They say that if a newspaper reporter is doing his job, the only person at his funeral will be his mother.
My column and review on Benny Goodman and his impersonator, Dave Bennett, generated three types of mail: People who loved the concert and enjoyed reliving it in print, those who thought I was unkind to Bennett, and those who thought I was unkind to Goodman.
I went back and looked at some tapes of Goodman, and I have to admit that no one could duplicate his je ne sais quois on stage or his improvisations. Technically, however, Bennett is his equal or superior, just as any graduate of a good music school nowadays can play the piano better than Liszt or Paderewski. Goodman himself had to relearn his technique at the age of 40.
The clarinet took center stage again in the concert of prize-winning compositions at the Longfellow Chorus Festival last week. The woodwind quartet of bassoon, English horn, flute and clarinet turned out to be ideal in concert with choral and vocal works, since it, like the human voice, is capable of producing perfect intervals (unlike a well-tempered piano).
What was even more surprising was the way Karen Beacham’s solo clarinet could make itself heard clearly during the most fortissimo passages sung by the Longfellow Chorus.
One does not ordinarily think of the clarinet as a loud instrument. “Smooth” and “liquid” are the adjectives that come to mind. Its name refers to the sound of a trumpet in the distance. The clarinet can certainly play loud (and even shriek), but I think its distinct timbre and purity of sound are just as important in making it stand out from the crowd in choral works, the orchestra or a jazz band.
The clarinet developed directly from a reed instrument called the chalumeau (bagpipe chanter), a piece of cornstalk with a carved mouthpiece that allowed a thin strip of the cane to vibrate. It sounded, according to one 18th-century listener, like a toy trumpet, but more grating.
The much smoother and versatile modern clarinet was invented in the beginning of the 18th century by J.C. Denner of Nuremberg. It has the widest range of any woodwind instrument, plus the advantage of a different timbre or tone color at different points in its register.
It is a relative newcomer to the symphony orchestra, first employed to good effect in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, although it appears in only a few of his symphonies. That concerto still remains the gold standard, but many fine works have since been written for the instrument, including Debussy’s First Rhapsody, Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” many works by Brahms, who fell in love with the instrument, and the Bartok “Conrasts,” commissioned by Benny Goodman.
The clarinet’s single reed and the way it’s cut have a profound impact on its sound. The best reeds are made from a type of cane that grows near Toulon in France, but can be made of almost anything. Early reeds were usually cane but were also made of pine, fir or fish bone. The pine or fir reeds were said to give a fine tone and to “speak” easily, but didn’t last long. No word of how the fish-bone reeds sounded.
Today, there are directions on the Internet for making a fairly good-sounding clarinet out of a piece of PVC pipe. The mouthpiece is made by softening and hand-molding the plastic, and the reed is cut from a sheet of thinner plastic. Unfortunately, it lasts longer than cane.
Christopher Hyde is a writer/musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: