REDISCOVERING LOUIS DeSANTIS
By Russell Harlow
“What recordings do you feel are prime listening in the development of the clarinetist?”
“Unfortunately, these recordings are no longer available. But it is interesting to trace the lineage of a beautiful clarinet sound………I think there are a lot of fine clarinet players and a lot of fine clarinet tones. But I don’t think there is anything to compare with a Bonade or a young McGinnis or McLane. That kind or beauty just doesn’t seem to exist.” (a)
What an incredibly provocative statement ! One is compelled to find these recordings and listen. Today that is easier than it was ten years ago. Of course it is useless to try to describe these sounds, like trying to describe chocolate or strawberries. One has to hear them, to experience them. I remember hearing Harold Wright “live” for the first time and being totally amazed at the three dimentional quality of his sound. His recorded sound could be gorgeous, but “live” it was another experience. The dilemma with recorded sound is that it is a kind of shadow or silhouette, even today, and especially in the 78rpm era.
For Louis DeSantis, a beautiful recording exists that Marcellus always referred to in his clarinet “retrospective”: Deems Taylors’ “THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS” with the CBS Orchestra, Howard Barlow, conductor (1938). The piece is full of great clarinet solos with a beautiful extended solo in the “Jaberwocky” movement. Recorded close enough, and with enough “sonic” information, the “Looking Glass” allows us to hear that marvelously colorful, three-dimentional quality and liquid supple phrasing that defines DeSantis as one of the “greats” of the 20th Century. For Mitchell Lurie the DeSantis sound was a model:
When I first heard this solo it made me want to hear more. But no one knew where more was. As far as anyone knew, there was one other known recording in the Cleveland Orchestra Centenary Collection of the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony from 1928. Unfortunately, the recorded sound is distant, has been subjected to noise reduction and requires a lot of careful listening.
Another difficulty was finding information about DeSantis himself. I wanted to include Louis DeSantis in my “Online History of the Clarinet”, so I needed to find out who he was. I began by looking for people who worked with him, and at first, I only found some sketchy fragments of information:
Speaking with Mitch Miller was a treat. Miller, then 91, was principal oboe with the CBS Orchestra in the 1930’s. He had incredible energy and was very frank and animated in our talks, but he and DeSantis did not get along well. There wasn’t much he could help me with of a positive nature.
David Weber, one of the clarinetists who actually played with DeSantis at CBS, related that DeSantis was a great gentleman and colleague who had a beautiful sound and technique that Weber described as very “French”. He also mentioned that Louis spoke English without an accent. Once, at a broadcast, a spring broke on DeSantis’ instrument and Weber offered to let him use his clarinet. DeSantis thanked him and said he always came prepared as he pulled a rubber band out of his pocket to temporarily repair the key.
Anton Coppola, the marvelous opera conductor and oboeist in New York City, knew Louis DeSantis but was very young at the time. Coppola remembered DeSantis’ untimely death in an auto/trolley accident just before Christmas,1940, but did not know anything more about his life or where he studied.
Bernard Portnoy was shocked the time he filled in for Bonade at a CBS broadcast, playing second to DeSantis:
“Being a student of Bonade, he was used to working a great deal on reeds to balance them so they played just right. DeSantis came in a half-hour before the broadcast and dumped a box of reeds in a glass of water. He tooted on each one until he found the one he would use for the broadcast.” Portnoy said, “He turned to me with a handful of the rejected, wet reeds and said, “Here kid, you want these?”
David Weber told me DeSantis had written a study book-Exercises based on orchestral excerpts with an ingenious duet at the end where one player would read from the top down and the other player from the bottom up. Logging onto the Klarinet E-Mail list, I was surprised that, within days I had found a clarinetist who owned this book, last published in 1935. Soon the book was in my possession, and, on the cover, was the first image of Louis DeSantis I had seen. Until then, DeSantis had been only an anonymous but beautiful sound. Finding the book created quite a stir with both David Weber and Mitchell Lurie who were excited to receive copies.
While engaged in researching the life and playing of Ralph McLane, I was talking with Dominic Fera in Los Angeles. Fera had studied with McLane the last three years of McLane’s life and had given me some valuable information. At the end of our conversation, I asked Dominic about DeSantis, thinking he may have had contact with him. He didn’t know him personally, but told me to call Vince DeRosa, horn player, whose sister had married DeSantis’ oldest son Paul. When I spoke to DeRosa he put me in touch with DeSantis’ younger son Richard, in Manhattan Beach, California, and his daughter Norma, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
At first, Richard DeSantis thought I was a telemarketer and his first impression was to hang up. You can only imagine how you would feel being contacted by a stranger inquiring about your father who had died sixty-three years earlier; being told he was considered by many to be one of the finest musicians of the 20th Century and wanting to know the details of his life. As we talked, he was surprised to find anyone would be interested in his father after all these years. As the conversation continued he would, at times, be overcome by emotion and we would take a pause. The next day Norma DeSantis Titcomb contacted me from Hawaii to fill in more details……
Louis DeSantis was born in Naples, Italy on February 26, 1893. He had one older sister, Filomena, and two younger brothers, Salvatore and Ernesto. When Louis was seven, his father died, and his general education became centered around music and carpentry. His talent in music was strong and when he was older he was sent to the Conservatory of Naples for a formal education in music, studying clarinet under Professor Alfonso Fucito.
