British Clarinet Concertos

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 2004 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA.

A splendid new CD of ‘British Clarinet Concertos’ has just been issued by Sanctuary Classics, played by the excellent Ian Scott, principal of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. It includes works by Alan Paul, Jo Horovitz, Guy Woolfenden, Geoffrey Bush, Malcolm Macdonald, Adrian Cruft and Alan Ridout. I suspect many of these works will be new to quite a number of clarinettists. We all know the Finzi concerto (which incidentally has become one of the most requested works on the popular radio station Classic FM) and Malcolm Arnold’s wonderful two concertos (more about the Benny-Goodman-inspired No. 2 later!). Interestingly, in 1941 Benny Goodman commissioned a concerto from Benjamin Britten, who was living in New York during the war. As he was returning to the UK, his manuscripts were impounded by customs who thought they contained secret codes. Presumably, by the time they were retuned to him later the following year he was busy with other projects as he never completed the work. The fascinating first movement remains though, and is recorded by Thea King. 

The Stanford concerto is fairly well-known; a noble work written in the best tradition of early twentieth-century Europe. Arnold Cooke’s concerto deserves more attention. Like all his music for clarinet (the Sonata, the three Songs of Innocence and the Trio for example), it is highly characteristic, tuneful (in the tradition of his teacher Paul Hindemith) and well worth study. The final movement is a gem. There are a number of concertos by composers who have straddled the serious and (what we now seem to call) ‘media’ music genres. A large-scale concerto by Howard Blake (written for Thea King) is particularly notable. Though Blake is best known for his delightful music for the legendary Raymond Briggs cartoon, ‘The Snowman’, his concert music is very important. Jim Parker, who writes delightfully for the British television programme ‘Midsommer Murders’ (featuring extensive clarinet solos) has written an attractive concerto and there is a particularly impressive work by Graham Fitkin, written for David Campbell. 

Of the works on this new CD I would like to dwell on two in particular. Alan Ridout, who, like Malcolm Arnold, was also a pupil of Gordon Jacob, wrote a vast quantity of music, with five symphonies and many concertos among his output. His ‘Concertino for clarinet’ is very short (lasting a little over five minutes) but for intermediate students and a string orchestra of modest achievement it’s a real winner. Alan was sitting at his desk about to begin work on the last movement and waiting for some inspiration, when he heard a wood pigeon cooing outside in his garden. The bird’s five-eight rhythmic pattern therefore forms the basis of the whole movement. 

Guy Woolfenden was director of music at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon for many years. His music, as you would expect, is skilfully written, colourful and immediate. His clarinet concerto was written in 1985 to celebrate Jack Brymer’s seventieth birthday, and Jack gave the first performance in Warwick that same year. It is a moving work full of glorious melodic writing. Let’s try to encourage players to have a look at these fine works and perhaps even slip one into a programme. Audiences are sure to enjoy them.

To return to Malcolm Arnold’s Second Concerto … Written for Benny Goodman, it is a work that encompasses both the dark and light. The first movement shows the composer at his darkest, having attempted suicide just months before completing the work, but the gorgeous melody of the slow movement began life as part of Malcolm’s score for the film The Sound Barrier. And who can fail to be drawn in to the unashamedly high spirits of the ‘Pre-Goodman Rag’ finale.