A Personal Sound: Portrait of David Weber at 90

Volume CIV, No. 4April, 2004

Sue Terry

I had heard a lot about legendary clarinetist and teacher David Weber. I arrived at his apartment on the Upper West Side, and was welcomed by Weber and his gracious wife Dorothy.

Weber’s music room is filled with photographs and posters that commemorate his friendships and professional associations with leading figures of the clarinet world.

He seems most proud of a photo taken just weeks ago: over 60 students and friends gathered to give him a surprise 90th birthday party. Among the guests were notable clarinetists from around the country, including Ricardo Morales, Robert Dilutis, Jon Manasse, Ron Rubin, Greg Radin, Todd Levy, Jessica Phillips and Ron Odrich.

Weber also takes pride in the accomplishments of his two sons. His son Robert is currently a teacher at Mannes School of Music, where he serves on a committee working to unionize the Music Department.


David Weber was born in Vilnius, Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1913, immigrating to the United States at the age of nine.

He recalls being put into the first grade with six-year-olds because he couldn’t speak English. Right through high school he failed his classes during the school year, but would take them again in summer school in order to pass.

He and his family were living in Detroit at the time, in a small community of Jewish immigrants who looked out for each other. One day a music teacher came to the community with instruments, in search of youngsters who would like to learn to play in an ensemble.

The 11-year-old Weber was recruited to play the clarinet. After a while, the novelty of it wore off, and he wanted to quit. He remembers his mother saying, “We don’t have money to send you to college. You are going to play the clarinet and be a musician.”

An obedient son, he continued with the clarinet just to please her. When he reached high school he was shocked to find that there were other young clarinetists who were better than he was. Suddenly seized with a desire to be the best, he practiced diligently until achieving his goal. The clarinet soon became his life.

Weber spoke fondly of some of his early teachers, and recalled one in particular, a player in the Detroit Symphony who had stressed the importance of a good sound. One day, Weber recalled, he went to his lesson, only to find that his teacher had committed suicide. The memory pains him to this day.


In 1933 Ossip Gabrilowitsch, the great pianist and conductor of the Detroit Symphony, heard Weber play. Gabrilowitsch helped get the young clarinetist a scholarship to study in New York with Simeon Bellison, then principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic. His apprenticeship with Bellison, a highly respected player and educator, started Weber on a career that would last through many decades.

I asked Weber about the legend of Toscanini hiring him on the spot, after hearing him play in 1938. He had been recommended to the people at the NBC Orchestra by a fellow clarinetist. (He says he made a point, throughout his career, of knowing the important players and conductors, in order to increase his opportunities.) Weber went to the audition at NBC, and was shown to a room with no chair or music stand. He took out his clarinet and began to warm up. Shortly the door opened, and the great maestro himself entered, holding a score. “Would you please play this” he asked, pointing to a passage in the score. Weber obliged, and was asked to play a couple more excerpts. Toscanini then said, “Very good. Go upstairs.”

“And that was it!” Weber said. “I was hired.”


He stayed with the NBC Orchestra until they were about to embark on a South American tour, by boat. He recalls how excited he and his wife had been. They had just gotten married, and Dorothy had bought a beautiful gown to wear at the reception ball. Just before setting sail, however, Weber got word that he was to be replaced on the tour with a more ‘experienced’ player, “in case something happened to the principal clarinetist.” Weber felt disappointed and insulted, but did not sulk about the setback.

He stayed in New York and set his sights on the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He privately told the conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, that he would like to go to the upcoming audition for principal clarinet. Leinsdorf assured him that he would be called with the information. Shortly afterward, Weber found out the audition had come and gone without anyone notifying him. Leinsdorf called him and said “Why weren’t you at the audition?” Weber explained that he had not been notified and Leinsdorf said, “Don’t worry — there’ll be another audition tomorrow.”

There was, and Weber was hired. He notes that it wasn’t a shoe-in, though. The competition came down to him and an Italian clarinetist. When playing the Mozart Concerto, Weber played the excerpt on the A clarinet, as the piece is written. The other clarinetist played it on a Bb clarinet, winning nothing but scathing comments from the conductor for playing the piece in the wrong key.


1940 was a difficult year for a young Jewish clarinetist at the beginning of his career. The U.S. was not yet part of the war. With its many German and Italian musicians, anti-Semitism abounded in the Met orchestra, and Weber was the only Jewish musician in the wind section. He recalls being vilified by the German bass clarinetist. As fate would have it, they were assigned lockers right next to each other. The German had a picture of Hitler on the inside of his locker, and would raise his arm with a “Heil Hitler” upon opening it. Weber had his revenge when the war was won, but by then he had grown tired of the gig and he left.

