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The World's Greatest Cornet Player?

September 2003 sees the 135th anniversary of the birth of Herbert Clarke, possibly the most famous cornet player the world has ever seen and heard.

Clarke in his primeHERBERT LINCOLN CLARKE was born on September 12, 1867 in Woburn, Massachusetts, one of five sons to Eliza and William Horatio Clarke, themselves descendants of early settlers of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Herbert’s father was a versatile and competent musician who devoted the majority of is expertise to the organ and composition. Three of Herbert’s brothers, Will, Edwin, and Ernest, excelled in musical studies, and both Edwin and Ernest performed at a professional level on cornet and trombone, respectively. In Herbert’s early years the Clarke family moved to Ohio, Indiana, back to Massachusetts, and at 12 years of age to Toronto, Ontario, as his father assumed various positions as church organist, organ builder, and teacher.

Clarke’s early musical instruction as on violin, and at 13 years of age he was a second violinist in the Philharmonic Society Orchestra of Toronto. About the same time he began to play his brother Ed’s cornet and was soon earning fifty cents a night playing in a restaurant band, subsequently playing in the Queen’s Own Regimental Band as well. This early involvement was diverted when a bout with pneumonia left Clarke unable to practice and confined to home for several months. After his graduation from high school n June of 1884, the Clarke family again moved to Indianapolis, save Will, who remained to continue his employment at a Toronto department store.

While at Indianapolis, Herbert’s thoughts again turned to cornet playing. One of the major catalysts to this end was Walter Rogers, two years Clarke’s senior, who was already active in the musical life of the city. Clarke admired Rogers’ abilities on the cornet and the two became fast friends and musical associates for the remainder of their years. In addition to playing duets, the formed the Schubert Brass Quartet, adding Herbert’s brothers Ed on alto horn and Ernest on trombone. Rogers, an accomplished violinist, also gave Herbert lessons on Viola.

After months of saving, Clarke purchased a Boston “three-star” cornet, and after more frugality was able to have it silver plated through a local jewelry store. Upon redeeming the cornet he was distressed to find that the buffing of the bell had resulted in flat spots thereon. Regardless of his disappointment he continued his musical endeavours and succeeded Rogers as first cornetist in England’s Opera House Orchestra when his friend accepted a position with Cappa’s Seventh Regiment Band of New York.

Salaried $15 Per week, no meagre wage for the time, Clarke seemed launched upon his musical career. Shortly after assuming the post, however, brother Will offered Herbert a job as errand boy in Toronto, and Clarke’s parents, who were hesitant regarding Herbert’s professional ambitions in music, persuaded him to accept. Now salaried at $10 per month, Herbert attempted to adjust to the business world while still performing when opportunities presented themselves. Discontent with his wages and sorely missing his active musical involvement, he requested a raise at the store and when same was not forthcoming he returned to Indianapolis to play viola in the Opera Orchestra at his former wage of $15per week.

During the off-season, Clarke performed with the When Clothing Store Band. The band entered a contest on October 10, 1886 at Evansville, Indiana, and Herbert entered the solo contest that afternoon. Clarke relates in his autobiography:

Then in the afternoon came the cornet contest and my application having been duly sent in I was chosen to play first. The fact that we had won first prize in the band contest of the morning gave me more confidence and courage than usual, and then too, the boys in our band ‘rooted’ strongly for me which added to my courage. The solo I had chosen was The Whirlwind Polka by Levy, the same I had played in Canada the previous year at the time I won the cup. After finishing the long cadenza at the beginning of the piece I was some-what in a trance although not nearly so nervous as on my previous occasion when I had played that number. My technique had improved and I was not any longer the least bit afraid of the high notes. The tip I had received from Will Mason concerning ‘brilliancy’ had its effect. Nevertheless, I was glad when it was all over. Although the boys complimented me upon my efforts, I realised that my playing was far from being satisfactory to myself: I had not played nearly as well as I would have been able to play had I been in my room all alone.

After my solo, I left the bandstand and walked to the rear of the great audience in order that I might listen to the other contestants. The next soloist in line to play stood up, I think his choice was the Lizzie Polka by John Hartman and there is no question but that he played well. I knew every note of the solo and I had to admit that is style was splendid: quite brilliant as should be that of a virtuoso. I felt that he surely must win the prize. This thought affected me to such an extent that I did not wait to hear the finish of his selection but went some distance off into the woods (the fairgrounds where we played were on the outskirts of the city), feeling the most disconsolate boy in the world. I knew our band boys were set on my carrying away the prize and should I lose it could never face them again. From the way the other fellow played, at any rate as far as I had listened, I knew that his performance was far superior to mine.

