A tribute to Pamela Weston (1921-2009)

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 September 2009 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA.

I’m sure that all readers will know of the very sad death of Pamela Weston. She had been suffering from the highly debilitating, enigmatic and still incurable condition known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (M.E.) for over seventeen years and had reached the point where life had become intolerable. In a deeply courageous and utterly determined manner, she decided to go to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland and end her life.

I knew Pamela well, so the following is a personal tribute rather than an obituary-style record of her extraordinarily rich and influential life. Rarely does one meet someone who is at the top of their chosen vocation yet is also able to remain delightful, generous and modest. Pamela was such a person. And, to the enormous good fortune of all thinking clarinet players (as well as many others in the music world) she was driven by a powerful and relentless desire to know everything about the clarinet, about those who composed for it and those who played it, and then to share this information through her many wonderful publications. Many of these books on clarinetists of the past and present are unlikely ever to be superseded. 

I first came across Pamela Weston’s name as a young student when I played pieces and studies from her various imaginative collections for beginner clarinetists. Many of these were published at a time when teaching material was all rather dry and academic. Teachers were no doubt delighted to find that someone had taken the trouble to make very playable arrangements of good music available. Pamela’s own musical beginnings were as a pianist and singer; surprisingly, she didn’t start the clarinet until her twenties. But she was plucky enough to persuade Frederick Thurston himself to teach her and things went very well. During the war years, she also had some lessons with the somewhat absent-minded Stephen Waters, about whom she had some amusing tales which, in her typically generous fashion, she shared with me when I was preparing my edition of Malcolm Arnold’s Wind Quintet (of which Waters played in the first performance). 

My next, and much more significant encounter with Pamela was a little after my first book, The Cambridge Clarinet Tutor, was published. She gave it a lovely review in the Music Teacher Magazine and I decided I had to meet her. My teacher, John Davies, knew Pamela and arranged for us to visit her at home in the delightful Buckinghamshire town of Denham. It was a memorable visit. She was a fascinating host, the conversation was captivating and she signed my copy of Clarinet Virtuosi of the Past. It’s now a treasured possession. I remember once phoning Pamela to tell her that I’d spotted a copy of that very book in a second-hand bookshop for £260! She was really quite astounded. 

Pamela’s enthusiasm for scholarly research into the clarinet’s repertoire has been unique. It was Pamela, for example, who first brought players’ attention to the fact that it wasn’t Wagner who wrote that beautiful Adagio. And then she went on to edit an important edition of the work. Her immensely carefully-researched Weber edition will surely never be replaced. And there are erudite editions of virtually all the major clarinet works as well as her friendly guide to teaching, The Clarinet Teacher’s Companion.

Pamela taught at the Guildhall School of Music for seventeen years during the 50s and 60s. She was a kind, thoughtful and witty teacher and produced many grateful students. She also performed widely at this time and had a number of works written for her. My favourite is the beautiful and highly evocative Three Songs of Innocence by Arnold Cooke which he wrote for her own and very successful Klarion Trio (consisting of herself, Jean Broadley and Eileen Nugent).

In recent years, Pamela and I have had regular chats on the phone as well as the occasional visit. I took John Davies to see her about four or five years ago. We met up in Eastbourne where both were brought up – though their paths never crossed in those now far off days. We went out to a wonderful fish restaurant and the animated conversation was full of wonderful recollections, though by then Pamela was beginning to tire quickly. I’ve driven down south to see her a number of times since; her enthusiasm for work never diminished. 

About six weeks ago I was chatting to Pamela on the phone. It was early evening – the time of day she preferred for telephone calls – and she was her usual chirpy self. She had recently sent me her own concert programme of that historical first performance of Malcolm Arnold’s Second Clarinet Concerto, played by Benny Goodman. I had phoned to thank her for such a generous gift – I had no idea of its significance. We talked for a minute or two. The very next day I received a letter from Pamela with grim news, but it was touched with her own special sense of destiny; ‘Please don’t grieve for me as I am happy to go,’ she ended.

We spoke again a number of times after that, and on August 15th I received my last letter from her. She wrote of John Davies and Julian Bliss; of the performance of the Mozart Quintet which was eventually given just last night (as I write) in Edinburgh, by one of her former pupils, Philip Greene, who planned to start the concert with a moment’s pause in memory of Pamela. The letter ends in her customary positive and generous style, ‘It makes it all so worthwhile, doesn’t it? I was so lucky to have Thurston as a mentor and friend.’
She was much loved and will be profoundly missed.