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The War 1939 –1945

The Author wants to learn the Clarinet. His father is against it – he hopes his son will be a doctor. The author’s school is evacuated and he plays in the school orchestra. The joy of playing chamber music. He hears a recording of Menuhin: his future is sealed.

Had I been born into a comfortable middle class family in 1875 instead of 1925 I would probably have satisfied my father’s wish and become a doctor or lawyer. To become an orchestral musician would have been out of the question. By 1940 attitudes had begun to change and children like myself were having their aspirations to become musicians satisfied. None the less, my father remained opposed to me becoming a professional musician. I am sure that his opposition did not stem from any lack of respect for his own profession, but was caused by his fear of unemployment and the financial insecurity inherent in being a musician. At that time, 1936, there were still very many musicians looking for work.

When the ‘talkies’ replaced the ‘silent’ films, thousands of musicians previously employed in the ‘orchestras’ in every cinema to accompany the silent films were thrown into the already large army of unemployed. The relatives I referred to earlier who were sustained by my father’s kindness were amongst those affected by this technological advance.

I suppose it is not surprising that having had very little formal education himself, my father was anxious to give me the opportunities he felt he had been denied. He certainly was not keen for me to develop any ideas of following him into a profession that remained extremely precarious. He resisted my desire to learn the clarinet, but in the end agreed to let me have piano lessons. It was not long before he realised that he was wasting his money. My lack of talent and interest in playing the piano was all too apparent. Being a practical man, he at last gave in to my persistence and agreed to start giving me clarinet lessons.

I was then eleven. When he was that age he was just starting out on his professional career and must already have been ‘street-wise’ and something of a man of the world, whereas I had only known the comfort and security of a middle class home. I was at Colet Court, the preparatory school for St. Paul’s, where he hoped I would acquire an education that would enable me to fulfil his ambition that I should become a doctor, or a barrister. In fact, that I might join any other profession than that of music. And to satisfy this ambition he was prepared to make financial sacrifices.

Probably the great differences between my father’s youthful circumstances, personality and talents and mine did little to make the teacher/pupil relationship easy. In retrospect it is so obvious and understandable. At the time it was the cause of considerable impatience and disappointment to him, and distress to me.

In the early stages all went well, as is usually the case. One makes most progress in the first lesson, going rapidly from not being able to produce a note to playing three or four different notes, and, perhaps, even playing a short, simple melody. The clarinet is particularly rewarding in the early stages. It is quite easy to play in the low register – no doubt this is why it is so popular with youngsters who have already made some headway on the recorder.

Of course I had quite a lot of school homework to do each evening and, though I was keen to make progress on the clarinet, my motivation was just to enjoy myself. I had as yet no thoughts about the future, nor had I remotely considered the possibility of playing the clarinet to earn my living. In the light of my own experience of teaching the clarinet for many years at all levels, I think it fair to say that I made above average progress. But to my father I am sure it seemed that I was moving forward at a snail’s pace, and with little sense of purpose. He had done very little teaching and because of his own quite remarkable gifts as a clarinettist – he was generally recognised as a technical virtuoso in his day – he had no understanding of those less gifted than himself. In addition he was one of those players who are never really happy unless they have their instrument in their hands. By contrast I am naturally indolent, and though it took many years for me to realise it, I am now aware that I was always more interested in music than actually playing an instrument. I think it is unlikely that anyone will become a really outstanding instrumental performer unless the actual act of playing the instrument continues to give a great deal of satisfaction throughout his or her life.

Doing something easily and well is a great spur to making further progress. I found playing reasonably easy, but with the sound of my father’s expertise constantly in my ears I did not think very highly of my own performance and this inhibited my enthusiasm and confidence. This was compounded by the fact that there was no set day for lessons, say once a week, as is usual. If my father was at home and heard me playing, up in my room, and he heard something that was incorrect, out of rhythm, tempo, or a wrong note – as was frequently the case – he would come up and put me right. This could be a lengthy process, as he appeared to have little sense of the passing of time. At that age a half-hour, or at most a forty-minute lesson, is quite long enough. I recall times when an hour and a half or even longer passed before, mercifully, we ‘packed up’.

