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 The clarinet in literature
Author: Dan Oberlin 2017
Date:   2020-07-29 23:42

My wife and I occasionally read a Dickens novel together. This time it's Little Dorrit. One of the sad minor characters plays the clarinet for a living. An excerpt: "The clarionet had been lamenting most pathetically during his dialogue, but was cut short by Fanny's announcement that it was time to go; which she conveyed to her uncle by shutting up his scrap of music, and taking the clarionet out of his mouth." (I guess Dickens liked the woodwinds. A bassoonist figures in Bleak House.)

Then there's this from The Goldfinch: "Almost certainly I'd ruined the life of some deserving brainiac out in the Bronx - some poor clarinet-playing loser in the projects who was still getting beaten up for his algebra homework, who was going to end up punching tickets in a tollbooth instead of teaching fluid mechanics at Cal Tech because I'd taken his or her rightful place."

Anyone know any happier examples?

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: Hank Lehrer 
Date:   2020-07-30 01:25

Hello Dan,

The clarionet may be similar to the one that Jack Brymer talked about on pages 11-14 in his auto-biography "From Where I Sit." He says (and I paraphrase):

"The Clarionet was a piece of furniture, because it lived at the back of the sideboard. It was an odd ancient instrument, fully fifty years old, and included only the 13 basic keys. It had a battered and bitten wooden mouthpiece, a tinny and fractured ligature, no rollers, and a reed of chipped and discolored cane which to my recollection was never replaced."


PS I really enjoyed reading this almost 200 page book about Brymer's musical journey from the clarionet to that of principal clarinet in many of the UK's top orchestras.

Post Edited (2020-07-30 05:36)

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: JohnP 
Date:   2020-07-30 15:44

This is the passage from Little Dorrit which resonates most with me, having spent most of my career playing in a pit.

"The old man looked as if the remote high gallery windows, with their little strip of sky, might have been the point of his better fortunes, from which he had descended, until he had gradually sunk down below there to the bottom. He had been in that place six nights a week for many years, but had never been observed to raise his eyes above his music-book, and was confidently believed to have never seen a play. There were legends in the place that he did not so much as know the popular heroes and heroines by sight, and that the low comedian had 'mugged' at him in his richest manner fifty nights for a wager, and he had shown no trace of consciousness. The carpenters had a joke to the effect that he was dead without being aware of it; and the frequenters of the pit supposed him to pass his whole life, night and day, and Sunday and all, in the orchestra. They had tried him a few times with pinches of snuff offered over the rails, and he had always responded to this attention with a momentary waking up of manner that had the pale phantom of a gentleman in it: beyond this he never, on any occasion, had any other part in what was going on than the part written out for the clarionet; in private life, where there was no part for the clarionet, he had no part at all."

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: davyd 
Date:   2020-07-31 21:43

Not sure if this counts as "literature", but here's an ode to a clarinet.


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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: Nelson 
Date:   2020-08-03 11:09

This is from one of Thomas Hardy's novels written around 1878 so there's a bit of work to unravel it from the country dialect of 19th Wessex, an section of old England long since known by other county names. From "Under the Greenwood Tree" (telling the adventures of the Church musicians and choir at a time when the locals would supply the music from the Western Gallery of the local church} but here carolling the villagers on a freezing Christmas night......

"Yet there's worse things than serpents," said Mr. Penny. "Old
things pass away, 'tis true; but a serpent was a good old note: a
deep rich note was the serpent."

"Clar'nets, however, be bad at all times," said Michael Mail. "One
Christmas--years agone now, years--I went the rounds wi' the
Weatherbury quire. 'Twas a hard frosty night, and the keys of all
the clar'nets froze--ah, they did freeze!--so that 'twas like
drawing a cork every time a key was opened; and the players o' 'em
had to go into a hedger-and-ditcher's chimley-corner, and thaw their
clar'nets every now and then. An icicle o' spet hung down from the
end of every man's clar'net a span long; and as to fingers--well,
there, if ye'll believe me, we had no fingers at all, to our

"I can well bring back to my mind," said Mr. Penny, "what I said to
poor Joseph Ryme (who took the treble part in Chalk-Newton Church
for two-and-forty year) when they thought of having clar'nets there.
"Joseph," I said, says I, "depend upon't, if so be you have them
tooting clar'nets you'll spoil the whole set-out. Clar'nets were
not made for the service of the Lard; you can see it by looking at
'em," I said. And what came o't? Why, souls, the parson set up a
barrel-organ on his own account within two years o' the time I
spoke, and the old quire went to nothing."

