Clarinets, then and now

February 22, 2013

When,at the age of 16, I expressed my desire to play the clarinet, I first asked my parents for such an instrument. My mother hemmed and hawed, telling me that I had tried so many things and had given up on them all. That was quite encouraging, but in restrospect, and at the time, she was quite well known in our family for shooting down virtually any idea.This remained perhaps her chief talent throughout her life, much to the regret and detriment of her children, of whom I was one. I was overweight and either as a result or cause, I was called virtually every barnyard animal, pig ,horse and cow, being the favorite words of endearment at the time. Meanwhile, being a good cook and baker, she made huge trays of apple and fig squares for the family. But you’ve got the picture.I wanted to play the clarinet. I asked and finally, after a while. it was decided to put an ad in the local paper. It read, “wanted to buy, used clarinet” I have no idea of the number of replies they received, but I was told that someone had called with a used clarinet to sell, and he offered lessons, as well. He was invited to our apartment and he came with a clarinet case. He was well dressed and he wore a fedora. His name was Mr Carrel. He opened up the clarinet case. It was made of metal and was in one piece. I think I was hypnotized by the complicated look of all of those keys. He showed me how to put it in my mouth and how to blow into it, but ,all I could do, was squeak. I squeaked for virtually the whole lesson, a half hour, for which my mother paid 3 dollars.He told me i should practice for half an hour each day, and that I would get better and the horrible noises would diminish. I remember only that I promised myself that I would practice every single day for half an hour and that I would not squeak for the next lesson. He played something on that clarinet and I remained hypnotyzed for a very long time. Certainly, it was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I never have. It became the sound to which I aspired for all of my life. I had lucked out. This fellow was one of the best clarinetists in Boston.His name was Norman Carrel, and he had played principal in the Houston Symphony for four years before returning to Boston to teach and play in the many opportunities for professional players at the time. When he left for Houston, his name had been Norman Cohen. When he returned, it was Norman Carrel. I recently found out that he had changed his name, when he passed away at the age of 95. One of his daughters happened to read this blog and sent me a note after seeing the list of people with whom I had studied. I knew Mr. Carrel reasonable well, but my chief function was to copy every sound he made. The quality of his sound and playing never left me, and I spent a lot of time playing in high school and getting my friends to study with him, for which he would always give me a few reeds in a cardboard holder that said RAYBURN MUSIC on it. This is where I took my early lessons

The Selmer clarinet was the clarinet of choice in Boston, the instrument that every young clarinetist wanted to own and have. The Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony was considered one of the nations best, and all of the clarinetists played Selmer. Most of the students in Boston played Selmer. It ws the horn of desire, and of acquisition. Historically, it has gone from something considered a Jazz instrument, specifically the Centered Tone, which had a slightly larger bore and was very well made, as are all selmers their manufacure has always been the most finished and well made of any instrument made in France, where Selmers were made. All others were considered inferior in quality, sound, all aspects. If you played the clarinet in Boston,from 1950-1970, you played Selmer, or aspired to play Selmer. This was true from the time that Gaston Hamlin was refused a contract in 1931. Serge Koussevitcky the conductor, did not like the idea of Hamlin playing a silver plated Selmer, and witheld his contract. Hamlin went back to France. Ralph Maclane went with him and studied with him in France, along with several others, this being part of the beginning of the clarinet tradition in the US. There were other certainly, but these stand out in the history of the clarinet in the US, and Canada

Just as the others and all my student friends who played the clarinet in Brookline High, we all wanted Selmer, and this remained with me for many years. The Centered Tone was not a Jazz Clarinet. Everyone in the BSO played Selmer and most played Centered Tone, they being among the newest models. I played them for many years, not, with the so called spreading S elmer sound as the custom went in the 70s and 80s. This was a well made clarinet, very dependable and an in tune instrument. Cioffi, the Principal in Boston, one of the greatest of all. played the model 55 bore Selmers, with the keys being in the configuration of full boehm, minus the low Eb. I have played sets of those, but never for a long period of time and was really unable to discern a difference. Or was I? At the same time Anthony Gigliotti had taken over from Maclane who died while in the Philadelphia Orchestra and he played on Buffet Clarinets.Of course, perhaps the best interpreter of the clarinet repertoire within the symphony and in all chamber music was Harold Wright, who succeeded Cioffi in the Boston Symphony. Now and in retrospect, and perhaps the point of this article is the fact that these people played with their own particular sound quality and musicianship. Of course, there was Marcellus in Cleveland whom I remember having the most careful preparation for anything he played and all the recordings show this. One can attempt to recreate the same sound, one may get close, but he absolutely excelled in his musicianship and execution of the parts. I read his sound described as being “square”the other day. No, it was not “square”; it was as polished as preparation can be. Many of those who studied with him are well prrpared but no one excelled more than he. I think personally that George Szell had a lot to do with the sound of that whole Cleveland Woodwind Section, horns as well. The Cleveland Orchestra recordings under the baton of Szell were definitive. A dear friend, Tom Kenny, was principal horn with that orchestra and told me literally thousands of stories about the Ceveland Orchestra. But even before he did, the recording of the Cleveland Symphony were as good as they got. Boston had a better hall in which to record and sounded the most sparkling on recordings,and of course, when Harold Wright played Principal, it surpassed all others. The interesting thing about Wright was that he played exactly the written dynamics. This has diminished considerably since his passing. Most orchestral clarinetists play as loudly as they can, and are tolerated. Why? When a music lover listens to his CD in his living room, her hears the clarinet solo as if it were being played in the room. During the recording, the solo passage is turned up on the mixer, giving the recording more presence for the clarinet solo. Frequently at present, you will hear clarinetists playing as loudly as they can because in a subtle way or, not so subtle way, they are competing with themselves. But Buddy Wright always played what was written, and he had the best pianissimo in the business. Philadelphia at the time, was still under the aegis of Ormandy, the strings offering the most lush sounds and the woodwinds, outstanding from the standpoint ofWm Kincaid, principal flute, Marcel Tabuteau, the origination of the so-called American oboe sound and embouchure, Sol Schoenach bassoon and Mason Jomes, French Horn. They had a woodwind Quintet which made some recordings and was popular with students like myself, and I guess many others. But the Woodwind Quintet of those years was by far above the others and that was the New York Woodwind Quintet, one of the better sounding woodwind ensembles, impeccable in its preparation, a group which included Sam Baron, Flute, Ron Rosenman, Oboe , John Barrows, French Horn,David Glazer,clarinetist and the best bassoonist I’d ever heard, Arthur Weisberg, whose facile legato was always prominent in the NY Group.Of course, as many will realize these are ensembles which prevailed in the 60s and 70s and sometimes into the 80s. They are still in existence, but with different personnel and many of the ensembles have been in residence at various universities.I had been asked to perform with the Dorian quintet, but somehow we never got together.
Back to the clarinet, then and now, one of the main purposes of this posting is my own commentary on the changes in our instrument over the years and some of the major trends in the use of particular clarinets. One must always remember that the clarinet is a historical instrument, first appearing in various ensembles five or six centuries in the past. Gradually, the clarinet made its way into the orchestras, then the Symphony Orchestras of the Classical period. Mozart wrote any works of both chamber music, a concerto, and used it prominently in his last three symphonies, Beethoven used the clarinet in all of his symphonic works, and some chamber music. But, the clarinet is basically a historical woodwind instrument regardless of what anhyone may say. Rosaro Mazzeo, would sometimes expound on how the clarinet would progress electronically, to a point where there would be all kinds of instruments evolving from the clarinet. Of course, he was wrong by the very definition of the clarinet, which despite his own innovations ,changed little over the years. The sound is basically the same, and so too is the configuration of the fingering keyboard of the instrument, and of course, the playing end of the instrument, the reed, the mouthpiece are essentially what they were in 1800.

