :-)

As always, dear readers, I've made a little video demo for you. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed playing it, and I do hope that you get a chance to play one yourself someday! 

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