Thurston's other pupil

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 May 2009 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA.

I’ve been reading a book about Stowe School recently. Readers may recall that Stowe is a grand and exceptionally distinguished eighteenth-century mansion set in a thousand acres of some of the best landscape gardens in the world, and I used to have the pleasure of teaching there. What really caught my attention (between cricket scores and the comings and goings of members of staff) was a performance of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet in March 1954, given by a promising young clarinettist by the name of Colin Davis. To most, Sir Colin Davis is the international conductor of immense stature. But he began life playing the clarinet and would probably have become a clarinettist of international stature had his interest in the baton not taken him in other directions. I decided to do a bit of detective work to see what I could find out...

Colin Davis began his clarinet studies at the age of eleven at Christ’s Hospital School. He was clearly a highly talented player. For example, the Director of Music (the composer C.S. Lang) organised performances of the Brahms Quintet when Colin was still quite a young teenager; one was at the house of Leslie Regan, a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. Christopher Regan (who went on to become Dean at the RAM) still remembers the performance, ‘Colin was already sounding very professional.’ His playing developed well, for he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1943 where he studied with the great Jack Thurston. Sir Colin recalls, ‘He was always encouraging: how fortunate I was to have had him as my first professor!’ Fellow student Judy Wilkins (who went on to marry conductor Charles Mackerras) remembers Colin Davis’s enviable ability to transpose, ‘I seem to recall that Colin only had one clarinet at the time, but he could easily transpose A clarinet parts, flute parts, anything really, onto the Bb in an instant!’ Indeed he regularly used to play Mozart Violin Sonatas with fellow student Peggy Gray and gave a memorable performance of the Kegelstatt Trio with Peggy and her future husband, Patrick Ireland, at the Goldsmiths Hall in London. Peggy remembers his wonderful musicianship and sweet tone, but what has remained even more strongly in her mind was the fact that during the course of that particular concert, Patrick’s trousers, to the astonishment of all, fell down! 

One Christmas holiday during this period, the young Colin Davis joined another student clarinettist (and near neighbour) on Wimbledon Common to accompany a local choir in their seasonal carol singing. That friend happened to be a certain Pamela Weston and this was not to be the only time they played together. Colin Bradbury, also a student at the RCM, played with Davis around this time too, ‘The RCM supplied players to boost an amateur orchestra for a concert in Maidstone – I found myself playing second to Colin Davis.’
After the Royal College, Sir Colin was drafted into military service and joined the Household Cavalry where he played clarinet in His Majesty’s Life Guards Band. He was stationed in Windsor and the band played regularly at parades and events for King George VI. After being discharged in 1948, Sir Colin became quite a busy orchestral player. He played principal in the Kalmar Chamber Orchestra with either Thea King or Gervase de Peyer as second and, in 1949, toured with the Ballet Russes playing the Nutcracker in, among other places, a very cold Leeds. He also played with the London Mozart Players where he was reunited with his Wimbledon Common duo-partner, Pamela Weston. 
Clarinettist Basil (Nick) Tchaikov remembers Colin Davis joining him to play second clarinet at Glyndebourne. It was a Mozart opera and Davis was clearly more fascinated by the conductor than the playing – a sign of things to come. They later performed together again in the New London Orchestra which was conducted by Alex Sherman (a conductor who notably worked with Segovia).
The next few years saw Colin Davis establish an important career as a leading player. He often performed with violinist Erich Gruenberg who said that he played with a lovely clear sound and was indeed an equal of his distinguished contemporary Gervase de Peyer. In 1951, Colin Davis famously gave the first performance of a new Sonatina by the young Malcolm Arnold at the RBA Galleries in London. The second half of the concert included the Brahms Trio. During the summer months, Sir Colin would often attend one of the great (eccentric) institutions of British musical life, Music Camp, where regularly, enthusiasts gather and camp on a hill (near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire) and play music all hours of the day and night in barns. Particularly memorable were a number of performances he gave of Shepherd on the Rock with his then wife, the singer April Cantelo and, again, The Mozart Quintet. Dartington was also the venue for another performance of the Mozart which Sir Colin played with the Amadeus Quartet. Christopher Finzi recalls a moving performance of his father Gerald Finzi’s Concerto given by Sir Colin with the Newbury Strings (Christopher was a member of the cello section at the time) – the soloist was not phased at all by the fact that Gerald lost his place at one point, and they had to begin again. 
Some of the final performances Sir Colin gave were recalled by the writer David Cairns, who heard him play both the Mozart and Brahms Quintets to a group of friends at a house belonging to the famous writer and traveller, Nick Wollaston in 1960. There was also a performance of the Schubert Octet, with the great cellist Jacqueline Du Pré. But as time progressed, Sir Colin’s international career as a conductor grew and flourished and the clarinet remained sadly idle in its case. We’ll never know quite how beautiful that performance of the Mozart Quintet was that March at Stowe; in fact as far as I can tell there are no recordings of his playing. Although we do of course have the wonderful recording of the Concerto played by Jack Brymer and the LSO conducted by Sir Colin – so, perhaps with a bit of imagination...

(In researching this article I have spoken to some wonderful people and I would like to record my thanks and their names here: Colin Bradbury, David Cairns, Christopher Finzi, Livia Gollancz, Stephen Gray, Erich Gruenberg, Peggy Ireland, Anita Lasker, Jean Middlemiss, Gervase de Peyer, Christopher Regan, Nick Robinson, Delia Ruhm, Lenore Reynell, Nick Tchaikov, Pamela Weston and Judy Wilkins.)