The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Does a clarinet sonata by Camille Saint-Saens sound like “On, Wisconsin”? Tell The Ear. | June 27, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

There The Ear was, sitting at home the other afternoon earlier this past week and listening to Wisconsin Public Radio’s afternoon music program.

And I thought I heard “On Wisconsin,” the contagious rah-rah fight song for the Badgers in all kinds of sports at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Now that song is of course a favorite, but I would hardly call it classical music, though it is undeniably a classic as far as The Ear is concerned.

So I listened to the host when she identified the piece and the composer.

It was the lovely Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in E-flat Major, Op. 167, by the 19th-century French composer Camille Saint-Saens (below) who, along with Gabriel Faure, is one the most under-appreciated of all classical composers.

Camille Saint-Saens

Am I the only one who thinks that the main theme of the sonata, a theme that gets repeated several times, even in different movements, sounds a lot like “On, Wisconsin”?

Here are the two different melodies.

Or are they different?

Take a listen to the two YouTube videos that are below.

Decide for yourself.

Then please use the REPLY or COMMENT section to let me and other readers know what you think.




  1. I have long thought that “On Wisconsin’s” four-note theme sounded hilariously like a melody passed back and forth in the andante cantabile section of Mozart’s “Dissonance” String Quartet in C Major, KV 465. It always brings a smile to my face to hear the quartet meditating on Bucky.

    In this performance, check it out at 9:00 and again at 14:33:

    Comment by Ron McCrea — June 27, 2014 @ 7:05 pm

  2. Wonder how many other works have those same first four notes. Hmmm.

    Comment by Wini — June 27, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

  3. The four note phrase (repeated up a third, and in different keys in the two works) is pretty much the same. After that, not so much. To Fritz : the date I found for “On Wisconsin” is 1909; for the Saint Saens, 1921. (‘On Wisconsin” was originally “Minnesota, Minnesota”, though apparently never performed as such.)

    Comment by Steve Rankin — June 27, 2014 @ 1:41 pm

  4. As a young clarinetist growing up in New York, I always thought it sounded like “Mona Lisa”!

    Comment by Greg Hettmansberger — June 27, 2014 @ 11:09 am

  5. Have you ascertained the dates of the compositions? A case could be made, that perhaps the On Wisconsin composer ‘borrowed’ from Saint-Saens, or vice-versa.

    Comment by Fritz — June 27, 2014 @ 10:36 am

  6. Per my clarinetist husband Glenn, that theme does indeed appear in the clarinet sonata referenced in your post. For years on end, clarinetists familiar with “on Wisconsin” have joked about the reference.


    Comment by Wini — June 27, 2014 @ 10:22 am

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