The Curse of the Yellow Clarinet

Longtime Jenny Clarinet readers know that nothing fascinates me more than the dark, strange, or creepy history of the clarinet (like the clarinet curse or the bizarre deaths of historical clarinetists.)

While researching an entirely unrelated subject, I stumbled upon an old book which mentions a superstition involving a yellow clarinet. This book, written in 1899 by Leon Mead, is titled The Bow-legged Ghost, and Other Stories: A Book of Humorous Sketches, Verses, Dialogues, and Facetious Paragraphs.

According to this book, “There is a peculiar superstition among certain theatrical people that an old-fashioned yellow clarinet in the orchestra is a sure omen of bad luck or misfortune to them.” This introduction is followed by a poem outlining this superstition (pp. 478-480):


The little man with the big moustache, and the funny drooping eye,
He plays no more in the orchestra, for the leader bade him fly;
But whither he fled, well, over that no one will really fret,
Whoever heard that little man play on his yellow clarinet.

Oh, what a Jonah this genius was to the actors on the stage!
Whene’er he played a tremolo it doubled the villain’s rage;
And empty seats, and all ill luck with which the Thespians met,
They swore was due to the man who played on the yellow clarinet.

A look of terror would quickly creep in the leading lady’s face,
When she “came on” and looking down would see that fiend in his place;
She begged the manager on her knees the music cues to omit –
For the sounds of that yellow clarinet would throw her into a fit.

‘Tis hard, they say, to acquire the skill the merry notes to transpose
On this instrument from the music score that lies before one’s nose;
But harder still it must be, indeed, when the player has drunk too much,
And he strikes a key with which the rest of the band is not in touch.

Well, that is what happened the other night, in the second act of the play,
The little man, from excess in drink, was in a very bad way;
On the demon reed that he firmly held to his lips, he blew too hard,
And it “cracked” and gave the wildest shrieks, as from cats in some back yard.

‘Twas then the leader ordered him out, and the fellow went,
Hugging to his besotted heart his infernal instrument;
Oh, how can we thank the leader, and how can we learn to forget
That little man with the big moustache and the yellow clarinet?


Was this man with the yellow clarinet just a drunkard, or is there something more to this story of the cursed yellow clarinet?

According to a widely-held superstition among people in theater, the color yellow is unlucky. Author and musician Tim Rayborn says, “Certain shades of yellow were once thought to attract evil spirits. Further, in medieval times yellow and green were often associated with the devil in morality plays, an early form of drama intended to instruct the illiterate masses by scaring the hell out of them. These open-air plays were frequently accompanied by music, a practice that was an early precursor to bands and orchestras accompanying plays in more recent times.” Rayborn also mentions that the yellow clarinet is only unlucky if it performs music for a play, although other people avoid yellow clarinets like the plague in any theater performance.

So, what’s so unlucky about clarinets?  Why not another instrument, like the saxophone? (Adolphe Sax certainly dealt with his fair share of bad luck and near-death experiences!)

The clarinet quickly gained popularity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and many historical clarinetists played on “yellow” clarinets, which were most likely made of boxwood. The clarinet’s rising popularity combined with the theater’s fear of the color yellow collided to give us this strange superstition.

What happens if someone plays a yellow clarinet?

According to a New York Times article from July 11, 1905, “the unluckiest thing in the world is a yellow clarinet.” It goes on to mention that “Because of all this not for years has such a pronounced ‘jonah’ as a yellow clarinet been permitted in the impedimenta of any traveling attraction.” One poor Frenchman by the name of Charles Samson was aboard the French liner La Savoie, where he was bringing a clarinet (yellow, of course) and a piccolo to his nephew, blissfully unaware of the (seemingly) American superstition. Commissioner Shields (first name unknown) seized the instrument and held Samson in jail for smuggling on $30 bail. According to this article, “Had the clarinet been anything but yellow…it might have been different.”

Although this seems to be an extreme case of what might happen if one is caught with a yellow clarinet, there are many more common scenarios people fear. Theater people believed that the color yellow (whether it was on a costumes, set, or a clarinet) would invite bad luck such as actors forgetting their lines, abysmal ticket sales, or other failures during a production.

Many books and publications mention this superstition around the turn of the 20th century, although it appears to have died away as time progressed. The New Music Review and Church Music from 1910 mentions the theft of a clarinet and states, “Yet to some the clarinet is a melancholy instrument. Can any one of our correspondents tell us the origin of the superstition that a yellow clarinet brings bad luck, especially in a theatre?”

It is also interesting to note that in 1786, Johann Leonhard Hoffmann stated that clarinet tones are yellow, although he was unaware of this superstition. According to the Musical Courier from 1895, the majority of people asked described the sound of a clarinet as yellow.

This superstition seems to have vanished as clarinets were increasingly made from grenadilla wood and other materials throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, although you can now buy plastic clarinets for all colors of the rainbow.

Now you know the tale of the yellow clarinet and the bad luck it has been thought to cause. Do you dare tempt fate by using a yellow clarinet? Only you can decide! If you are brave enough to test this superstition, let me know what happens!


Sources:

  • Beethoven’s Skull: Dark, Strange, and Fascinating Tales from the World of Classical Music and Beyond by Tim Rayborn.
  • “Yellow Clarinet’s Spell.” The New York Times, July 11, 1905.
  • New Music Review and Church Music, Volume 9 (1910).
  • Musical Courier: A Weekly Journal Devoted to Music and the Music Trades, Volumes 30-31 (1895).
  • Theatre Magazine, Volumes 9-10 (1909).
  • “Music and Superstition.” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 2, 1931 by Felber, Rudolf, and Theodore Baker.

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