This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Well Dressed Clarinetist No. 4, the E-flat Edition

29 May 2021


It's an unimpressive looking instrument.
At first glance most people would call it
just a clarinet, thinking it's the longer standard clarinet in B-flat.
But this variety of clarinet is shorter, only 19 ¼ inches long,
and that diminutive stature is what gives it
a much pointier, penetrating power.

It is the E-flat Clarinet,
the razor-sharp rapier of the woodwind family.


In the early 19th century
as brass bands became popular,
an instrument was needed that could play
the high descant counter melody.
Something with a treble voice
loud enough to carry a tune above
the overtones of the brass cornets and saxhorns.
The little E-flat clarinet fit the bill perfectly.
Its high reedy tone makes babies cry and dogs howl.
With nimble fingers it plays faster than the wind.
And when wielded with skill, its sound can slice
thorough 6 cornets, 10 trombones, and 4 tubas at a single stroke.


 Even a big brass band needed only one E-flat clarinet.
Any more would be unbearable,
like too much chili powder in the stew.
It was an instrument
that required a skilled musician,
someone with the courage of a soloist,
as there was no hiding its sound in a concert.
Every squawk, every honk, every faulty note would be heard.
It is a fearsome little instrument with a deadly bark.

So today I feature
another collection of photographs
of well-dressed bandsmen,
masters of the E-flat clarinet.


We begin with an early tintype, or ferrotype, photo of a dashing bandsman.
He is dressed in a short military jacket, a tailcoat I think,
with fringed epaulets and three rows of brass buttons.
His shako hat has a rolled feather plume
and a cap badge embossed with a musical lyre.
On a very fake, painted column
he rests his E-flat clarinet.


 A ferrotype camera records light directly onto
the chemical emulsion painted on a metal plate.
This creates a mirror image in the same manner as
that used by the early daguerreotype and ambrotype photographers.
Through the magic of digital photo software
I have corrected the contrast on this typically dark tintype image
and reversed it right to left for a true lifelike view.
Here the clarinet is positioned as the musician would hold it,
with his right hand being lowest on the instrument.
A ferrotype was usually made on a large plate
with room for multiple small exposures.
This photographer then snipped out each individual photo,
this one is
2½" x 4", and hid the ragged edges
in a simple paper envelope, which of course was easily lost.
The ferrotype's metal back doesn't take pencil or ink very well
so there is no identification for this bandsman.
I would guess it dates from 1866 to 1878
when the tintype technique was most popular.
The ribbon on his jacket is probably a souvenir
of some grand event involving a parade,
perhaps for a political rally or public holiday.

 * * *

 The next E-flat clarinetist is a cabinet card photo taken at the studio
of R. N. Ham, 86 S. Halsted Street, Chicago, Illinois
opposite the Academy of Music.
This musician with his brushy mustache
wears mid-length uniform coat
with ornate embroidery and toggle buttons.
He stands next to a fake fireplace mantle
where his clarinet rests next to a heavy book.
His cap and uniform are marks of a professional band.
I estimate his photo was made around 1885.
* * *

My opening image of an E-flat clarinet
came from this cabinet photo of an unknown bandsman.
It's from a later decade perhaps around 1900-10
as it is mounted on an over-large olive green cardstock
which has no identification of the photographer.
The young man's uniform is quite fancy despite the dark color
as the coat is embellished with complicated embroidery.
The only clue to his location
is his cap's badge with the initials D.B.A.
which is not very helpful.
And unfortunately the camera failed to pick up
the title of the sheet music on the music stand beside him.
His clean shaven face makes me think
he dates from about 1910.

* * *

 My fourth clarinetist stands in the studio
of Peck & Son, 74 & 78 Water St. in Newburgh, New York.
Behind him is a landscape backdrop
of what I presume is the Hudson River,
as Newburgh is about 66 miles north of New York City
on the west bank of the Hudson.
This bandsman's uniform is richly decorated
with frilled epaulets, fine embroidery, and white cuffs.
He wears a tall British-style custodian hat
with a large embossed badge and feathery plume.
It's a style often worn by a band of a state guard regiment.
This photo is from late 1880s to 1895, I think.
It is an unusual long cabinet card, 4" x 8½",
compared to the typical cabinet dimension of 4¼" x 6½".

The clarinet he holds may not be an E-flat,
but I don't think it is long enough to be a standard B-flat.
Clarinets were manufactured in a bewildering number of sizes,
from a midget-sized A-flat clarinet (the ultimate squeaker)
to a monstrous 10 foot long Contrabass clarinet.
I suspect this New York bandsman's clarinet
is sized in the key of D or C,
which still plays some pretty high notes
capable of frightening horses.

* * *

My last well-dress clarinetist photo is a bandsman
in a splendid high contrast uniform
with a short coat covered in ornate white embroidery,
white trousers, and white custodian hat topped with a Germanic spike.
Its extravagant style is too flashy for a military band,
so I think he is the member of a circus band
where over-the-top fashion was part of the entertainment.

 What is interesting about his cabinet card photo
is that the photographer's studio
was Dahl Bros. of Mayville, North Dakota,
a very small town in eastern North Dakota
about 58 miles north of Fargo.
My guesstimate is that this photo was taken about 1898-1904
which was when only 1,106 people lived in Mayville.
His attire is too fancy for a small town band,
but would be expected for a bandsman in a large traveling show
like a three-ring circus or wild west show.


 The length of his instrument
looks a bit longer than an E-flat
and may be a D or C clarinet
like the previous clarinetist.
But even so, he has the sharp-eyed stare
of a confident musician who knew how use
his clarinet to cut the heart of any audience.

The E-flat clarinet is still commonly played
in bands and orchestras, but it is no longer
a featured solo band instrument as it once was in past times.
When played well, and with a good reed,
it makes beautiful soprano music.
But in the wrong hands, its shriek is like the sound
of a banshee's fingernails on a chalkboard.
You don't want to sit too close.


For more clarinetists in uniform check out:


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone has stuff to move this weekend.  


Barbara Rogers said...

Hi Mike...glad to read about other bands, instruments and cards photographed ages ago. You must spend hours on researching these posts, and I'm grateful.

Wendy said...

Love the comparison to chili powder. HA
I used to think all instruments were like a piano - it is what it is and it plays what it plays and sounds like how it should sound. Your blog has shown me that some instruments specialize. Now I wonder about little high school bands and music instruction. Do students receive just a basic clarinet, a street-variety trumpet, a universal trombone or are there specialized instruments here and there that I never was aware of?

kathy said...

I am apparently drawn to flashy, over the top, confident clarinetists. Love that last photo.

Molly's Canopy said...

These are just great! I would not have realized that these clarinets are shorter until you pointed it out -- but then it seems so obvious. I love how most of the bandsmen simply set their clarinet atop the prop, while others cradle the instrument like a small child. The uniforms are also unique, and each so different -- likely depending on the band they were in.

La Nightingail said...

Well now you have me wondering what ?-flat clarinet my Dad played in high school? I saw it a couple of times when I was young, but Dad didn't keep it because when I was older and asked to see it again, he no longer had it. Darn! Today, so much into music and bands, I would be especially interested in seeing it. It was most likely a standard B-flat clarinet, but now, because of you, I'm always going to wonder! I'm not sure if that's good or bad? :) I was disappointed you didn't have a video of someone playing the E-flat clarinet, though. I waited through your whole post and then - it wasn't there! Nails down a chalkboard didn't quite suffice. :) Oh well.

smkelly8 said...

I never knew about these shorter clarinets and I played the clarinet in school. It's one of my favorite instruments.

Such wonderful uniforms.


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