"As far as look is concerned," said the tranter, "I don't for my
part see that a fiddle is much nearer heaven than a clar'net. 'Tis
further off. There's always a rakish, scampish twist about a
fiddle's looks that seems to say the Wicked One had a hand in making
o'en; while angels be supposed to play clar'nets in heaven, or
som'at like 'em, if ye may believe picters."

"Robert Penny, you was in the right," broke in the eldest Dewy.
"They should ha' stuck to strings. Your brass-man is a rafting dog-
-well and good; your reed-man is a dab at stirring ye--well and
good; your drum-man is a rare bowel-shaker--good again. But I don't
care who hears me say it, nothing will spak to your heart wi' the
sweetness o' the man of strings!"

"Strings for ever!" said little Jimmy.

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: PaulIsaac 
Date:   2020-08-04 12:57

From Mark Twain's "The Innocents Abroad", Chapter 4:

"On several starlight nights we danced on the upper deck, under the awnings, and made something of a ball-room display of brilliancy by hanging a number of ship's lanterns to the stanchions. Our music consisted of the well-mixed strains of a melodeon which was a little asthmatic and apt to catch its breath where it ought to come out strong, a clarinet which was a little unreliable on the high keys and rather melancholy on the low ones, and a disreputable accordion that had a leak somewhere and breathed louder than it squawked--a more elegant term does not occur to me just now. However, the dancing was infinitely worse than the music."

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: graham 
Date:   2020-08-05 15:32

In Lorna Doone, Blackmore twice refers to clarionet leading parish hymns. Sadly, as the story is set in the 1680s, the reference is anachronistic.

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: AndyW 
Date:   2020-08-13 13:39

in “The moon and the bonfires” by Cesare Pavese, the protagonist, Anguillo, reminisces with his best friend, Nuto, who has retired from playing clarinet for local dances and fairs in Piedmont, northern Italy.
it’s a well known classic of Italian literature, evocative and enjoyable.
Read with some Nutella chocolate and a glass of Barolo for the authentic taste of the region :-)

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: seabreeze 
Date:   2020-09-07 08:19

Reading through the letters of Thomas Jefferson today, I chanced upon one
entitled "The Favorite Passion of My Soul" addressed to Giovanni Fabbroni on June 1, 1778. Jefferson tells Fabbroni that "In a country where like yours [France?] music is practiced by every class of men I suppose there might be found persons of those trades [gardening, weaving, cabinet making, and stone cutting] who could perform on the French horn, clarinet or hautboy [oboe] so that one might have a band . . . ." He goes on to say that he might have two French horns and two clarinets "without enlarging . . . domestic expenses." He closes with the suggestion that if Fabbroni can find such virtuous people who can double working in the trades and music, he should encourage them to "come to America" where he will welcome and employ them.

Jefferson seems to have cultivated an interest in everything under the sun, from the morphology and syntax of ancient Greek words to the varieties of rice grown in Vietnam, to temperatures at which various species of bees can survive, and even to the instrument we play.

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: nellsonic 
Date:   2020-09-07 09:23

Kurt Vonnegut played the clarinet in school. The instrument comes up several times in his work. Here is a quote from his novel, "Jailbird":

"Two top drawers in the dresser easily accepted all I owned, but I looked into all the other drawers anyway. Then I discovered that the bottom drawer contained seven incomplete clarinets - without cases, mouthpieces, or bells. Life is like that sometimes.”

In "Cat's Cradle" he actually uses the clarinet as a significant plot point at the end of the novel. It would be a spoiler to reveal it. However here is what I believe is his longest passage about our instrument from that same work:

"I did not know what was going to come from Angela’s clarinet. No one
could have imagined what was going to come from there.

I expected something pathological, but I did not expect the depth, the
violence, and the almost intolerable beauty of the disease.

Angela moistened and warmed the mouthpiece, but did not blow a single
preliminary note. Her eyes glazed over, and her long, bony fingers twittered
idly over the noiseless keys.

I waited anxiously, and I remembered what Marvin Breed had told me —
that Angela’s one escape from her bleak life with her father was to her room,
where she would lock the door and play along with phonograph records.

Newt now put a long-playing record on the large phonograph in the room
off the terrace. He came back with the record’s slipcase, which he handed to

The record was called Cat House Piano. It was of unaccompanied piano
by Meade Lux Lewis.