The hardest single technical difficulty on the clarinet is ‘crossing the break’. At one point, (between the notes A and B, in the middle of the treble clef) one moves from having one finger on a key to covering seven holes and pressing three keys. You may wonder how it is possible to perform ten actions with only eight fingers and a thumb (the other is used to support the instrument). In fact that is a large part of the problem. The thumb of the left hand has to do two things; cover a hole, and press a key, at the same time. Early attempts at this feat are generally unsuccessful, resulting in the dreaded ‘squeaks’ to which the clarinet alone is heir. This is usually the cause of merriment to others, but is humiliating to the player. It takes quite a while, and a good deal of persistence, before this move can be made with confidence. In fact passages involving crossing the break at speed, several times in succession, remain one of the most difficult things to do, however long one plays and however accomplished one becomes.

There is one particular study in Klosé’s famous Tutor for the Clarinet, written to develop the ability to cross the break. The first note of each group is above the break and the following two are below. If the top note is emphasised, and especially when the study is played up to speed, it sounds like a tune with its own accompaniment. Even after several weeks’ practise I was still stumbling and squeaking, but I was starting to hear and enjoy the faint outline of the melody. ‘No! No! No!’ shouted my father, ‘It goes like this’, and he then dashed it off at a very fast speed, so that the top notes sounded like a row of ringing bells, each with its own delicate accompaniment. I listened with delight, but wondered what hope there was for me. I felt like someone with a broken foot hobbling along as an Olympic athlete races past.

Looking back, having mastered that study, I realise that he was trying to set me an example, a target to aim for. For some, my father included, that style of teaching will provoke the right response – ‘You think you’re good – I’ll show you!’ For many others like myself it has a very different effect, inhibiting and creating doubt in one’s capacity ever to reach one’s goal. My own experience was to have a considerable influence on my future method of teaching.

Many years later I was talking to my father about a pupil I had who was using the same study book that had caused me to feel so inadequate, the one written by the very great French clarinettist Camille Klosé. He had developed the Boehm system clarinet in 1843 by applying Boehm’s flute ring-mechanism to the clarinet. I had learned from the copy of this Tutor that my father had used when he was a boy at the Guildhall School of Music. I asked him why so many of the pages were separate though the volume as a whole seemed to be complete. He explained to me that he was given a halfpenny for the tram to take him to the Guildhall because as well as his clarinets he had this large and rather heavy book of studies to carry. But he had decided that the money would be better spent on buying some sweets and so he had torn out the pages he was currently studying, put them in his clarinet case and walked – no doubt happily sucking his illicit purchase.

In August 1939, a few weeks before the outbreak of war, St Paul’s School left London. Along with tens of thousands of other children we became ‘evacuees’. It was an exciting experience; rather unsettling, but as it turned out, fortunate for me. Had I not left home when I was just fourteen I think it is unlikely that I would have spent most of my life as a clarinettist. The tension between my own self confidence and unwillingness to bow to authority, and my sense of inadequacy in the face of my father’s overwhelming ability, would have led to my abandoning my efforts to master the technique required to become a useful player.

In contrast to the situation today, woodwind players were rather thin on the ground at a public school such as St Paul’s. In fact they could not have been thinner. Apart from one of the more elderly masters, a Mr Bartlett, who performed on the flute in a frail and indecisive manner, I was the only other woodwind player. The combination of his indecision and my inaccuracy did not make for a very strong or effective woodwind section.

There were a reasonable number of strings, but here again neither technique nor musicality were of a high order. Just the same, I enjoyed the weekly rehearsals even though the music master, Mr Wilson, often seemed to be rather bad tempered. Looking back, I suppose that he must have been quite a kindly and patient man not to have cursed us and run screaming from the noise we were making.