I must have been there fully an hour meditating on how I could get back to Indianapolis all alone feeling discouraged, broken-hearted, and one of our boys finally after looking everywhere had told me to hurry to the bandstand as the judges were waiting to present me with the prize! Imagine my surprise (and secret delight) upon hearing the good news although I felt sorry for the other fellow who really played well. A few moments ago I had been contemplating suicide in its less painful forms. I could not understand my good fortune. I cannot remember the name of the player who lost to me and I have never heard of him since – I believe he came from Brazil, Indiana. I was told later that although he began his solo in a fine manner playing well throughout until nearing the end he eventually caved in and made a bad finish.

On reaching the bandstand I was greeted with a degree of applause, which almost staggered me – I had to be led up to the judges. One of these made a nice speech complimenting me on my playing and stating that I had won first prize. Turning around he introduced me to dear old Henry Distin, a celebrated instrument maker, who coming forward and shaking me by the hand then presented me with the award, a baby cornet, one of his own make – the smallest B-flat cornet ever made measuring only 6½ inches long, 5 inches high with an oval bell and gold plated and elaborately engraved. Mr Distin, enthused over my playing as being remarkable for a boy, asked me to play some suitable song on the small instrument. Again, completely staggered and unable to open my mouth in response, I took the cornet and endeavoured to play it. I was astonished by the power possessed by the miniature instrument: it made a hit with everyone, both audience and bandsmen. It was the only one of its kind that Henry Distin ever made, and I still have it by me, a carefully cherished possession.

Pocket cornet in B flat made by Henry Distin and won in a cornet contest by Clarke plating Levy's Cornet Polka in 1886
Pocket cornet in B flat made by Henry Distin and won in a cornet contest by Clarke plating Levy's Cornet Polka in 1886

The euphoria was short-lived, however, for upon returning to the opera house for the next season it was discovered that the management planned to replace the violin (Edwin) and viola (Herbert) positions with a piano. The orchestra went on strike and supported Ed and Herbert to the end that the whole ensemble was ultimately fired. Mr. T.R. Brush of the When Clothing Company formed the Alliance Orchestra and Swiss Bell Ringers in an attempt to save the day, but after a short tour financial woes overtook the enterprise and the group disbanded leaving Herbert and Ed both unemployed.

Disheartened, the young cornetist joined his parents in Rochester, New York, seeking yet another business opportunity. After weeks of unemployment, Clarke joined the Academy of Music Theatre Orchestra on viola and played variety shows. He was able to play cornet in a band drawn from the pit orchestra, to play solos at Ontario Beach, and other miscellaneous engagements.

Finally the offer of Clarke’s first fully professional position s a cornet soloist with a yearly salary arrived with an invitation to join the Citizen’s Band of Toronto under the direction of an old friend, John Bayley. Accepting the opportunity, Clarke entered upon a whirlwind musical life which found him performing with the band plus the Philharmonic Society and the Claxton Music Store Orchestra, teaching violin at the Trinity College at Port Hope, maintaining a large class of cornet pupils and conducting both a band and an orchestra. In addition, he studied harmony and composition and began to compose and arrange in serious manner.

In the meantime, Ernest Clarke had attained a trombone position with the famed Patrick Gilmore Band, and when a solo cornet vacancy occurred in that organization he encouraged Herbert to audition. Herbert did, and after gruelling and lengthy interview, was named to the position. At last engaged in the finest musical circles, Clarke toured with the group for several months.

Clarke aged 24 in 1892The untimely death of Gilmore in September of 1892, however, left Clarke unemployed, and he returned to New York City where his friends Walter Rogers, still with Cappa’s Band, assisted him in securing free-lance engagements. A call from John Philip Sousa brought Clarke to that illustrious organization as solo cornetist in 1893. Despite the long tenure which Clarke enjoyed with Sousa, the latter was unable to afford is musicians full-time employment, and this allowed Clarke to perform intermittently with the bands of Frederick Innes and the reformed Gilmore Band under Victor Herbert.

Two temporary engagements during this period of a different nature were that of second trumpet in the New York Philharmonic and slightly later as principal trumpeter of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. In the first of these engagements Clarke used the cornet while in the second he temporarily adopted the trumpet.