Since Angela, in order to deepen her trance, let Lewis play his first
number without joining him, I read some of what the jacket said about Lewis.


I looked up from my reading. The first number on the record was done.
The phonograph needle was now scratching its slow way across the void to
the second. The second number, I learned from the jacket, was “Dragon

Meade Lux Lewis played four bars alone–and then Angela Hoenikker
joined in.

Her eyes were closed.

I was flabbergasted.

She was great.

She improvised around the music of the Pullman porter’s son; went from
liquid lyricism to rasping lechery to the shrill skittishness of a frightened
child, to a heroin nightmare.

Her glissandi spoke of heaven and hell and all that lay between.

Such music from such a woman could only be a case of schizophrenia or
demonic possession.

My hair stood on end, as though Angela were rolling on the floor,
foaming at the mouth, and babbling fluent Babylonian.

When the music was done, I shrieked at Julian Castle, who was transfixed,
too, “My God — life! Who can understand even one little minute of it?”

“Don’t try,” he said. “Just pretend you understand.”

“That’s — that’s very good advice.” I went limp."

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: Bennett 2017
Date:   2020-09-07 09:38

From The Problem of the Purple Maculas by James C Iraldi, a continuation of the Sherlock Holmes canon, reprinted in The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler.

Holmes ID's a client, Mr. Morrison, as a clarinet player:

“The links in my chain were forged, Mr. Morrison, by noticing your underlip and your right thumb. On your lip I observed the layer of protective skin left there by the reed; and when we shook hands I distinctly felt the horny ridge on the top knuckle of your thumb.” Turning to me [Watson] he explained further. “Such markings are indicative of the clarinet player. Pressure on the lip gives us our first clue; and the callus on the thumb is caused by the weight of the instrument which rests upon it.”

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: ruben 
Date:   2020-09-07 12:45

I've just bought a book in French: "Où Bat le Coeur du Monde" by Philippe Hayat. This is the first time I have seen a work of fiction with a drawing of somebody playing the clarinet on the front cover! It's about a kid that takes up jazz clarinet in Tunisia in the 30's. I haven't read it yet. I'll let you know if it is any good and if it is VERY good, I will translate it into English.


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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: Dan Oberlin 2017
Date:   2021-11-04 19:03

From Galatea 2.2, by Richard Powers:

"... in the distance, I began to hear the music I'd been humming. Mozart, the Clarinet Concerto, middle movement. The one that C. had thought the most painful palliative in creation."

"The clarinet and orchestra exchanged phrases, elaborating on the ongoing expansion, unfolding, inhaling beyond capacity like the lungs of a patriarch wedging open the air after being told of the death of his last great-grandchild."

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: Bennett 2017
Date:   2022-01-20 23:10

A very short mention in Knut Hamsun's Hunger, trans. Sverre Lyngstad, part 1:

"These little monsters (i.e.insects) continued to occupy me for quite a while, and I crossed my legs and took my time observing them. All at once a couple of loud, piercing clarinet notes reached me from the Students' Promendade, giving my thoughts a fresh impetus."

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: Bennett 2017
Date:   2022-01-25 20:27

An extended passage from Haruki Murakimi's 1Q84 (Book 2, Chapter 2) about Barney Bigard and jazz clarinet:

After sex, they would often lie in bed listening to the record. She never tired of it. “Armstrong’s trumpet and singing are absolutely wonderful, of course, but if you ask me, the thing you should concentrate on is Barney Bigard’s clarinet,” she would say. Yet the actual number of Bigard solos on the record was small, and they tended to be limited to a single chorus. Louis Armstrong was the star of this record. But she obviously loved those few Bigard solos, the way she would quietly hum along with every memorized note. She said she supposed there might be more talented jazz clarinetists than Barney Bigard, but you couldn’t find another one who could play with such warmth and delicacy. His best performances always gave rise to a particular mental image. Tengo could not, off the top of his head, name any other jazz clarinetists, but as he listened to this record over and over, he began to appreciate the sheer, unforced beauty of its clarinet performances—their richly nourishing and imaginative qualities. He had to listen closely and repeatedly for this to happen, and he had to have a capable guide. He would have missed the nuances on his own. His girlfriend once said, “Barney Bigard plays beautifully, like a gifted second baseman. His solos are marvelous, but where he really shines is in the backup he gives the other musicians. That is so hard, but he does it like it’s nothing at all. Only an attentive listener can fully appreciate his true worth.” Whenever the sixth tune on the flip side of the LP, “Atlanta Blues,” began, she would grab one of Tengo’s body parts and praise Bigard’s concise, exquisite solo, which was sandwiched between Armstrong’s song and his trumpet solo. “Listen to that! Amazing—that first, long wail like a little child’s cry! What is it—surprise? Overflowing joy? An appeal for happiness? It turns into a joyful sigh and weaves its way through a beautiful river of sound until it’s smoothly absorbed into some perfect, unknowable place. There! Listen! Nobody else can play such thrilling solos. Jimmy Noone, Sidney Bechet, Pee Wee Russell, Benny Goodman: they’re all great clarinetists, but none of them can create such perfectly sculptured works of art.”

