Herbert L. Clarke as a member of the Victor Herbert Band (c. 1896)
Trumpeters and cornetist all over the world usually know a little about Herbert L. Clarke, but what a lot of us may not know is that he wrote a marvelous memoire, How I Became a Cornetist. You can buy this fairly short and easy to read book from various retailers or you can get a PDF version for free from the Kalamazoo Public Library, or from a few other websites.
Clarke organizes his book into Series (chapters) that were originally published serially in a band magazine, Fillmore’s Musical Messenger. The relaxed style of writing about his pursuit of great cornet playing during an era when cornetist were so incredibly popular helps the reader immerse himself into the time period.
For me, the most important theme of this book is how much effort cornet-playing at this level was required. In fact, Clarke makes a big point of de-bunking the notion of the “born cornetist.” This book is about the hard work Clarke put in to become great, and it stands as an example for us today. His anecdotes and advice about his family upbringing, the difficulty of buying his first cornet, his first encounters with transposition, and lying about his age to join a band all make delightful reading.
We can all be grateful to Clarke for his remarkable memory. Even the most trivial stories come to life with his amazing grasp of past details. For instance, his first hearing of Walter B. Rogers when he was about 15 years old:
At about the middle of the program a young man not much older than myself stood up and without moving from his place began playing a cornet solo which at once so captivated my attention that I forced my way through the crowd in order to get nearer the bandstand and not miss a note. . . . The number, an extremely difficult cornet solo which demanded great endurance in playing was the Excelsior Polka by Frewin. . . . At the ending of the solo the young player was given an ovation of tumultuous applause, in which I joined vigorously. The cornetist again arose, but this time stepped to the front of the platform, and to my wonderment played the entire solo through for the second time without seeming tired or making a slip. . . . His face did not become purple, distorted, or show any signs of strain.
Herbert L. Clarke at age 23, Cornet Soloist of Gilmore’s 22nd Regimental Band
Learning how Clarke took up the viola to play in the family quartet and how he tried working in a business store, helps us to realize that Clarke kept his career options open. Even so, he still pursued his dream with an enormous amount of hard work on the cornet. The book concludes with him finally getting his dream job–as cornet soloist with Patrick Gilmore’s band at age 23.
After I had finished, Mr. Gilmore came over to me, patted me on the back, and told me that he had been looking for a great cornet player who could play musically, with the endurance I had displayed this afternoon and at last he had found one! I nearly fell over on hearing this expression of enthusiasm regarding my playing, and had to sit down.
In closing, Clarke adds an amazing synopsis of his career as a cornetist after that point. Here are some of those facts:
Clarke logged over 8000 miles of travel as soloist with the bands of Gilmore, John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert. He played over six thousand programmed cornet solos, including 473 concerts in one season. He soloed at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, and the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.
Anglo Canadian Leather Company Band leader Herbert L. Clarke (left) and C. O. Shaw (right), owner of the Anglo Canadian Leather Company, Huntsville, Ontario.
Of course, Herbert L. Clarke also distinguished himself as a bandmaster himself, eventually becoming the president of the American Bandmasters Association in 1943.
Me at the grave marker of Herbert L. Clarke
I have visited Clarke’s gravesite in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC, on a number of occasions, and each time I have a sense of wonder, appreciation and meaning.
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