The years from the turn of the century until 1921 found Clarke continuing to perform, testing cornets for the Conn Company in Elkhart, Indiana, beginning to write his four instructional methods for cornet (Elementary Studies, Setting Up Drills, Technical Studies, and Characteristic Studies), and most importantly, recording extensively. He was by now playing largely his own compositions, and these likewise comprise the majority of his records. In several instances, he recorded his own compositions repeatedly: Bride of the Waves five times, Sounds from the Hudson twice, and Carnival of Venice twice. Regarding the Sounds from the Hudson, Clarke had completed the composition while on a return voyage from England with Sousa and had named the selection Vase Brilliante. While waiting to dock at New York, however, Clarke changed the name to Sounds from the Hudson at the suggestion of Mr. Sousa.

He twice recorded the Russian Fantasie of Jules Levy, Clarke’s childhood idol, and by the same composer the Whirlwind Polka, long a staple in Clarke’s repertory. Although Clarke’s name is generally associated with technical virtuosity, he also recorded and performed many purely melodic selections. Ah! Cupid by Victor Herbert conforms to this category and is included on this album.

In addition to the solo recordings, he made several for duet, trio, and quartet as well, involving other leading brass players of the day including Walter Rogers, Hermann Bellstedt, and the famed trombonist Arthur Pryor.

Clarke, who had observed Jules Levy playing after his prime, resolved not to follow suit and said that he would retire from extensive concertizing at the age of 50 regardless of his degree of success at the time. While he did occasionally record and perform after age 50, he began to concentrate on conducting and teaching, opening his own school or cornet playing in Chicago. In addition, a long friendship with the trombonist instrument maker, Frank Holton, developed a collaboration resulting in the Holton-Clarke cornet.

Aged 51 as Director of the Anglo - Canadian Leather Company Band While pursuing this diverse livelihood he was invited to become permanent conductor of the Anglo-Canadian Leather Company Band of Huntsville, Ontario. The Membership was comprised of employees of the company though Clarke was allowed to import former associates including Walter Rogers to upgrade the calibre of the band. In 1921, while visiting his brother Ernest in New York, he made his last commercial recordings and performed a few solos in the Milwaukee area with Holton’s band.

In 1923, doctors felt that the health of Mrs. Clarke, Lillian (Hause 1872 – 1930), was being adversely affected by the inclement weather in Ontario. Released from obligations in Huntsville, he moved to Los Angeles intending to teach cornet but was approached in October of that year by the city manager of Long Beach regarding the possibility of conducting the Long Beach Municipal Band. Accepting the offer, Clarke conducted the aggregation until 1943, performing only rarely with them, and then, not the virtuoso repertory of his youth. Following a two year decline in health, Herbert L. Clarke died on January 30, 1945 in Long Beach. In accordance with Clarke’s wishes, he was buried next to his wife in the Congressional Cemetary in Washington, D.C. – near the grave of his lifelong friend, John Philip Sousa. His musical instruments, manuscripts, and memorabilia joined those of Sousa in the Department of Bands at the University of Illinois. This resulted through te influence of A. Austin Harding, then Director of Bands at Illinois and longtime personal friend of both Clarke and Sousa.

From surviving recordings, it may be documented that Clarke brought a refinement of style to the art of cornet solo playing which had not been fully achieved by his predecessors. While earlier players articulated harshly and were primarily concerned wit technical display, Clarke maintained a lyricism and melodic flow, even in extremely difficult technical passages.

Thus far, the major emphasis of these notes has been the life and lasting influence of one person, Herbert L. Clarke. However, it is only recently that 20th Century listeners have approached the 19th century virtuoso solo at all. In this instance, while Clarke was a tour de force, it is crucial to realise that he is and was the tour de force of a whole musical phenomenon. Contemporaries of Clarke who enjoyed if not equal at least competitive prominence included Herman Bellstedt, Del Staigers, Edwin Goldman, Walter Rogers, Frank Simon, and Walter Smith, all cornetists who, alongside Clarke, were but major figures in a large musical tapestry.


These notes were made by Gerald R. Endsley for the release of the LP entitled “Herbert L. Clarke with the Sousa Band and the Victor Orchestra produced by Crystal Records in 1979. In was also produced in association with the International Trumpet Guild.

Crystal Records were based at the time of the recording at 2235 Willida Lane, Sedro Woolley, Washington. USA 98284.

Many thanks to Sian Pocknell who took the time to produce the article from the original for 4BR.

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