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: seabreeze 
Date:   2022-01-27 06:47

In the 60s and 70s Murakimi and his wife used to run a Coffee and Jazz Shop in Tokyo called "Peter Cat." Maybe the Bigard/Armstrong record was something they listened to and sold there? Musically, Japan can be a time warp. I recently met a Japanese who said their favorite singer was Anita O'Day, and they talked about her as if she were a current jazz/pop star and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" were a recent hit. Jazz bands from Japan show up in New Orleans playing hits from the 1920s and 30s, and they know the names and recordings of players from that era way better than most people (even musicians) from New Orleans do.

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: davyd 
Date:   2022-01-28 05:45

Do album liner notes count as 'literature'?

Here's Wilfrid Mellers commenting on Keith Jarrett's recording of Shostakovich's Prelude & Fugue in C minor, op. 87 #20.

"This prelude begins austerely, like a Moussorgskian lament, with an answering clause that might be played by a peasant-folk clarinetist. He seems a boon, for the piece resolves serenely in the major."

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: Bennett 2017
Date:   2022-02-14 01:42

From Proust's Swann's Way in the Project Gutenberg version, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7178/7178-h/7178-h.htm

Mme. de Gallardon then drew herself up and, chilling her expression still further, perhaps because she was still uneasy about the Prince's health, said to her cousin:

"Oriane," (at once Mme. des Laumes looked with amused astonishment towards an invisible third, whom she seemed to call to witness that she had never authorised Mme. de Gallardon to use her Christian name) "I should be so pleased if you would look in, just for a minute, to-morrow evening, to hear a quintet, with the clarinet, by Mozart. I should like to have your opinion of it."

She seemed not so much to be issuing an invitation as to be asking favour, and to want the Princess's opinion of the Mozart quintet just though it had been a dish invented by a new cook, whose talent it was most important that an epicure should come to judge.

"But I know that quintet quite well. I can tell you now—that I adore it."

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: Bennett 2017
Date:   2022-04-01 21:25

In reference to a sort of sign language, from T.C.Boyle's Talk To Me, pp. 6-7: He used his fingers only (it was called finger-spelling, as she was later to learn), moving them so quickly and adeptly he might have been a clarinetist running through "Flight of the Bumblee" without benefit of an instrument.

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: Bennett 2017
Date:   2022-04-04 01:05

From Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, p. 26 where a clarinet is part of a joke - here much edited - (the punch line involves a bagpipe)

“So guy walks into a bar,” ... “With an octopus. Says to the bartender ‘I’ll bet a hundred dollars this octopus can play any instrument in the place.’ ”.....

....(the) bartender says ‘Hold on, I think I’ve got something else around here,’ pulls a clarinet out of the back room. Octopus looks the thing over a couple of times, tightens the reed.” “He’s milking it,” said Minna, again meaning us both. “Well, the octopus isn’t good exactly, but he manages to squeak out a few bars on the clarinet. He isn’t going to win any awards, but he plays the thing...

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: Bennett 2017
Date:   2022-07-21 20:49

Two items.

From The Idiot: A Novel by Elif Batuman, page 165

"The features editor had chestnut hair, mobile features, and a rich drawling voice that seemed to go over more registers than most people's, like a clarinet"

And, about an hour's in to the film My Salinger Year a clarinetist appears, first noodling and a few minutes later playing a bit of Debussy. I don't know if this appears in the book of the same name by Joanna Rakoff, from which the film was adapted:

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 Re: The clarinet in literature
Author: donald 
Date:   2022-07-21 23:56

They made a FILM of "My Salinger year"? The book barely has what you'd call a "plot" so I imagine they had to write a story and pay Ms Rakoff for the name. I don't recall any clarinet in the book.

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