What Was an Audition Like with Gilmore?

Mike Lawson • Commentary • April 6, 2018

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One Sunday morning in February 1892, young Herbert L. Clarke (1867- 1945), upon prompting from his brother Ernest, auditioned for the famous Gilmore Band.

Ern, who was already playing trombone in Gilmore’s Band, informed his brother that they needed a cornet soloist, and Bert ought to seek an audition.

So, 24-year-old Herbert Lincoln Clarke from Toronto, Canada, appeared unannounced at the home of 62-year-old Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore in New York City, only to be informed the bandmaster could not be disturbed, and to return at three o’clock that afternoon.

According to his notes in How I Became a Cornetist, Clarke recalled, he walked around Central Park for several hours and nearly lost his courage to return for the audition, fearing he would not measure eup to Gilmore’s expectations.

He considered all of the cornet soloists who played for Gilmore before: Jules Levy, Benjamin Bent, Walter Emerson, Alessandro Liberati (oddly enough, he omitted Matthew Arbuckle). His apprehension grew as he attempted to bolster his courage by remembering how well his playing was received in his own city, realizing, he was coming from the “backwoods,” and now he was in New York City! Clarke wrote, “It seemed audacious on my part to ever have attempted such an impossibility. So, one can imagine my feelings as the time grew near for my appointment.”

He continued, and described his feelings, rationalizing – the trip to New York was expensive, and he was not going home a coward, no matter what might happen. He felt it an honor to play before an eminent bandmaster such as Gilmore, and successful or not, he might learn something from this experience and Gilmore’s comments on his playing.

If he should fail to satisfy Gilmore, all of this would make him a better musician and with a few more years experience, he might be in a better position to pass the audition. After all, Patrick S. Gilmore was a cornet soloist, himself.

He further assured himself that failure would not kill him, and if he ever wanted to become a great artist, he would have to go after what he wanted; so, he walked confidently, and he wrote,” bravely” to the appointment, and rang the doorbell at the appointed time.

He was escorted to the library, and told to wait, where, much to his astonishment, he discovered a photograph of himself on Gilmore’s mantelpiece. At first, he wondered how it got there, but realized his brother, Ern, probably gave it to him while he was informing Gilmore of Bert and his cornet. Clarke wrote, “I felt proud, nevertheless to think that it was exhibited in this great bandmaster’s home, and this gave me more courage to do my best when the time came.” Clarke wrote he knew this, “.. . was the crisis of my life,” and he must give it everything he could do, hold nothing back, and if he got nervous, it would sap 90 percent of his ability, leaving him only 10 percent left on which to play, which he wrote, “would spell disaster.”

After a half hour, Gilmore appeared and greeted the young man, “. . . so affably, a characteristic which made him the lovable man to all, that I really forgot my excitement for the moment.” Gilmore made small-talk for a while, putting Bert at ease, and finally suggested to take out his cornet and play something for him, but Gilmore advised, “Warm up a bit.”

Clarke wrote that he could not think of a thing, and Gilmore noticed his hesitation, and began to encourage him, telling him he knew just how he felt. Clarke, forgetting himself, suddenly broke into what he called one of his most difficult numbers, Levy’s Whirlwind Polka, concentrating on every note.

Clarke finished it in a, “creditable manner.” Gilmore nodded and told him to, “Go on.” He played a difficult aire varie and finished on a very high note, which was not in the music, to which Gilmore exclaimed, “Bravo,” and encouraged him to play another solo with more execution.

Gilmore, apparently satisfied with what he had heard so far, now told the young man to rest, and Gilmore planned for this time to talk. Gilmore questioned him concerning his previous experiences and what music he was accustomed to playing. Clarke explained he had been schooled in all the classic overtures, oratorios, and operatic selections.

Next Gilmore requested he play some simple ballads, and suggested, “The Last Rose of Summer,” which he did, and interpreted it so well, it astonished and impressed Gilmore. At no time in this process did Clarke ever mention being confronted with any sheet music or scores from which to play. He was apparently doing all this from memory.

