Old and new

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

At the time of writing, I am currently researching two important clarinet composers from either end of the instrument’s history. About ten years ago I produced an edition of Lefevre’s first five sonatas, published by Oxford University Press, which involved a very enjoyable trip to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris where the manuscripts are held. It’s taken some time, but finally the other seven sonatas are about to join their ‘relatives’ in two further volumes. The middle sonatas are a delight – very tuneful and audience-friendly, and the works are useful both for professional players and good students. We clarinettists need more sonatas to augment our relatively small repertoire of works from the earlier period! Lefevre called these sonatas ‘progressive’ and indeed they live up to that description. The final three get blacker and blacker with more and more notes per square centimetre! But like their predecessors (and remembering of course, that Lefevre himself was a master player and very distinguished teacher of his time) they fit very happily under the fingers. All being well these two new volumes should be released later in 2004. 

Readers will be already familiar with the second composer, Sir Malcolm Arnold; it’s both amazing and exciting that we’re still finding unpublished manuscripts of his, and we’re not finished yet! I recently discovered that Arnold wrote some unaccompanied jazz pieces for clarinet in 1938, although currently these are still lost. I visited him a few weeks ago on his 82nd birthday and found him as perky as ever, having recovered from a recent bout of pneumonia. I have been preparing two of his early works for publication that both include the clarinet – and what gems they are! The first is in fact his very earliest work for wind instruments. The Suite Bourgeoise (mentioned in my previous letter) was written between June 10th and 21st 1940 and has only now, over sixty years later, been published for the first time. It was written for student friends at the Royal College of Music where Malcolm was studying at the time, and was lost for many years, but re-surfaced in 1996. Ruth Arnold, Malcolm’s elder sister, created the title page to the original manuscript and it is to her that we owe the slightly unusual spelling! Originally for flute, oboe and piano, I have also included an alternative clarinet part. It is music of huge charm and wit and reveals Arnold’s interest in a number of contemporary styles and personalities – within the five movements we find popular and dance music, allusions to Les Six and more than a hint of Constant Lambert, whom Arnold admired ‘more than any man in the world’.

The most serious of the five movements, the ‘Prelude’, is an early indication of Arnold’s love for contrapuntal textures – a mode of writing that he was to make much use of in many of his later works. The ‘Tango’ is dedicated to ‘Elaine’ – a friend of Arnold’s who often visited him at his home in Northampton and whom Malcolm remembers as ‘speaking often on one note’. He also suggests, rather unkindly perhaps, that she could only sing one note – F sharp! This is portrayed in the music by the repeated note patterns. At the time of writing the Suite Bourgeoise, Arnold was having composition lessons with Gordon Jacob – a man for whom he had enormous respect. He had, in a typically scurrilous gesture, originally given the next movement a very rude title. (Readers will have to see the publication to find out what it was!) But he thought better of it before showing the music to his teacher! The word is heavily crossed out and replaced by ‘Censored’ to which Arnold appends the more acceptable, but prosaic ‘Dance’. 
The ‘Ballad’ demonstrates the composer’s wonderful gift for melody: it is quite a surprise that this glorious tune didn’t find itself into one of his many films, as material from the next movement did. Devotees of the ‘St Trinian’s’ films will certainly recognise similar music to that of the delightful ‘Valse’, which concludes the suite. It is dedicated to ‘Ugo’, the conductor Hugo Rignold. Before becoming involved with more ‘serious’ music, Rignold was a jazz violinist in the famous Kit-Cat Band. Arnold was also fascinated by the fact that Rignold was an amateur motor-racing enthusiast. This slightly outrageous mix of interests (for a ‘classical’ musician) would have made him an ideal role-model for the somewhat mischievous young composer! 

The second work in preparation is a Grand Fantasia. This was originally written for the composer himself to play along with Richard Adeney (the great flute player and dedicatee of most of his flute works) and a pianist friend (Betty Matthews). However it is well suited for the combination of flute, clarinet and piano, and Arnold was quick to agree to the arrangement. This piece dates from earlier than the Suite Bourgeoise, probably 1938, and was clearly written to give the young virtuosi some fun. It begins with a wonderful nineteenth-century pastiche, reminiscent of all those flamboyant opera fantasies, and then is followed by a jazz waltz, a czardas, a rock-and-roll number and other witty flights of the imagination. And there’s a little of the later Malcolm Arnold in this piece too – altogether it makes for a brilliant and witty concert item!
I’m off for some Christmas pudding now (though the sun will probably be shining when this comes to print!). So, may I wish readers, rather belatedly, a merry Christmas and happy New Year!