The sound of the American Clarinetist, Part 1

“This very fine vintage Bb clarinet mouthpiece from Selmer has a story behind it. It is a unique model designed specifically for legendary Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Clarinetist Ralph Mclane. It dates from the 1940’s and is in excellent condition. I was told that Mclane would carry them around with him in his jacket pocket while the orchestra was on tour. After concerts, when admirers would come up to him backstage or at the bar, they would frequently complement him on his glorious sound and ask him what mouthpiece he played on that night. He would pull one of these Selmers out of his pocket and say “here it is. I’ll let you have it for that Chedeville in your case. Having said all that, this is a very nice mouthpiece with a lighter, more Chedeville-like quality than most Selmers. The “HS” is still visable on the table indicating that it has not been refaced, but some minor work has been done to balance the rails near the tip. The piece has great response and takes the air well and has a very pretty sound. This is rare and unique item and a worthy part of your collection as well as an affordable player. Good luck!”
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So sayeth the Ebay ad for this mouthpiece, perhaps worth 10 or 15 dollars, but an amusing tribute to the legend of the American Clarinet Sound and one of the prime creators of that sound, Ralph McLane.
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Having quoted that amusing little paragraph trying to sell an old Selmer mouthpiece,one is also reminded of the very big price achieved for a Selmer HS* mouthpiece which was supposedly worked on by Kaspar. (the selling price was 180US)Well, we are talking about a couple of things here: one is pure legend, perhaps deservedly so of one of the most celebrated mouthpiece makers in the US, Frank Kaspar.
The other thing is the fact that Ralph McLane was perhaps the finest clarinetist in US history.
Toscanini is quoted as saying that McLane is “the finest clarinetist I have heard in America”
One pauses to think if that comment was damning McLane with faint praise as not being as good as European players. No matter; it is clarinet history in the US and it is very interesting.
Just about a half century has passed since Ralph McLane and Frank Kaspar were working at their crafts.
There are so many Kaspar mouthpieces for sale as to make one wonder how the man could make that many, and now a relative is selling things he finds in drawers belonging to Mr. Kaspar. The question is, are all of these mouthpieces Kaspars and if so, do they all play as well. Are they all worth upwards of 500US for a used mouthpiece?
I have a friend who is thinking of going into an investment in buying and selling these mouthpieces the profits can be so high, better than a good stock.
The best of the Kaspars as I have found can be very very good and certainly they are spoken of in high regard.
But since all mouthpieces play differently, are they all good enough to play an audition?
The hype around them is rather suffocating, not neccessarily a bad thing unless you are an impressionable student who thinks about nothing but “setups”, writes notes to friends about “setups” fantasizes about “setups”, saves up for a Kaspar…..One shudders to think of what may happen if the mouthpiece doesn’t play well.
For me, there is simply too much OC about the setup one uses, the reeds, the ligature, and of course, the horn. (OC Obessive-Compulsive behavior)
One has to ask the question, “is there any room left for the music?”And the answer is painfully clear. It is a resounding NO, or there is simply indifference to the music.
Now, let us return to the playing of the legendary Ralph McLane who played Principal clarinet in the Philadelphia Orchestra between 1941, and 1950 when he passed away from cancer.
I had occasion to write a bit about him and his experiments with Hans Moennig in the latters famous Philadelphia shop, where every American clarinetist who played in orchestras came to council and have changes made to their instruments.
I received a nice note from a fellow who mentioned that there is a CD available of McLanes orchestral playing available from Amazon. I ordered same and it arrived last week. I had time to listen to it twice and it is extraordinary. I recommend it without reservation to every clarintetist who plays or aspires to play in an orchestra.

These recordings consist of about 80 short sections of the great and most fraquently performed orchestral repertoire: all the principal clarinet parts. It is like an orchestra studies book come to life and played with uncanny perfection and musicality, a combination of a rare gift and incredible love, and training.
One has to remember that these recording were all made more than a half century ago, prior to many improvements in recording technics and even long-playing recording for the most part. That means that they had to cut at least 10-12 minutes or more at a time without the benfits of retakes or splices or enhancing microphones, without a mistake , or the mistake would be released, which happened many times.

(There is a very famous story about Koussevitsky and Til Eulenspiegel that I must tell you…later)

McLanes clarinet playing is nothing short of gorgeous (in the clarinetists way of using that word) The sound is very large in scope and the intonation is always perfect, the articulation a model of how to use the tongue; (i.e. never a punishing, agressive sound) and with tapering that can not be believed and also real pianissimi, something which has become extinct in orchestras these days. Simply nobody plays really softly especially when it is marked pianissimo. It is almost always loud.

This of course, is subject to a lot more discussion about the competition one has with recording when one plays in an orchestra.
Recordings are made with enhancements that boggle the mind, and when we attend an orchestra concert, we wonder why the clarinet is not as full and loud as it is in our living room? We want more presence, right? Yes, and that recording presence has found its way back into the orchestra with the result of loud, louder, and loudest.
The last real pianissimi I heard live was that created by Harold Wright, principal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He of course, was a student of Ralph McLane.
In any event it is really worth your investment if you love the repertoire. The Philadelphia Orchestra at the time had the finest woodwinds , including Marcel Tabuteau, the real father of the American Oboe “school”. Sol Schoenbach, Bassoon, William Kincaid, flutist and Ralph McLane, clarintist.
If you can get the CD, listen to them in the wind unisons in the Tchaikovsky 4th. I have never ever heard it that way. Perhaps I am an old man, which I am, however that playing has never ever been equaled in an orchestra. The brass section of Chicago had a similar unanimity in the days of Reiner.
One hears that orchestras are dying out, that budgets are shrinking, that there are simply no lobs, (this has been true for more than 50 years), but these guys played like gods, and Ralph McLane was perhaps the best of them all.

And you know what? He played a Chedeville.

Stay tuned for more ….The incredible Daniel Bonade is next (McLane studied with him briefly, but mostly with Gaston Hamelin of the Boston Orchestra.

stay well, sherman

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