By this point in the audition, Clarke was getting a bit exhausted. He was tired, and hoped he was finished playing and that Gilmore would talk about a contract, which did not happen. Now he was worried again that he was not good enough for a position in Gilmore’s Band, but declared in his own mind that the experience so far, even though cost him a lot of money, was well worth ten times what he spent.

Gilmore broke the silence and asked him if he knew the popular soprano aria from Robert the Devil, by Meyerbeer? Clarke answered he did, blew the water from his cornet, thought about how he was going to interpret it properly, and started. His confidence had now returned.

His old bandmaster had drilled him in every phrase, explaining the words and the meaning of this opera, which all returned to his head. Even though challenging, and reaching deep inside himself to continue, in spite of having played so much and being somewhat weary, performed it flawlessly.

Now Gilmore, showing much enthusiasm, patted him on the back and announced he was looking for a great cornet player who could play musically and display the endurance Clarke had demonstrated during the audition, and at last, he had found one. Clarke had the job!

Clarke wrote he had to sit down, spent, but thrilled at the prospect of his success. Now, he related, Gilmore began talking business, asking if he was bound by contract in his present position, and, if free, told Clarke to report to New York early in April for rehearsals, which took place, he said, before his regular spring tour of New England. This was followed by a month at Madison Square Garden, and the entire summer at Manhattan Beach, and that year, at the St. Louis Exposition in September, and end with the fall tour.

Gilmore advised him he must join the New York Musical Union, which was mandatory for all Gilmore Band members, and buy his own Gilmore Band uniform and everything he would need to travel with the band. He also had to supply all of his solos with full band arrangements.

Gilmore thanked him for the treat had given him, playing as he had, and dismissed him cordially.

Upon leaving, the young man suddenly became aware of the toll this audition had taken on his body. He wrote, “. . . My lungs ached, my lips were sore, and my nervous condition suffered most of all, and for several days the effects of this strain told upon me.” But he concluded, “Yet, it all repaid me in the end.”

At this point, many people would be tempted to simply enjoy the prestige of being the solo cornet player in the greatest band in America and probably in the world, but not Herbert L. Clarke. He saw this as a launching pad. Now, he declared, he had a “real start” and would have the opportunity to show Mr. Gilmore, “. . .how I could improve with the experience I could obtain playing with him awhile and be useful to him in many ways.”

When he returned to Toronto, and his home, he was released from his contract and wired Gilmore to assure him he would be there for rehearsals and the tour. During the two months he had before he had to report, Clarke wrote he practiced with more thought and carefulness than ever before, focusing on his endurance.

He realized as soloist and first cornet player, he would have to have the energy to play every concert, every day. He took nothing for granted. He wrote, “Having now reached the pinnacle of my ambition, I must work all the harder to hold it, and add new laurels through perseverance.”

Finally, Clarke reflected on his career, and wrote this advice, “It is all up to the individual himself, who must persevere, and whatever he wants in life he must go after it himself. People who lean on others to push them ahead can not succeed unless they themselves have a stronger manhood, and yet all have an equal chance to rise to success if they work properly and conscientiously.

There is no luck in cornet playing, at least I have never experienced it, and the least doubt of any kind will bring failure.”

Herbert Lincoln Clarke then offered a synopsis of his career with Gilmore, Frederick Innes, Victor Herbert and John Philip Sousa. He had traveled over 800,000 miles, played over 5,000 scheduled solos, including 473 concerts in one season (which was a record). He played in one thousand different towns, visited fourteen different foreign countries, and played before the leaders of those countries. He played at all the World’s Fairs, including the Columbian Expo in Chicago in 1893, Atlanta in 1895, and in Paris in 1901. He performed on 34 tours of the United States and Canada, four European tours, and one tour completely around the world. Not a bad record for a kid with a cornet.

Herbert L. Clarke was living proof of a man who took his own advice, properly prepared himself, and succeeded, but most importantly, he realized, “. . . all have an equal chance to rise to success, if they work.” And it all started because one young man went to New York for an audition with the Great Gilmore.

Major Patrick W. Dugan is a conductor and musicologist who took Clarke’s advice as a young man and has never regretted it.

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