A Class Act

In the Summer of 2000 I had the great pleasure of meeting James Gillespie, editor of The Clarinet Journal, during the International Clarinet Association (ICA) convention in Oklahoma. James asked me if I would like to contribute a regular column – an invitation that I found both humbling and daunting! The following ‘Letter from the UK’ was first published in March 2010 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA.

Let’s play that guessing game where you try to work out who I’m describing before I’ve given away too many clues. Here goes then: he’s a top, living, English composer who has written a lot of seriously important music for the clarinet including a concerto and a quintet. He belongs to the generation that counts Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwhistle and Alexander Goehr among their number (all who have written for the clarinet but none as much as our mystery composer.) Have you got him yet? He lives in New York (and has done since 1979). He has also written some of the most effective film music in the history of the cinema. And he now lives for jazz and cabaret. You must have got him by now! I write, of course, of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett.

Born in Broadstairs, Kent in March 1936 (also incidentally the birthplace of Prime Minister Edward Heath) into a very musical family – mother was a pupil of Holst and a concert pianist and father was a singer, songwriter and librettist. Richard began composing when he was about 13 and wrote his first clarinet work at the age of 16. This was a Concertante for clarinet, strings and percussion, probably for a school friend. It remains unpublished at the present time but is an effective pointer of things to come. There is one highly energetic movement of what was clearly intended to be a longer work. Like so much of Richard’s early music it is written using the 12-tone system. The clarinet writing is idiomatic and quite difficult and he wrote it in just two days. Nine years later came Richard’s second work – a Quintet for Clarinet, String trio and piano. Richard was very much drawn into the music of Elizabeth Lutyens at this time and this quintet drew much from her style. 1965 saw the composition of a Trio for flute, oboe and clarinet. Written for the same combination as Malcolm Arnold’s Divertimento and similarly in six short movements. It’s quite a gritty work again written in a strict serial style – but highly effective in the right programme. It was first performed by Richard Adeney (who also played in the first performance of the Arnold), Peter Graeme and the great Gervase de Peyer.

Next (in August 1966) came the delightful Crosstalk for two clarinets. I wrote about the background to this gem in my June 2007 letter so to cut a longer story short: Thea King and Stephen Trier were in residence at the Dartington Summer School of Music (along with Richard). Thea was chatting to Richard about the need for more duets one evening and woke up the next morning to discover some sheets of manuscript paper slipped underneath her bedroom door. Richard had composed this gorgeous and inventive four-movement suite for her literally overnight! It was given its first performance that very day. 

We then had to wait eleven years for the next work – 1977 and the Scena III for solo clarinet. But it was worth the wait - this is a significant work in the unaccompanied clarinet catalogue. It was first performed by Philip Edwards who told me recently, “I very much enjoyed working on it and played it often. It’s atonal in outline and both effective and memorable.” After an arresting opening it develops along slightly Messiaenic lines, inspired by the e.e.cummings quotation found at the start of the music, Then shall I turn my face, and hear One bird sing terribly afar in the lost lands. Lasting eight minutes it’s quite a substantial work. Published by Novello it’s easily available and really worth a look at if you don’t know it. Four years later Richard produced another unaccompanied work – one of his best known – the Sonatina for solo clarinet. A highly effective, tuneful and characteristic piece which was commissioned for the National Clarinet Competition for Young People in 1981. The competition was won by Alex Allen who “particularly loved the beautiful slow movement.” The Sonatina has often found its way onto examination lists but also makes for an engaging and audience friendly concert item.