As assistant principal in the New York Philharmonic from 1943-1944, Weber took part in Leonard Bernstein’s historic debut on Nov. 14, 1943. Following this period, while playing recitals and doing clinics for the Buffet clarinet company and Van Doren reeds, Weber was also an active studio clarinetist. Although he played a few shows, the Broadway pit was never his preference — he says he found it too monotonous to play the same music night after night.

In 1945 he played the short run of Kurt Weill’s “Firebrand of Florence.” While Weber loved Weill’s music, in rehearsals he was disappointed with the exit march in the clarinet part, and was not too shy to keep his opinion from the composer. The next night, Weill handed him a new, handwritten part.


Weber played with the CBS Symphony Orchestra from 1946-1952, returning to the Symphony of the Air (the successor to the NBC Symphony) for the orchestra’s final years.

He then began as assistant principal with the New York City Ballet Orchestra, serving as principal clarinet of that orchestra from 1964 until his retirement from performing in 1986.

He recounted this story for me. At Weber’s suggestion, choreographer Jerome Robbins had created a ballet using Stravinsky’s “Three Pieces” for solo clarinet. On opening night, the rest of the orchestra sat silent in the pit while Weber alone played the accompaniment to the ballet. The conclusion of the piece brought such thunderous applause that Weber was invited onto the stage to take a bow for all subsequent performances.


Among the many famous students Weber has had over the years are some notable jazz clarinetists. He recalls Benny Goodman seeking him out at his old Carnegie Hall studio. He remembers Goodman coming to his studio without an appointment, appropriating his best reeds, and never paying for lessons. He did, however, treat Weber to a corned beef sandwich at the Carnegie Deli.

Goodman’s legendary obnoxious behavior appalled the gentleman in Weber. “I preferred Artie Shaw,” says Weber. “And I already knew all the great classical clarinetists — I kept thinking, how can I get rid of this guy.”


We spoke about another great jazz clarinetist who had begun studying with Weber at the age of 19, Kenny Davern. Right then and there, Weber told me, “Let’s call him up.” So, in the middle of our interview, we dialed Davern’s number in New Mexico and got him on the phone.

Davern told me how he used to go to the building at 117 West 48th Street for saxophone lessons, but was captivated by the sound of a clarinet in one of the other studios. He spoke of listening outside the door of Weber’s studio for weeks, before getting up the nerve to ask for a lesson. Against the advice of Joe Napoleon, with whom he was studying saxophone, Davern switched to a Selmer mouthpiece and Van Doren reeds on Weber’s recommendation. As the young Davern was warming up his clarinet outside Napoleon’s studio, Napoleon suddenly burst through the door in a rage. “What are you doing!” he screamed. “You think I can’t hear you’re playing one of those Selmer mouthpieces, and those Van Doren reeds?”

I asked Davern what made David Weber a great teacher. “As far as teaching, David is to the manor born,” he said. “He can produce a sound so superb, anyone would want to emulate it. And he can impart that knowledge. Studying with David, you get results. Also, he’s a direct link with the French conservatory school of players — he knows how the clarinet should sound. He gives you the impetus and the aspiration to achieve your goals. What he offers you remains with you the rest of your life.”


Any discussion about the clarinet eventually winds up on the subject of reeds. Weber asked me what kind of clarinet reeds I use, and I sheepishly replied that I was using a synthetic reed. Seizing the chance to whip out my clarinet and pick up a couple of pointers from the master, I asked Weber if he wanted to hear how the reed sounded. He agreed and watched me take out my horn: “I wouldn’t put a clarinet together like that,” he said. He took the instrument from me and put the upper joint under his arm. “This is how you warm up a clarinet in the winter,” he explained. He then proceeded to show me his method of cleaning the corks, and applying cork grease. I played an arpeggio and he kindly complimented me on my sound. He took out his clarinet and played an open G, normally a tough note to project. His sound was so big I felt blown back in my seat. I think Weber’s open G is where NASA got the term “G force.” We were playing a three octave G major scale together, when Dorothy came in to announce dinner.

With a promise to return for more lessons and stories, I left feeling energized by my visit with this generous, wise, and good-humored elder of the clarinet tribe.

Sue Terry is a member of Local 802.