A tribute to Thea King

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 2007 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA.

In preparing for my previous ‘Letter’, little did I realise that my conversation with Thea King would be the last I would ever have. She sounded a little tired and indeed mentioned that she might be going into hospital, but as we chatted about Jack Thurston and Richard Rodney Bennett, she was one hundred percent on the ball and her spirits seemed high. She died less than two weeks later. The memorial evening at the Royal College of Music was a moving but life-enhancing affair. Many British clarinettists were there, as well as friends from other branches of the music profession who had known and loved Thea. We were reminded of the breadth of her interests: cows, the countryside and slightly risqué poetry; much written by herself! There were affecting speeches by Colin Lawson and Neil Black, oboist and fellow English Chamber Orchestra player. Her own choice of music for the occasion included a number of songs by Schubert and Schumann, and we also heard part of her recording of the terrific but rarely played Benjamin Frankel Quintet. And so we were reminded of her continued championing of clarinet works by a broad range of British composers. Her recordings are just part of the very special legacy this great musician has left.

Remaining with that wonderful generation for a moment, I was delighted that one of my young pupils, Ben Westlake (aged 14) recently had a lesson with the great Gervase de Peyer (aged 81!). Gervase was on sparkling form and a few days later did us the honour of attending Ben’s performance of the Weber Concertino at London’s Cadogan Hall with the Southbank Sinfonia. My teacher and mentor Professor John Davies also came along and it was great to see the two old friends reunited.

I briefly mentioned the new Naxos East Winds CD of Malcolm Arnold Wind Music in my last letter. I hope readers will have managed to purchase a copy by now. It is a treasure trove of goodies, with many first recordings: the wonderful Quintet Op. 2 and the Grand Fantasia for flute, clarinet and piano, for example. I’m delighted (but not surprised) that the Wind Quintet is already becoming a ‘standard’ in the repertoire. And speaking of Malcolm, the Second Arnold Festival is almost upon us. This year the festival includes a whole recital devoted to the composer’s wind chamber music and young Ben (mentioned above) will be playing the clarinet part in that gorgeous early song for voice, clarinet and piano Beauty haunts the woods (words by Ruth Arnold) in a talk about Ruth – Malcolm’s elder sister – who was a poet and great inspiration to the young composer. 

I’d also like to mention another new CD (Camerata CMCD-28103), of Karl Leister playing seven of Lefevre’s lovely Sonatas. Karl is using the edition prepared by myself and John Davies (the first five published by Oxford University Press, and No.s 6 and 9 – really quite a large-scale work – by Ricordi). John and I went out to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris to research the manuscripts for this edition a couple of years ago and I well remember the helpfulness of the French librarians. Karl, as you would imagine, plays the sonatas beautifully; the purity of his sound is ideal in projecting the deeply lyrical nature of the clarinet writing. I do most strongly recommend this disc.