Over the course of its history, the clarinet has had many fine players. These 14 defined the development of the pedagogy of the instrument, its performance practices, and in later years, its marketing to the public at large.
14 Most Famous Clarinet Players of All Time
Anton Stadler was born in Burgenland, which was the easternmost state in Austria. He grew up in Vienna, and Mozart composed both the “Clarinet Quintet,” K.581, and the clarinet concerto, K.622, for him. He was obviously a virtuoso, which is made even more clear by the fact that he played these difficult pieces on a clarinet that had only six keys whereas the modern clarinet, where these pieces are still considered difficult, has a combination of 22 rings and keys. Stadler also played the basset clarinet in A, and both replicas and improvements to that instrument are available today.
Heinrich Baermann came later than Stadler but was not only every bit the virtuoso as the older player but also a great teacher of the instrument. In fact, it is his pedagogy that formed the basis for a standard method of instruction. He, like Stadler before him, insisted on the mouthpiece position with the reed against the lower lip instead of the other way around, which was the norm regarding the chalumeau and earlier clarinets. Baermann might have been the greatest clarinetist ever, but the opinion on that title is both genially and heavily debated.
Carl Baermann was Heinrich Baermann’s son. He was a prodigy and was regularly performing with the Munich orchestra when he was a mere 14 years old. He played second clarinet to his father and succeeded him when his father retired in 1834. He held the chair for the next 46 years. Carl was a great teacher like his father, and his method books are still in general use today because of the improvements to the instrument that occurred during his tenure. While his father’s books were perfect for clarinets with fewer than 10 keys, Carl’s books are still relevant today. Every advanced and professional player has a copy of them.
While the Baermann’s and Anton Stadler were the driving forces in clarinet playing in Austria and Germany for nearly 100 years, Hyachinthe Klose, born in Greece, was the driving force in France for his whole professional life. His “Complete Method for the Clarinet” is regularly referred to as “the clarinetist’s Bible.” The technical studies included therein run the entire gamut of what is possible on the clarinet. He, too, was instrumental, so to speak, in the development of the clarinet, and it is his improvements on Boehm’s system that continue today. Like the Baermanns, he was a well-known and influential teacher.
Rose was Klose’s student, and “everybody who was anybody” in the clarinet world studied with him at one time or another. His “32 Etudes” and “40 Etudes” are staples in clarinet instruction to this day. In fact, in the same way as piano players trace their teachers’ “pedigrees” back to Liszt and say they “studied with Liszt,” many clarinet players do the same with both Rose and Klose. Rose played in the Paris Conservetoire orchestra like his mentor. Many of his famous students, like Paul JeanJean and Henri Selmer, developed their own pedagogy or crafted exceptional instruments.
Possessed of a sweet, dark tone and mind-boggling technique, Karl Leister was the principal clarinetist in the Berlin Philharmonic for three decades. He played the Oehler system clarinet, which was developed from Baermann’s improvements. Even after leaving the orchestra as the principal after retiring, he taught and performed all over the world in chamber ensembles and as a featured soloist with many other orchestras. Karl Leister is the first person on this list to be still living, and he is currently 84 years old.
Harold Wright was the principal clarinetist in the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1970 until his far-too-early death in 1993. His warm, vibrant sound was unmistakable in recordings. Audiophiles could immediately tell it was a Boston Symphony recording by hearing him play the first clarinet part. He also played with the Dallas Symphony and the National Symphony of Washington, D.C., prior to taking up his greatest position. As noted as he is as an orchestral musician, he is equally famous as a chamber player. As a teacher, he inspired students at both Boston University and at the Tanglewood Center.
Robert Marcellus was to the Cleveland Orchestra what Harold Wright was in Boston: an unmistakable virtuoso who beguiled audiences with his superb playing and inspired students with thought-provoking instruction. Marcellus’s recording of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra is considered definitive. As a teacher, he is recognized as the greatest of them all from 1950 onward. Tragically, diabetes took him far too early, and in his later years, when the disease robbed him of his sight and affected his embouchure when he lost a few teeth, he focused on teaching rather than playing.
Stanley Drucker is still alive well into his 90s and set the record for service as a clarinetist with a major symphony orchestra after playing with the New York Philharmonic for 62 years. Notorious as prickly when instructing and also for his world-class articulation, he was a leading figure in the music world for his entire career. It is doubtful that anyone will surpass his record of playing more than 10,000 concerts with the orchestra, chamber groups, and as a soloist. His wife, Naomi, is a clarinetist, too, and many clarinetists think that she’s even better than he was.
Anthony Gigliotti served as the principal clarinetist in the Philadelphia Orchestra for 47 years. He was renowned as a teacher and made his immortal contribution to the field by designing and developing his eponymous ligature, which helps the player produce a bright and clear sound that resembles what he also strove to achieve. He founded the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet. It’s one of the most highly regarded chamber ensembles in the country. Both he and bassoonist Bernard Garfield arranged many other pieces for the quintet.
Richard Stoltzman is as unconventional as he is famous. He has more than three dozen solo records that have performed very well on the classical music charts. He is the first soloist to have made a wide and powerful impression on the masses. People who aren’t really classical music fans, let alone devotees of the clarinet, know his name. He has done numerous “crossover” concerts with musicians as varied as Chick Corea, Claude Bolling, and Judy Collins. Stoltzman uses a heavy vibrato in his playing, which is the chief reason his playing is controversial in the industry. Still, his combination of artistry, popularity, and slick business practices kept him at the forefront of the world of clarinet for many years. When Liszt battled Thalberg in their famous duel, the countess who sponsored it said that, “Liszt is unique.” The New York Times awarded the same title to Richard Stoltzman.
The “King of Swing” was a powerful presence on stage in many different genres. He was a champion of jazz of all kinds, and his 1938 performance at Carnegie Hall in New York was and is seen as the beginning of jazz as “respectable music.” Benny Goodman changed with the times too. After the decline of swing music, he switched to bebop even though he didn’t care much for the style. He even studied clarinet with Reginald Kell to beef up his classical chops. It was a tough go, and he had to remove calluses from his fingers that he had had for decades. Still, he was successful, and even though his recordings of both the K.581 and K.622 are not seen as paragons of the art, they are still widely respected.
Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr is primarily known as an educator, and she ruled the halls of Michigan State University with an iron disposition that was necessary for her to survive in a field supremely dominated by men. Her Verdehr Trio has been a cutting-edge performing ensemble since its inception. Perhaps her most famous performance came in the legendary 1958 recording with the Eastman Wind Ensemble when they played the Mozart “Gran Partita,” K.361. This is one of the greatest recorded performances of the 20th century, and she was a mere 22 when it was recorded.
In 1982, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, handpicked a clarinetist to join the ensemble: Sabine Meyer. The nature of her association with the orchestra, which bypassed the normal audition process, caused great controversy within the ranks. Nine months after she joined the group, she left the orchestra to pursue a solo career. The vote regarding keeping her in the orchestra was 73-4 against her. Their excuse was, “She doesn’t blend,” but most people realized it was misogyny and prejudice that forced her out. There was really no way to complain about her playing, which is phenomenal. She has had a worldwide solo career ever since her departure in 1983.