Elegance and sophistication - some secret English repertoire

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 2005 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA.

When I was at school, one of the most memorable musical events I took part in was a performance of an enormous work by a British composer of whom you may well not have heard. A Time for Growing was positively Wagnerian in its scale – written for orchestra, two choirs, actors, dancers, soloists, speakers and even a large percussion band, it tells the story of The Creation. The performance took place in London’s great Royal Albert Hall, and for me, a mere 14-year-old, it was a quite spectacular experience. The composer was Antony Hopkins (not the actor!), best-known for his 36-year-long stint as a broadcaster here in the UK. In fact his radio programme, Talking about Music, became something of a national treasure. In each episode he would discuss, in simple terms, a piece of music that particularly fascinated him. I had the pleasure of having tea with him a few weeks back, in his highly characterful house in the middle of a very large park just north of Berkhampstead in Hertfordshire. Among his many works there is a very pleasant and well-constructed little Fantasy for Clarinet, written for Gervase de Peyer in 1951. I took my copy with me for Tony to sign and we spoke about the English ‘clarinet character piece’. You’ll know the Finzi Bagatelles of course, and possibly the Dunhill Phantasy Suite and Ferguson Four Short Pieces. But there are many more...

One of my very favourites is Alan Richardson’s Roundelay. Alan, a quiet and thoughtful professor at the Royal Academy of Music, was married to the great oboist Janet Craxton and wrote and arranged a number of pieces for the clarinet. But Roundelay is certainly his most attractive. A short single movement, its charming lyricism is as quintessentially English as you could possibly imagine. Well worth slipping into a recital, or using as a gentle encore piece.
Can you think of a more appropriate title for a short and amiable pastoral miniature than The Wistful Shepherd? Such is the title given by Clarence Raybould to his 1939 reverie for clarinet and piano. It stretches neither the mind nor the technique, but would undoubtedly delight any audience. Raybould was a conductor and something of an eccentric who distinguished himself in the First World War. As a young clarinettist, my teacher, John Davies, remembers being driven about the Welsh countryside by Clarence Raybould on their way to a concert. An experience he recalls many many years later with more than a certain distress! Evidently Raybould was not too reliable behind the wheel, and would happily down a generous number of pints before setting out (well before laws prohibited such recklessness!).

Antony Hopkins’ Fantasy was written in 1951 and is a little more substantial than either of the above works. But not as substantial as Robin Milford’s Lyrical Movement, one of a number of works written for Alan Frank. Alan was in charge of Oxford University Press Music for many years, and the other half of the Thurston and Frank Tutor. Milford, a friend of Gerald Finzi, also wrote a wonderful Phantasy Quintet for clarinet and string quartet. Both the Milford clarinet works should be programmed and heard on a regular basis. They both understand the instrument well and test the player, presenting some musical and technical challenges well worth tackling. Also written for Alan Frank was Herbert Murrill’s Prelude, Cadenza and Fugue. Murrill was Head of Music at the BBC, as well as composing music for films and the concert hall. A pupil of York Bowen and Alan Bush, his music has obvious roots in the English pastoral style, but there is a little more grit to be found in this short and arresting work. 
Moving back to music redolent of the English countryside, there are the four pieces by Frederick Kell (father of player Reginald Kell). They make a splendid set and have indeed been recorded by Verity Butler on the British Composer Series (under the title, Clarinet Kaleidoscope). Finally there is A Truro Maggot by Philip Browne, famously recorded by Thurston in 1937 and available on Clarinet Classics. It’s a very jolly little piece; full of English wit – understated and undemanding, but like all the works I’ve mentioned, brimming with character. 

I hope I may have whetted your appetite for some of these enchanting and, in some cases, slightly more challenging pieces. They deserve to be played, and I would have no hesitation in assuring you of a very favourable audience reaction!
Finally, on the subject of Reginald Kell, I’m delighted to see that many of his wonderful recordings have been re-issued in a bumper six-CD set. Among this treasure trove is the Richardson Roundelay which he plays with his customary sense of timing and rhythmic movement. A pupil of mine was studying the Weber Concertino recently and I therefore looked through my many different editions. I took care not to look at the editor and was delighted to find, after much deliberation, that the one that really got to the heart of the music, as well as closest to Weber’s operatic style, was Kells’.