After graduation, Louis joined the Municipal Orchestra of Naples, and later the “French Opera Company”, touring Greece and living for a year in Athens. Like many young European musicians before him, Louis felt the lure of opportunity in the United States, and, in 1912, emigrated there.
DeSantis played in bands and theater orchestras in Galveston and San Antonio, Texas, before joining the orchestra in Houston. In 1914 Louis became Principal Clarinet with the Chicago Opera Company. His position in Chicago was interrupted by a year in the U.S. Navy Band in 1918 after which he became an American citizen. It was in the Navy that Louis met his future wife Eleanor Iocolano.
Louis became principal with the St. Louis Symphony for the 1925-26 season and then with the Cleveland Orchestra from 1926 to 1929.
While in Cleveland in 1929, the composer Ottorino Resphigi wrote a glowing letter to Arturo Toscanini recommending Louis for the principal position in the New York Philharmonic:
January 29, 1929
The Prof. Luigi DeSantis, who has already been first clarinetist of the Cleveland Orchestra, would very much like to join the New York Philharmonic as first clarinetist. If you directed the Cleveland Orchestra just once, you would recognize the most beautiful quality and tone of his playing and I present him to you as an artist of the first order. I am confident that he would be an excellent addition to the orchestra of New York.
I am sorry, dear Maestro, that I have not met you here in America and I shall be grateful to extend to you my most cordial greetings and to shake your hand.
There were no openings in New York at that time, but Bonade was about to leave Philadelphia. In 1930 Louis DeSantis became Daniel Bonade’s successor in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Quite possibly, Stokowski was privy to the Resphigi recommendation.
Louis had come to the United States in 1912 and would never again see his family in Italy. He felt close to Eleanor’s family who lived in New York City and wanted to be near to them. Eleanor always went back to New York to be with her mother and father when she had her children. Wherever Louis was, St. Louis or Cleveland, the children were always born in New York.
“My father was strictly a work and family man” says Norma of her father. Raising a family in the Depression Era United States and coming from a strict Italian upbringing, made Louis DeSantis serious about his obligations to his family and his art. “Music was my dad’s life. He was very strict about timing and phrasing. We, my brothers and I were all taught solfeggio before we were given instruments. He played double lip embouchure and the lips had to be stretched tight over the teeth, top and bottom, so there was no wobbling of the tone. I can tell you from personal experience that he was very strict about the proper embouchure.”
“As a teacher he was always tougher on the boys than on the girls. Once when he was giving me a clarinet lesson he forgot himself and started to yell at me. When he saw my startled reaction he immediately backed off. He would never back off like that with the boys.”
Life for the DeSantis family was difficult during the Depression. When times were especially tough the DeSantis family ran a coffee store to make extra money.
Louis liked people; he liked good food; and the combination worked well. Louis did not cook. He left that up to his wife Eleanor who had a gift for conjuring up marvelous Italian dishes. According to Norma DeSantis:
“I don’t remember that my father had any hobbies but he did enjoy occasional beach outings and picnics—-Italian style! No sandwiches for us! There was always pasta and eggplant parmagiano. He loved to socialize and thought nothing of popping in on a friend or relative, carrying an entire prepared dinner! We once broke into a friend’s house so we could greet him when he got home from work with dinner on the table.”
Before taking the Philadelphia position in 1930, Louis left Cleveland and played for Andre Kostelanetz’ Philco Hour Radio Orchestra. Whenever Kostelanetz conducted in New York he asked for DeSantis to be his principal clarinet. At one time he was to play a concerto on the air with the Philco Orchestra. Cleveland Orchestra clarinetist Charles Avellone wrote to Louis:
“The Philco Hour does not come through W.T.A.M. but through W.H.K. and I didn’t know how I could get to hear you because we had a rehearsal at the same time you were on. The engineers in the control room have a radio set and I asked them if they wouldn’t tune in on the Philco program on W.H.K. and when they heard your name mentioned to call me out of the rehearsal. You know I had fixed it up with Walter Logan(b) to excuse me when the engineers called me and he went me one better. He excused the whole Orchestra and we all heard it and I want to tell you that it was the most marvelous thing I have ever heard on the air!” ……” You know I wanted to throw away my clarinet but on second thought I hung on to it and decided it was better to hang on to the clarinet than to sell pencils on the hot city streets as Sokoloff*(c) is probably doing this summer in Russia!”