The clarinet has not really changed all that much, certain accoustical principals remaining constant, but indeed the players of the instrument have changed, and so too have the instruments of their choice.

As a clarinetist, I have been aware of certain makes of clarinets and certain characteristics of those particular instruments. But trends started to change with the divisions created by the Selmer and Buffet trends in clarinets in the middle of the 20th century, and now , it has gotten really fascinating, but especially to clarinetists themselves. I’ve mentioned that, as a clarinetist in Boston, my choice was Selmer, and most clarinmetists in the New England area played on Selmer clarinets. But, as close as New York City ,the choice was Buffet, and that choice became widespread. Here is a true story not written about in this blog. A young and gifted clariets won the principal job in New Orleans. He was a fine player who had been educated in Boston, and he played Selmer Clarinets. All of the other principal woodwinds in that orchestra were graduates of the Eastman School of Music. this young man was bullied by the other woodwinds because he played Selmer, and all at Eastman played Buffet. IT GOT VERY BAD IN new Orleans until this young mane left the orchestra and has never played again. I cannot reveal the names of the folks involved but I know them and that it happened. Thanks be that incidents like that disappeared with the passage of time. Other clarinet names began to emerge, the most prominent being the Leblanc Opus models, which were first widely performed by Larry Combs of the Chicago Symphony and Eddie Daniels, one of the most prominent Jazz clarinetists. These clarinets were designed for Leblanc by the designer and clarinetist William Thomas Ridenour who was in charge of the Opus design and many other Leblanc names. These instruments proved to be the most intune clarinets ever made, Ridenour having solved many inherent acoustical problems of the instrument. He also designed and produced the most available and in tune and affordable clarinet every made, the Lyrique, made of Hard rubber. This is a material that is much easier to machine and holds its pitch at much more stable levels.A major achievement has been making these clarinets of hard rubber, much more available to the average clarinet s
student, from a financial standpoint. There is no reason why a young person should be forced toward buying an expensive french clarinet. The average cost is about 4X the price of hard rubber. Not only that, the wooden instruemtn is subject to many more problems having to do with playing in concert bands. While teaching at a post-secondary institution I saw daily problems with barrels frozen to the first joints, which sometimes can be difficult to repair. One band director told his section”Always play with your barrel pulled out at least a half an inch”. Can you imagine the pitch deviation with a while section with barrels pulled out in order that they not become stuck to the first joint. This wide spread problem never happens with a hard rubber instrument. There are countless others.I played the Ridenour Lyrique and other of is hard rubber models for many years and always found them to be much easier to adjust, and for that matter, to play.

When considering all the varied types of instuments, the bores, the keys, the pitch, that particular timbre of a specific horn, one can trace a very definite shift toward the middle of the spectrum of sound. There is no longer that “special ” quality of the Buffet “Ping”, or the Selmer mellower sense of timbre. Think Recital, Signature, Buffet, Leblanc and all of the others. The timbre of the instrument is no longer a definitive characteristic, rather what is central is the instrument, the pitch, the ability to tune and to express the music.
The individual players of the past have all but faded into the memory. There are many truly superb players out there, but they could be playing on virtually any of the many clarinets manufactured. That fellow who had to leave because he ws bullied for playing a Selmer in a group favoring Buffet, no longer is the subject of any story, it is more the ability to express excellent musicianship. Think of the phrase, the imagination and the ability to understand the meaning and the intent of the conductor

stay well, and practice. Music, the making of music is the only true answer.

best, sherman