The Clarinet That Made History

Some notes on metal clarinets by Eberhard Kraut

Eberhard Kraut’s PEDLER metal Albert clarinet, which is identical to the one George Lewis (see black & white photo) played during Bill Russell’s CLIMAX / AMERICAN MUSIC recording sessions in 1943/44

E. Kraut & Bill Russell

When George Lewis recorded Burgundy Street Blues in New Orleans, Louisiana for Bill Russell’s AMERICAN MUSIC label he made history by using an American German silver Albert system clarinet that was made by Harry PEDLER of Elkhart, Indiana in the early 1930s.
With this world famous blues and other recordings done in 1943-44 with his trio and bands led by himself and veteran trumpeter Bunk Johnson, George Lewis demonstrated very well that a metal clarinet doesn’t sound worse than a wooden one but as good or even better.

The use of metal for clarinet bodies goes back to 1817 when the French instrument maker HALARI built a brass “clarinet metallique”. In the 1840s and 1850s Austrian and Russian army bands were equipped with metal clarinets because they were very robust and survived considerable wear and tear. But at the end of the 19th century the American selling agents of the high-class European manufacturers of clarinets still said in their catalogues: “Metal clarinets – such instruments must be considered as experiments of the past. The metallic sound and extreme harshness of tone produced by such an instrument has eliminated them from practical use in Europe and elsewhere… Metal clarinets cannot be recommended”. The few metal clarinets exported by a Bohemian company (V. KOHLERT’s Sons of Graslitz, CSR) to their agents in New York in the early years of the 20th century didn’t find the way to players. The first manufacturer who changed all this and made history this way was the American Harry BETTONEY Co. of Boston, Massachusetts. With the appearance of the “Silva-Bet” in 1925 the first successful metal clarinet was produced. People began to change their minds about metal clarinets, and in an unparalleled short time the entire clarinet industry changed from wood to metal. In America in particular the demand for metal clarinets was very high at the time; these instruments were sought after not only by military bands but also by high school bands, and by jazz musicians. Beside BETTONEY and the above mentioned PEDLER Co., other well known American musical instrument factories like BUESCHER and CONN (both of Elkhart, Indiana), KING (Cleveland, Ohio), HAYNES (Boston, Massachusetts), PENZEL-MUELLER (New York) or HOLTON (Elkhorn, Wisconsin) built superb metal clarinets then. In Europe, too, the wood-wind instrument makers responded to the heightened interest in metal clarinets, and so, e.g. HUELLER and MOENNIG (Schoeneck resp. Markneukirchen, Vogtland, Germany), ORSI and RAMPONE (both of Milan, Italy), NOBLET, BUFFET and SELMER (all of Paris, France) made like the Americans metal clarinets mainly with German silver (“white metal”) bodies. And, of course KOHLERT continued to make metal clarinets as BOOSEY & HAWKES of London (Around 1900 HAWKES created their “XX th Century” clarinet with a brass body which was still made in 1930 after the merger with BOOSEY).

High grade metal clarinets possess a specific mellowness and retain the true clarinet tone, their principal characteristic is clarity. The overtones are exceptionally well defined, the high notes are perfectly in tune and especially easy to play. In a leaflet of 1927 BETTONEY pointed out that it is a very important feature of a “Silva-Bet” that no brass (“yellow metal”) is used because they favoured German silver as the best “clarinet metal” which is productive of the true clarinet tone – indistinguishable from that of the finest grenadilla wood clarinet. A true clarinet tone, however, is not entirely due to the acoustic properties of metal (and the kind of metal used), but in part because with metal the instrument maker can work more accurately. The more essential requisites in the production of the perfect clarinet are dimensions and workmanship; skilled craftmen can work in metal with more definite adherence to specifi-cations than any wood suitable for musical instruments.

The main rationale for building metal clarinets was to create a clarinet that was very robust and resistant to variations in temperature and the influence of the weather for open-air playing. The metal body was seen as a good solution for a sensitive woodwind instrument, as long as the characteristic tone was not lost (for this reason there were metal oboes and metal bassoons as well). The metal clarinet was lightheartedly described as a “tropical clarinet”, alluding to the particularly harsh climatic conditions ruling in the tropics. By its very nature wood reacts markedly to external influences, above all temperature and humidity, even if it is good, slow-dried (South African grenadilla) wood. Frequently the result is tearing or splitting of the body of the instrument, which cannot happen with the metal clarinet. By the way, the “tropical clarinet” was of course resistant to the termites, which are very destructive to timber.

Because of its robustness George Lewis obtained a metal clarinet. When he saw the PEDLER metal Albert clarinet at Werlein’s Music Shop in Canal Street, New Orleans about 1936 he decided on the purchase. The heavy metal body of this clarinet had clearly appealed to him so much that he was sure he had acquired an instrument that would last him for the rest of his life. Nevertheless George stopped playing his metal clarinet in the late 1940s as it was a one-piece clarinet and couldn’t be dismantled like a wooden one and a wooden clarinet was lighter in weight, so that it could be transported more easily and was not so heavy on the right thumb when being played. Later George Lewis gave the only metal clarinet he owned to the New Orleans Jazz Museum, where it can be viewed (without its mouthpiece) in the former US Mint Building at 400 Esplanade Avenue.

The metal clarinet completely lost its particular significance as a robust woodwind instrument with the advent of stable synthetic clarinets made of Luraton/ABS plastic. These instruments do not differ in appearance from wooden clarinets but have certain advantages over wooden clarinets in maintenance and playing in extremes of weather and temperature, and they are cheaper to make than metal clarinets. The metal clarinet was therefore unable to survive in the age of plastic. Thus the prediction printed in a 1930s KOHLERT catalogue that it would be – like metal or silver flutes - the instrument of the future did not come true. The only remaining company that still makes metal clarinet is ORSI, an Italian musical instrument manufacturer who also made metal clarinets for different French brands like SELMER during the metal clarinet “boom” in the 1930s started by BETTONEY. It’s pleasing that thanks to Ryoichi Kawai of Japan, Nick Polites and Jack McLaughlin of Australia, Dr. Jim Searson, Penn Pengelly, Gordon Hunt and Brian Carrick of England, Paul Harrison and Kjeld Brandt of Denmark, Juergen Vieregge and Fraenzis Stuhler of Germany, Dr. Fabio Palchetti of Italy, Louis Siankope of Zimbabwe/Africa, Dick Bell of USA and some other players the metal clarinet has not been completely forgotten. With their old metal clarinets they recall a former jazz age, and so does the author of these notes when he plays his rare PEDLER metal Albert clarinet. Will further clarinetists follow their example so that some time a metal clarinet revival will be triggered off…?

Eberhard Kraut
with his beloved cat "Mohrle" and with his favourite clarinet: a metal Albert made by Harry Pedler of Elkhart, Indiana, USA a. 1930
George Lewis with his PEDLER metal Albert clarinet at San Jacinto Hall during Bill Russell's 'AMERICAN MUSIC' recordings in New Orleans 1944.
The inserted colour photo shows Bill Russell with Eberhard Kraut and his PEDLER
in Ascona, Switzerland 1987.

Photos by Bill Russell/William Wagner

Read also:

Committed to New Orleans Jazz and metal clarinets – Eberhard Kraut has set his heart on the New Orleans clarinets


The Clarinet That Made History

George Lewis' metal clarinet

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