Nearer the light

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 2003 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA. 

The number of fascinating Malcolm Arnold works coming to light is ever growing. On a recent visit to Sir Malcolm’s, I came home with an intriguing work for wind octet. The Overture from Suite for Wind Octet was begun on January 31st 1940 and there are 31 bars completed in pencil. Clearly other projects took over because no more work was done until April when Arnold completed the movement in short score. Sadly he never returned to the work – there are no further movements. I asked a friend to complete the arrangement and so emerged yet another little gem by the young composer. 

Over tea with Arnold recently, we discussed the Octet. Although he wrote it over sixty years ago, that old memory still came up trumps. Arnold recalled three influences behind the octet. The ragtime rhythms, which pervade the work, are an indication of his love for jazz, popular and dance music – styles that were to become such a hallmark of his mature work. He even toyed with calling the work ‘Ragtime’. Secondly, Arnold was fiercely anti-war: indeed in 1942 he shot himself in the foot to avoid military service. The middle section, made up of aggressive chords and heavily accented melodic lines, is surely a powerful proclamation of the looming clouds of war and the ever-advancing armies. (The final movement of his Wind Quintet is much in the same vein.) The third influence is the composer’s admiration for the music of Constant Lambert, indeed Arnold told me that ‘there is no man in this world whom I admire more’. Lambert was another composer who had assimilated more popular styles into his music, works such as Rio Grande and the ballet scores – music for which the young Arnold had enormously high regard. Although it is a shame that Arnold didn’t add more movements to this projected suite, we nevertheless have yet another short but worthy work to add to his oeuvres. Like all his early works, the overture was probably written for fellow students at the Royal College of Music, so it was very fitting that the first UK performance was given by students at the RCM’s Junior Department. It is published by Queen’s Temple Publications under the title Overture for Wind Octet. 

Arnold aside, some months ago I took two of my students, Charlotte Swift and Jonathan Howse to Germany to have a lesson with the great Karl Leister. At the time of writing, Charlotte is principal clarinet in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (and indeed took part in that first performance of the Overture) and Jonathan has a similarly high position in the National Youth Wind Orchestra. On our arrival we went straight to the Berlin Radio building where we met Karl in an enormous studio. Karl is both uncompromising and hugely inspiring as a teacher, always demanding tremendous control and ceaseless flights of the imagination. During the day he worked on Brahms and Spohr, Weber and Francaix. At one point, Karl made his point through a thought-provoking anecdote. He was listening to a student and at the end of a phrase, asked the student, “What are you thinking about?” “Nothing really,” came the answer. “I can tell,” Karl responded. He would always want to know what was in your mind as each phrase went by and from time to time he would present his own, often deeply-felt interpretation. We were all much moved by his description of the final coda of the first movement of Brahms F minor sonata as ‘life’s resolution and a kind of final acceptance of the mortality of man’. Ultimately it doesn’t matter exactly what you think – but with such a weighty thought in mind, one can hardly give an inexpressive performance. We talked about technique, dynamics, rhythm, sound and projection. At one point during a tense musical moment in the first movement of Spohr’s 2nd Concerto, Karl’s mobile phone rang. “Good heavens! It’s Spohr,” he said.

And finally, to a performance of a wonderful clarinet quartet by Barrington Pheloung that I gave recently. Pheloung wrote the music for the film about the life of the great cellist Jacqueline du Pré, Hilary and Jackie, and the spectacular TV series Inspector Morse. Nearer The Light Now is a very personal work. It represents the composer himself, a devoutly religious man, living in rural bliss in some of the best countryside the east of England has to offer. The music moves from moments of utter stillness and serenity to passages of extreme energy – very well conceived for clarinets, and a real spiritual experience.