A trip through time

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. These personal reflections are now reprinted with his permission. The following ‘Letter from the UK’ was first published in June 2002 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA. 

I was having lunch with the clarinettist, teacher and biographer Pamela Weston a few weeks ago and our wide-ranging conversation turned, for a time, to the fascinating subject of clarinet dynasties. Consequently, for this letter, I thought I might consider my particular ‘dynasty’ and discover something of the historical background that has coloured and shaped my own approach to teaching and playing the clarinet.

I was taught by John Davies, who was Senior Professor of clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music in London for over forty years from 1951. John is a great teacher – his work is based on an understanding that education is all about ‘drawing out’ not ‘putting in’. His pupils are taught to think for themselves; to develop a flexible sound that is successful in chamber music, in an orchestral section, in jazz or as a classical soloist. He teaches his pupils to consider the broader picture and in so doing, develop a parallel interest and love of the other great creative arts – literature, painting and drama. He instils a confidence in his pupils, allowing them to embrace the highly-charged musical world without arrogance or superiority. His pupils number international soloists, generations of highly-distinguished orchestral and chamber music players and many fine teachers. 

John grew up at a time before the proliferation of recordings; at a time before our obsession with ‘sound’. Up until about the middle of the twentieth century, you simply played the clarinet; the sound was not cause for great debate and much soul-searching as it is now. John recalls that his teacher, George Anderson, didn’t devote much teaching time to sound; no attempt was made to make a particular kind of sound – you simply developed a clean and refined tone – there was no more to it than that. In John’s opinion, it was the growth of jazz that brought about the major development of interest and potential for sound quality. Most players of the time employed the more severe military embouchure and a reasonably narrow lay mouthpiece to produce the type of sound so beautifully encapsulated in the playing of the legendary Jack Thurston (a player for whom John has much regard). It was the jazz players who brought a new, slacker embouchure and consequently a wider sound and vibrato to their playing. The English player Reginald Kell brought such features to the ‘classical’ clarinet sound and in doing so, significantly changed the course of clarinet playing thereafter. The sound became a central ‘feature’; there was now a choice to be made. 

John was appointed to take over from his distinguished teacher George Anderson, who died that year, having devoted the final ten years of his life to his Academy students. Anderson was born in 1867 – Brahms had yet to write his Sonatas, and the great Weber works had been around for little over fifty years. He was principally an orchestral player and was to spend nearly forty years in the London Symphony Orchestra. He also played in the Scottish Orchestra, the Beecham Opera Company and the BBC Military Band. He gave one of the first performances of Coleridge-Taylor’s wonderful but sadly neglected Clarinet Quintet. He played on the Boehm system, which at the time was still quite a novelty. Pamela Weston writes that he is reputed to have made a sweet and delicate tone. John remembers that he took care of his pupils (for example, when John asked to be released early from a lesson owing to the birth of his son, after initial outrage Anderson soon relented and took John out for a celebratory lunch!). Among his other distinguished pupils number Georgina Dobree, Bernard Walton and indeed Pamela Weston had a number of lessons with him. 

Anderson was a pupil of the great nineteenth-century player Henry Lazarus who was born in London in 1815 – the year of the Battle of Waterloo and some months before Weber composed his Grand Duo. Lazarus was a military bandsman but clearly an exceptional player, both orchestrally and as a soloist. He was also an enthusiast, commissioning works and arrangements by living composers of the time and writing many showpieces himself. He also wrote one of the most influential tutors of the time: his New and Modern Method of 1881. Though long and comprehensive it is nevertheless, of its time, user-friendly and takes into account the need for cumulative learning (unlike one of my favourite contemporary clarinet methods that states ‘The student should commit to memory the fingerings and use of the keys before attempting to produce the sound – see diagrams.’ There follows about 8 pages of complex fingerings taking the beginner up to top C – 3 octaves above middle C!). Lazarus taught both at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music; he recommended the modern Boehm system (though never actually played it himself) and was clearly a great character. He lived for ninety years and his influence over clarinet playing in Britain in the twentieth century and beyond cannot be understated.

I’ve always believed it very important to have a sense of history – to know about one’s own time and the events and people that have shaped one’s own life. I often think of those words by the celebrated writer John Keats, ‘To know your past is to know yourself’. I always feel a great sense of history sitting with John Davies in his living room in south London, where, hanging on the wall, he has a signed picture of his teacher’s teacher – the great Henry Lazarus. It is at once humbling and a source of great energy.