Summer, songs and a glass of champagne

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

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to present a programme of music for voice, clarinet and piano with the theme of ‘summer’. Voice, clarinet and piano is a particularly delightful medium and makes for a very audience-friendly evening. I chose a programme entirely by British composers and thought I would share some of these delightful works with you – some are well-known, but one or two are less so. Long gone are the days when we had to rely solely on Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock!

We began the programme with Thomas Arne’s When Daisies Pied, which has a clarinet obligato part written by the great Victorian virtuoso Henry Lazarus – my teacher’s, teacher’s, teacher! Furthermore, my teacher (John Davies) was in the audience. I love the connections we can discover if we search around a little, and this was the first of a considerable number. Pamela Weston was the editor of the Arne, and also the dedicatee of our next work – the wonderful Three Songs of Innocence by Arnold Cooke. These were written in the late fifties for Pamela’s Klarion Trio (consisting of herself, Jean Broadley and Eileen Nugent) to words by the great poet William Blake. The poignant and remarkably beautiful middle movement, ‘The Shepherd’, is a gem (and reminds me of those haunting Songs of the Auvergne by Cantaloube). When a student at the Royal Academy of Music, I remember going to play Cooke’s Sonata to him. A very quiet, modest and then quite elderly man, after the performance he simply said ‘very neat’ and signed my copy!

A double connection now as we moved on to the splendid Two Nursery Rhymes by Arthur Bliss in 1920. The work was written for Charles Draper, another pupil of Lazarus, and is a charming setting of two poems by Frances Cornford. The second, ‘The Dandelion’, is for voice and clarinet alone. This work has happily been restored to the catalogue after a short while out of print and is a must for anyone’s library. I said there was a double connection – the second is a fascinating one. The first of the two songs, ‘The Ragwort’, is dedicated to Leslie Heward. Heward was a very promising young composer and conductor who tragically died in his early forties. His daughter, Karen Heward, an assistant at Pinewood Studios, subsequently worked with Malcolm Arnold, the composer of our next song. Beauty Haunts the Woods was written when Malcolm was only thirteen – and it’s a remarkable little piece. Set to words by his elder sister, Ruth, it creates a lingering and evocative atmosphere of great sadness – a chilling prophesy of things to come. (It should be played very slowly by the way!) Frequent readers will know of my interest in Malcolm Arnold and, recently, I edited his Suite Bourgeoise – a brilliant piece for Flute, Oboe and piano. Perhaps rather cheekily I have also included an alternative part for clarinet (instead of oboe) in the publication. Performances of this terrific work seem to bring the house down!

Another connection leads us to the next work – the Four Seasonal Songs by Gordon Jacob (Malcolm Arnold’s teacher) first performed by Thea King and written in the early eighties, shortly before Jacob died. Gordon Jacob wrote over seven hundred works, many of which included the clarinet. The first of the set, ‘Summer’, uses old English and the third, ‘Winter’, is a vocalise. Altogether it is a delightful and skilfully written cycle. The penultimate work was my own Six Clerihew Songs – the poems are very funny ‘four liners’ by a rather eccentric cleric, the Reverend Clerihew Bentley, with a great sense of humour.
We concluded our recital with the Scenes from Tyneside by Phyllis Tate. This pre-dates the Jacob by a few years and is quite a large-scale work, lasting around twenty minutes. Phyllis Tate was married to Alan Frank, head of music at Oxford University Press for many years, but perhaps best known to clarinet players as being the other half of the Thurston and Frank tutor. Tate has contributed a number of important pieces to the repertoire, perhaps the finest being the Sonata for clarinet and cello – a work deserving many more outings that it gets. The Scenes from Tyneside comprise six songs and are freely based on somewhat obscure Northumbrian folk-songs. There are many colourful effects – in the third song, for example, the pianist becomes a tambourine player for the duration of the piece! 

After a successful recital we gathered, together with the very friendly and appreciative audience, for a glass of champagne and enjoyed the warm summer evening. Playing music is such an eternal joy!