Philadelphia was not a happy position for DeSantis for several reasons. Stokowski was an innovator, sometimes criticized for his interpretations. DeSantis and Stokowski did not see eye-to-eye on musical ideas. Louis had his own ideas about how he felt a composer intended a phrase to be played. Evidently he was vocal about his displeasure with some of Stokowski’s wishes. Richard DeSantis recalls a conversation he had with his father regarding a correspondence between Louis and Stokowski about the problem. Also, it seems, Tabuteau and Kinkaid, principal oboe and flute of the Philadelphia Orchestra, gave DeSantis a difficult time. They were upset that their old friend Bonade had left, and it was their desire that perhaps he could come back. In any event, when DeSantis left Philadelphia in the summer of 1931 he was quoted as saying he felt like “a survivor of a concentration camp”. (d)
After leaving Philadelphia DeSantis spent the last nine years of his life in New York, playing with the CBS Orchestra. Not only did DeSantis play concerts and record with CBS, but he also played in radio shows including Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” in 1938. Richard relates how his father once told the conductor Howard Barlow he wanted to play second, as principal was becoming too much pressure. Barlow said “we’ll talk about it.” After the first clarinet solo in the broadcast Barlow made a gesture with his hand that meant “No way. You play first!”
DeSantis always dressed smartly with a suit and tie and was seldom seen in casual clothes. According to Norma: “Our house had an unfinished basement in which we had an extra kitchen. My dad got it in his head to install the kitchen cabinets himself. And he did. Of course he never wore the proper cloths while he cut and sawed. He would just remove his suit jacket and saw with his long sleve shirt and tie on.”
On December 23, 1940, DeSantis stopped at an Italian market to pick up food and wine for the Christmas feast. As he was driving home, he had to cross trolley tracks underneath the “elevated” tracks. A trolley car bore down on him. Though the trolley conductor blew his whistle, he did not brake, and the trolley hit DeSantis’ car, pinning him against a pillar of the “elevated”. Louis was taken to a hospital where he died that night. He was 47. The DeSantis family sued the city for negligence . The attorneys for the city tried to discredit DeSantis, arguing he had been drinking – citing the broken wine bottles at the scene. Andre Kostelanetz among others, testified at the trial defending DeSantis’ character and the family won the case.
After meeting the DeSantis family, the details of Louis’ life and education were finally filled in. Questions about the Italian school that formed this great artist could be the subject of a separate article. Norma has preserved all the known recordings that Louis made. Some were recordings with anonymous orchestras and conductors under the labels “Worlds Greatest Music” and “Best Loved Music Presentation”. These include excellent performances of the Beethoven 5th Symphony, Schubert Symphony #8, Debussy “Afternoon of a Faun” and “Two Nocturnes”. With the CBS Orchestra is the Goldmark “Rustic Wedding Symphony”, MacDowell’s “Indian Suite”, Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony, Brahms Fourth Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra and, of course, Taylor’s “Through the Looking Glass”.
There are printed programs where DeSantis had performed Brahms’ Sonata Op 120 #1 with Rudolph Ganz, conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, and the Brahms and Mozart Quintets with Joseph Fuchs leading the Cleveland Quartet. Unfortunately, none of these performances were recorded. With the Philadelphia Orchestra, he recorded two Bach transcriptions: Wagner’s “Prelude und Liebestod” (not released) and Brahms Symphony #4. The major recordings for the Cleveland Orchestra from 1928-30 on the “Brunswick” label include the Symphony #2 of Rachmaninoff, Borodin Polovetsian Dances and Schubert Symphony #8.
In all of the recordings, Louis DeSantis demonstrates great understanding, feeling and fine technique. For those who listen carefully to his playing much can be learned. Much can also be gained from the study of his Etudes, mentioned earlier. Norma also shared with me her fathers copy of the “New Studies” which was full of corrections and revisions made in preparation for a revised edition. The book has now been reprinted for the first time since 1935 with Louis’ final corrections and revisions. (see http://www.clarinetcentral.com)
It is facinating how an artist of the level of Louis DeSantis was almost forgotten. Studying DeSantis’ performances, one can hear he always played from the heart and with a beautiful, clear tone. He played with a tasteful rubato and a subtle vibrato (from the throat) on certain notes he wanted to give special expressive emphasis. An old friend of DeSantis, Gennaro Volpe, said he had an extremely fast and clear staccatto.(e) An example of this can be heard in the “Festivals” movement of the nocturnes by Debussy with the Cleveland Orchestra on Brunswick Records (1928).
Louis DeSantis was a practical man who raised a family during the hard times of the Depression while mantaining the qualities of his art with personal intregrity. Perhaps if DeSantis had remained in the Philadelphia Orchestra he would have become known as one of the most important clarinetists and teachers of his day.
For us, it is important that we not lose sight of the artists of the past. Their quality of sound and expression can so easily be lost along with the techniques they used to achieve those qualities. If we listen carefully to them, they can be our teachers.
a) interview by James Gholson “Australian Clarinet and Saxophone”
b)Walter Logan-Orchestra Manager, Cleveland Symphony Orchestra
c) Nikolai Sokoloff: Conductor Cleveland Orchestra to 1930
d) Sol Schonbach,who played with DeSantis in the CBS Orchestra “Reminiscences” Clarinetwork 2/1 winter 1983–and
“A History and Analysis of the Philadelphia School of Clarinet Playing”
Shannon Lannigan Thompson
e) Interview: Donald Montanaro