Sometime in the late nineteen seventies or early eighties, I was invited to adjudicate at the school’s annual music competition and award the prize to the best woodwind player. There were a great many entrants and the standard was remarkably high. The best were up to music college entrance level and could tackle something as difficult as the Nielsen clarinet or flute Concerto, unthinkable in my time at school. There was no longer any difficulty in forming a full and competent woodwind section. In contrast, the number of string players had not increased to anything like the same extent, nor had the quality of the playing much improved.

The very first concert in which I took part was in the school orchestra. We played a symphony by Boyce, in an edition that would make today’s ‘authentic’ specialists go white (I do not recall ever again playing another piece by Boyce during the rest of my life as a musician), and the Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Vaughan Williams. This is quite an attractive work though seldom played today. It is written to be played on the ‘A’ clarinet. In the orchestra clarinettists use two clarinets – not at the same time, of course! – one in ‘Bb’ and the other in ‘A’. (The clarinet is a transposing instrument. The note you read from the music, and finger on the instrument, is different from the note that actually sounds. When you read and finger the note ‘C’, on the ‘Bb’ clarinet, it will sound one tone lower, ‘Bb’. When you read and finger this same note (‘C’) on the ‘A’ clarinet, you will hear the note ‘A ‘, a tone and a half lower. The instrument the composer selects to write for depends on the key he intends to write in. If he is writing a piece in the key of D major, he will probably write for the ‘A’ clarinet, so that the clarinet part will be in F major, rather than for the ‘Bb’ clarinet, on which, to play the same sounds, the player would have to play in E major, making the fast passages much more difficult technically.)

Faced with the problem of playing an ‘A’ clarinet part on the ‘Bb’, the only one I possessed, I decided to rewrite the part transposing the notes in the process. My lack of skill in playing the clarinet was matched by my inexperience in transposition. The next rehearsal was marred not only by my normal failings, but had the added disadvantage of a great number of wrong notes. Whole passages were well ahead of their time – they would be more acceptable today, in Boulez, or Stockhausen, than they were then in Vaughan Williams. When I wrote home and reported this disaster, my father with remarkable generosity sent me an ‘A’ clarinet. Subsequent rehearsals only suffered from my usual inadequacies. Though I was aware that our efforts were pretty awful, it gave me pleasure to be making music with other people, and whetted my appetite for more.

In 1939, when the school left London to escape the bombing, we were evacuated to Crowthorne, still a quiet Berkshire village. Here I was free from discerning parental ears. Wrong notes, inaccurate rhythms, and mistakes of every kind went by without interference from anyone but myself. If I was away on the wings of a melody I let them pass, and came back later to try to improve what had been wrong. I blossomed. The occasional ‘stroking’ that praise from my uncritical friends provided, rather than the constant criticism I had experienced at home, increased my desire to ‘perform’.

For the first year that we were in Crowthorne I was billeted in a small house with a family of rather modest means – in those days it would be referred to as a ‘working-class’ family – Mr. and Mrs. Benham, their two daughters, and Mrs Benham’s old father. Mr Benham drove lorries for the army, and his wife had been a nurse at Broadmoor, the criminal asylum, just at the top of the road.

I got along with the family very well, except for Mrs Benham’s father who was an evil-tempered chap. He had been in the army, and at some time played the clarinet in a part-time army band. He took an instant dislike to my middle class style, and made it clear he considered me a ‘Nancy-boy’. On one occasion he decided to search out his very ancient instrument, and insisted on displaying his ability. This had always been primitive; the passing of time and his age had reduced his performance to a ghastly series of squawks, squeaks, and gurgles. I was unable to respond with the enthusiasm that he no doubt anticipated. Naturally this did little to improve our relationship.

I suppose it was a measure of my enthusiasm for the clarinet that I got up early each morning to practise, from seven-thirty until eight o’clock – before breakfast. I used the ‘front-room’, normally reserved for special occasions such as christenings, deaths, and the like. In winter it was freezing cold. The only room that was warm was the kitchen, which was heated by a traditional range, on which they cooked as well. This was very different from my cosy middle-class home in Bedford Park, but the Benhams were kind, and somehow came to terms with this strange unruly lad they had had deposited on them. I was happy, and learned to know and appreciate a way of life I would otherwise never have experienced.

