Richard Stoker, Janet
Craxton & ‘Polemics’
Richard Stoker is no
stranger to the art of writing chamber
music- either in general or for the
oboe in particular. A brief perusal
of his catalogue reveals Three String
Quartets, Two String Trios,
a Wind Quintet, and Clarinet
Quartet. There are a number of works
for various instruments, with or without
When we consider the
oboe repertoire the first thing to note
is that he produced a didactic volume
entitled An Oboe Method -so we
feel confident that he must have a facility
for writing for this instrument. He
has written a number of pieces for the
instrument including a Chant &
Danse for the Associated Board examinations,
an Aubade and Three Pieces
for solo performer. But perhaps must
enticing of all is the Pastoral for
Oboe and Strings – this must surely
be a candidate for some future recording
Richard Stoker had met Janet Craxton
when they were both on the staff at
the Royal Academy. He was at that time
professor of composition there. She
had come to a performance of his Third
String Quartet (Adlerian) on the
South Bank and had been suitably impressed
by what she heard. Soon she made a request
to him for a work for her instrument.
Now it appears that she wanted an Oboe
Quartet. But Stoker was not inspired
by this combination. What he had in
mind was to set up a debate or a discussion
between a single woodwind and a string
trio. Hence the two main protagonists
were to become oboe and the trio. The
dedicatee did not know about this particular
change to the planned quartet until
the work was finished – but Stoker relates
that she was ‘OK’ about it.
The relationship between
performer and composer was based on
vigorous debate. They discussed everything
– from music through the state of the
world and just about life in general.
Craxton was some nine years older than
Stoker and no doubt brought her considerable
wisdom and wit into the conversations.
He regarded these dialogues as a kind
of ‘platonic’ debate – hence the title
‘Polemics.’ A brief look at the dictionary
defines ‘polemics’ as follows:-
- A controversial argument, especially
one refuting or attacking a specific
opinion or doctrine.
- A person engaged in or inclined
to controversy, argument, or refutation.
Now listening to music
it is difficult to see the more hard
edged words used in the above definitions.
For example there is little in the way
of ‘attack’ and refuting.’ This suggests
a ‘polemic’ infused by respect and admiration
rather than by mere point scoring.
The composer writes
that he considered the oboe as Janet
Craxton and the violin, and other strings
written in three slightly unbalanced
movements. Although it could be argued
that the work falls into five sections
with the heart of the matter central
to the argument.
The first movement
is entitled Sonata – although
it seems to be perhaps in a ‘Scarlattian’
sense as opposed to that of Beethoven.
It runs for a mere two and half minutes.
The oboe starts off the proceedings
with a short solo gesture before the
stings join in –the lady definitely
has the first word! The oboe retains
its prominence throughout this movement
–but is set against bold and wide-ranging
statements from the other strings. The
debate seems to be somewhat abrupt and
there are certainly a number of throwaway
The second movement
is definitely the heart of the work.
It is a strangle construction really,
being a deep ‘sostenuto’ sandwiched
between two skittish ‘scherzando passages.
In some ways it is a sonata within a
sonata! Yet it is this movement that
give this whole work its touch of genius.
Stoker has written
that in the ‘scherzando’ sections he
has written music in a style that he
knew Craxton enjoyed playing. He used
the Mozart Oboe Quartet as a
starting point rather than a model.
This was a classical work that was a
critical part of Janet Craxton’s repertoire.
But it is in the central
section – the sostenuto – where Stoker
excels himself. There is a profundity
to this music that stays in the mind
long after the final notes of the piece
have been heard. And there is a strangely
‘English’ quality to this music – especially
the string parts. This is not perhaps
too surprising until one recalls Stoker’s
predilection towards the ‘Francophile’
works of Lennox Berkeley.
The last movement is
in fact a fugue. Here all the four instruments
come into the argument. It is harder
to spot anyone in the ascendancy –although
the soloist is certainly never put in
It is difficult to
know if this work is based on a tone
row of any kind. Much of the writing
has an atonal feel to it that suggests
there may be some constructional principal
underlying the melodic and harmonic
development of this piece. But typically
Stoker has used tone rows as a means
to an end rather than the end itself.
It does not really matter whether we
are listening to inversions or retrogrades
of the original note sequence – it is
whether the music moves the soul. In
this case it most certainly does.
The only recording
we have of this work is unfortunately
in ‘mono’ sound. It was made two days
before Christmas Day in 1971 at the
BBC Broadcasting House. Yet it is a
classic in its own right. This is available
and is coupled with works by Routh,
Maconchy, LeFanu, Berkeley and Lutyens.
The playing of both the soloist and
the London Oboe Quartet seems to my
ear faultless – the cut and thrust of
the ‘polemic’ or ‘dialogue’ is vital
and the string tone leaves nothing to
Because of the close
association of the composer and the
player it is doubtful that any subsequent
recordings can quite catch the magic
and the personality of both the ‘key
players.’ But that must never be a reason
not to record a great work time and
again. I sincerely hope that some oboist
will take up this work and produce a
modern, stereo recording. And perhaps
they could include some of the other
works that Stoker wrote for this great
John France 23rd February