The Bizarre Deaths of Historical Clarinetists

(updated October 2022)

You probably know by now that October is my favourite month. I love feeling the brisk chill in the air, indulging in sugary seasonal coffee drinks, and enjoying the magnificent foliage around me. But what I love most about October is Halloween – the scary stories, horror movies, and everything macabre.

I have quite the lineup of all things spooky and clarinet-related, so gather ’round the virtual campfire as we celebrate Halloween, Jenny Clarinet style!

Prepare to be spooked by the peculiar demises of these historical clarinetists:

  • Harmonides (c. 4th century BC) – During the time of Alexander the Great, Harmonides was an aulos student of Timotheus. (It would be centuries before the clarinet would be invented, however the ancient Greek aulos was a wind instrument which was a predecessor to many modern instruments.) Details are a bit murky since this event was so long ago, but according to the historian Lucian (c. 125-after 180 CE), Harmonides was impatient to gain the fame he felt he deserved, so at his first public performance, “he gave such a great blast of air into his instrument that he died on the spot.” (Beethoven’s Skull by Tim Rayborn, pages 5-6)
  • Anton Stadler (1753-1812) – You would think the celebrity garnished as “Mozart’s Clarinetist” would secure a cushy lifestyle, but that wasn’t the case for Stadler. After incurring many debts in his later life, he died of emaciation.
  • Johann Simon Hermstedt (1778-1846) – As the muse for most of Spohr’s clarinet compositions, Hermstedt maintained a heavy concert schedule throughout his life. The throat disease which killed Hermstedt was rumoured to have been caused by his clarinet.
  • Adolphe Sax (1814-1894) – Unconfirmed theory: Adolphe Sax had to be part cat, because he certainly had 9 lives! During his life, Sax was met with a variety of misfortunes: he fell from a height of three flights and hit his head; drank a bowl of acid (to be fair, he thought it was milk); narrowly escaped drowning; swallowed a pin; nearly asphyxiated from furniture varnish (on a few different occasions); fell face-first into a hot cast-iron skillet (???); got struck in the head by falling debris; and was burned by exploding gunpowder. After all this, he survived lip cancer. Sounds like he could have used some Felix Felicis!
  • Léon Pourtau (1868-1898) – This French clarinetist (and skilled painter) moved to the United States to perform with the Boston Symphony. He died when the French liner La Bourgogne sank, also killing a few other BSO members. His replacement in the BSO was none other than Alexandre Selmer.
  • Louis Cahuzac (1880-1960) – I’m here to dispel any rumours regarding the death of renowned French clarinetist and composer Louis Cahuzac! Many people believe that Cahuzac died in a motorcycle accident on the Champs-Élysées, but this is not true! (Although anybody that’s walked this street can you tell you how dangerous the traffic is!) Here’s the truth, told by Cahuzac’s grandson to Philippe Cuper: a truck hit Cahuzac’s shoulder in December 1959, which rendered him unable to perform or conduct. Cahuzac became understandably depressed, but he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in his sleep in Luchon on August 9, 1960.
  • Rudolf Gall (dates unknown) – Rudolf Gall performed with the Concertgebouw and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and he was a jury member of the first Ard competition in Munich. Despite his successful career, Gall became depressed after the death of his wife, and he committed suicide after squeaking in a concert.
  • Georges Grisez (1884-1946) – French-born clarinetist Georges Grisez moved to America after winning first prize at the Paris Conservatory. He performed with several prestigious orchestras in America, including the Boston Symphony and Philadelphia Orchestra. He died in a concert in 1946 after his performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. (I wonder if the death certificate lists cause of death as “death by glissando.”)
  • Ludwig Warschewski (1888-1950) – According to the conductor of the Nottingham Orchestra, Tchaikovksy’s Pathétique Symphony is cursed, and a musician would subsequently die after each performance by this group. Johannes Norby, the director of the Stockholm Concert Association, didn’t believe this rumor, so he programmed this piece in an upcoming concert. It was performed without issue, but during Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony, which was the next piece on the same program, Ludwig Warschewski “collapsed and died on stage” during this piece. He had played with the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra for thirty years. (Beethoven’s Skull by Tim Rayborn, pages 236-237)
  • Sidney Vigne (c. 1890-1924) – Jazz clarinetist Sidney Vigne was coming home after a New Year’s Eve gig in New Orleans when he was hit and killed by a meat truck. The drivers sped away, and their identity remains a mystery to this day. To make matters worse, police originally believe the body was that of fellow clarinetist Albert Nicholas, and they even called his wife to tell her that her husband had died. You can read more about this story here.
  • “Stan” Hasselgård (1922-1948) – Although not particularly bizarre, Swedish bebop clarinetist Stan Hasselgård died in an unfortunate car accident in Illinois at the age of 26. He is mentioned in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road when Sal Paradise is driving to Chicago and remembers the “famous bop clarinettist [who] had died in an Illinois car crash recently.”

It’s not just clarinetists who’ve died under strange circumstances – many composers have succumbed to the clarinet curse after composing for clarinet! Don’t say I didn’t warn you…


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