Four short pieces?

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 December 2008 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA.

I’d like to begin with a postscript to my last letter, on the subject of Pauline Juler and Howard Ferguson. I have come across some fascinating letters between Ferguson and Gerald Finzi. The two had an enduring and deep friendship which began in 1926 and ended with Finzi’s death in 1956. Readers will know Ferguson’s delightful Four Short Pieces. But you may not know that, like the Finzi Bagatelles, there were originally five of them! On January 1st 1937 Ferguson wrote to Finzi, ‘there is a set of five short pieces for clarinet and piano which I would like your opinion on: they are very slight, but well enough in their way, I think, and I would like to know whether you think they merit publication…I have asked Pauline Juler to tootle them through with me on the 12th for your especial benefit.’ Sometime between January and June, one of the movements, a ‘bubbly Rhapsody’ was omitted. ‘Not because I don’t like it musically,’ Ferguson wrote to Finzi on June 10th, ‘but because it seems impossible to play without making the most frightful clatter with the keys. Thus the set will consist of Four instead of Five pieces.’ So, did we perhaps lose a piece of our all-too-limited repertoire because Pauline’s clarinet needed a little oil? However, the movement later re-surfaced as the second of the Three Sketches for flute and piano Op. 14 (published by Boosey and Hawkes). But a letter from January 1938 suggests that we may be the poorer for something on an altogether larger scale. Finzi to Ferguson: ‘Pauline Juler is quite right in wanting you to do a Clarinet Sonata. I think you’d do it to perfection, and then there would be no need to revive Stanford and Bax. The little pieces are a signpost.’ How disappointing that he didn’t take the advice.
I try to follow the progress of my old pupil Julian Bliss as best I can, and heard two of his performances recently. I was delighted to hear him play the bittersweet Malcolm Arnold Second Concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra a couple of weeks ago, in the lavish Birmingham Symphony Hall. I remember working on it with Julian when he was only eight. He gave an astonishing performance even then, with the Huddersfield Symphony Orchestra, attended by Sir Malcolm himself. Just last week, Julian played Weber’s Second with the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, which I picked up on the radio. It was a real virtuoso presentation with many imaginative moments. So many players worry too much about sticking religiously to the text and whilst Julian didn’t do anything outside the bounds of stylistic decency, there were lots of unexpected and delightful twists and turns causing one to think, ‘Yes! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?!’.

I always love it when the postman has to ring the doorbell with a parcel too big to fit through the letterbox. And I was especially pleased recently when that parcel was Pamela Weston’s latest book, Heroes and Heroines of Clarinettistry. It’s a collection of many of her writings over the years – absolutely fascinating articles in which Pamela reveals many new insights into composers and works we thought we knew. It’s published by Trafford Publishing (with a Foreword by the ICA’s own James Gillespie) and should be in every clarinettist’s library. 

I was judging a concerto competition the other day and was yet again astounded by the standard of young players today. All the musicians were under twenty (some well under) and we had more than adequate performances of Mozart, Weber and even one Nielsen! I remember rushing out to buy a copy of the Nielsen Concerto when I was about sixteen – after hearing a performance on the radio by the great Stanley Drucker. But I never really considered playing it at that time. Now I have my fourteen-year-old pupils wanting to learn it! That’s progress.