In the second year I had the opportunity to join two of my closest friends in what the school called a ‘hostel’. This was one of the big houses in the village where the owner(s) still lived, but which was large enough to accommodate twenty or more boys, usually with some poor unfortunate master in charge. The hostel I was in had the charming name ‘Pooks Hill’, and an equally charming owner, Mrs Bryant, whose husband had been called up and was in the Royal Air Force. She was probably about thirty at the time, though like nearly everyone else who was not my own age, she seemed to me to be in the same age group as my parents. She was an amateur musician, played the piano, and was not too critical – she thought I played quite well.

Through her I learned the joy of playing chamber music. As well as accompanying me in some of the solo pieces I was vain enough to attempt, she invited a violinist, a violist, and a cellist to join her so that we could play the Mozart Clarinet Quintet. My own skills were limited, but compared to the string players, gentle and delightful ladies from good families around Crowthorne, I was a virtuoso. The first violin part was usually played on the piano, as the violinist had sufficient problems with the second violin part. The viola and cello parts were sketched in fairly adequately, if you were of an understanding and forgiving nature. Unfortunately the violist was inclined to be wayward – perhaps impatient – she tended to dislike staying on one note for more than a couple of beats, and would dash off on her own. We seldom played more than sixteen bars (often far fewer) without a stop, and every bar was flawed in some way or another. Yet I waited each week for Wednesday afternoon to come round again so that I could wallow in those wonderful sounds, and the thrill of making music with other people.

There were several events during this time that were of some importance for the future. From time to time the whole school was subjected to concerts of Good Music. They were not very popular, and were sometimes the occasion for fooling about – not always without good reason. I remember one time when a singer of distinction, but past her prime, came to give a song recital. The hall in which Assembly and concerts took place had rather grand doors that opened from the centre in two halves. Normally only one half of the doorway was used. The door was opened for our soloist to enter, and she made to do so. Unfortunately she was a lady of extremely ample proportions, and neither her full frontal, nor her sideways efforts to gain access to the hall were to any avail. Amidst some tittering and general merriment, and the discomfort of our visitor, the other half of the door was unlatched, and she sailed in.

Why it was thought that a song recital that would appeal to a limited and sophisticated audience should be suitable for boys aged between fourteen and eighteen, lacking any experience of classical music, remains a mystery. I do remember that I spent most of the concert with a handkerchief stuffed into my mouth, trying to suppress my giggles, and nearly bursting in the attempt. There were to be a number of occasions during my professional life when I was reduced to a similar condition.

Other concerts included the performance of a symphony by the eighteenth century composer William Boyce, the Christmas Fantasia by Vaughan Williams, referred to earlier, and my first solo effort – the slow movement from the Clarinet Concerto No.1 by Weber. The mis-fingered note I played in the middle of this attractive movement still haunts my memory. It was also at one of these concerts that I allowed myself to be persuaded to turn the pages for one of the two pianists, in a performance of Scaramouche, by Milhaud. This terrifying experience was so nerve- racking that I vowed – a vow I have kept – never to undertake that responsibility again.

But the most important experience for me took place one Sunday evening. The Music Society – or was it the Gramophone Society? – met at Mr Wilson’s house each Sunday. There would be about fifteen or twenty of us, to whom Mr Wilson would play music of his choice. This was still the era of the 78 rpm. 12 inch record, requiring one to leap up and down every four minutes, to turn the record over, change the record or needle, and, on some machines, even wind it up – I think we had a radiogram, so that was not necessary. One Sunday he put on
Click for larger picture
the Elgar Violin Concerto, the recording made by the fifteen year old Yehudi Menuhin. I was overwhelmed, as I am to this day, by this miraculous performance. Not because a performance of such remarkable dexterity was possible from a boy of that age, nor even because I was aware of the extraordinary musical maturity of someone so young. I was just captured by the sheer beauty of the music, and the feelings it aroused in me. I felt an intense desire to make music like that; to affect others, as I had been affected. At that moment my future was sealed.

Chapter 4


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