Peter Racine Fricker's Wind Quintet - A Forgotten Delight
by John France
Most critics and commentators agree that Peter Racine Fricker’s Wind Quintet, op.5 composed in 1947 was his first composition to make a major impact on the musical world. This work was taken up by the legendary Dennis Brain who was a boyhood friend of the composer at St. Paul’s School, London. Francis Routh has suggested that this ‘fortuitous fact’ allowed the quintet to gain ‘wider acceptance than would otherwise have been the case’. In spite of this caveat, I believe this is a work worthy of revival and should have a secure place in the repertoire.
Fricker’s then recent compositions had included the Sonata for Organ, op.3 (1947) which was not heard until a recital given by Philip Dore on 9 June 1951 at All Souls’, Langham Place. The Two Madrigals, op.4 (1947) were settings of Walter de la Mare verse. Around this period he wrote a Symphonietta for orchestra (1946-7) which, seemingly, was never performed and has remained in manuscript. Earlier works included Three Preludes for piano, op.1 (1943-5) and Four Fughettas for Two Pianos, op.2 (1946).
The story of the work’s genesis is given in Gamble and Lynch (2011). The Brain Wind Quintet flautist, Gareth Morris gave a recorded interview to Gamble (1 March 2006):
“It’s got a terrific badinerie in it. I used to play the Badinerie of Bach [the final movement of the B minor suite for flute and strings, BWV 1067] an awful lot. He [Fricker] said to me, ‘Would you like another badinerie for the Wind Quintet?’ I said, ‘That would be nice, yes.’ Some badinerie, isn’t it? A good piece. We played it quite often.”
A ‘badinerie’ literally means ‘teasing, playfulness and frivolity’. It is sometimes given as ‘badinage’ by 18th century French and German composers. This was used for light, playful pieces often in 2/4 time. ‘Modern’ examples include those by Cyril Scott and John Foulds.
After the Wind Quintet was completed during June 1947, Fricker sent the score to Dennis Brain for his comments. Some months later, the composer was astonished to open his copy of the Radio Times and discover that the work was scheduled for broadcast. It was the first time that Fricker had had a work performed on the BBC (Pettit, 1989).
Fricker’s Quintet won the 1947 Alfred J. Clements Prize of Ł20 (about Ł500 at 2016 prices). The adjudicators for this competition were Alan Bush, Howard Ferguson and Richard H. Walthew. Clements (1858-1938) was organiser and secretary of the weekly South Place Sunday Concerts between 1887 and 1938. After his death, a prize was established in his name.
The premiere of the Quintet was on 3 January 1949 during a BBC Third Programme broadcast. The recital was recorded at Studio 3, Maida Vale and featured the Brain Wind Quintet: Gareth Morris (flute), Leonard Brain (oboe), Stephen Waters (clarinet), Dennis Brain (horn) and Thomas Wightman (bassoon). Jacques Ibert’s Trois pičces brčves (1930) were also presented.
The first public performance of Fricker’s Quintet was also by the Brain Wind Quintet during a South Place Concert at the Conway Hall on 27 February 1949. Other works heard at this premiere included Beethoven’s Quintet, op.16 and Mozart’s Divertimento, K.270 for two oboes, horn and bassoon arranged for quintet by Anthony Baines. The Quintet were joined by Mr. George Malcolm when the piano was required. This was immediately followed by another recital at the Chelsea Town Hall at one of Boyd Neel’s Monday Night Concerts. Dennis Brain was partnered on that occasion by members of the Boyd Neel Orchestra. The Times (1 March 1949) reviewer considered that ‘there was evidence of serious thought behind all its four movements, with some skilful counterpoint in the canonic variations of the third [movement] and some imaginative instrumentation in the scherzo-like Badinerie and Musette preceding it.’
The Brian Wind Quintet would play Fricker’s Quintet many times over the following decade. It was featured at the 1951 West Berlin Festival and was heard at the Venice Festival on 12 September 1956.
Peter Racine Fricker, Wind Quintet, op.5
II Badinerie: Vivace. Musette: Moderato e sostenuto
III Canonic Variations: Tema: Poco allegro. Canon I (at 4th): Adagio.
Canon II (at 5th): Poco andante. Canon III (at 2nd): Poco scherz. Canon IV
(at 6th): Vivo. Canon V (at 7th): Adagio
IV Finale: Vivo
The opening movement is divided into two parts: a ‘moderato’ written in 4/4 time is followed by an ‘allegro moderato’ in 3/4 time at bar 20. The main theme of this movement is stated in the opening two bars.
Peter Evans, in the sleeve-notes for the Argo recording of this Quintet, observes a gift for ‘delicate textures’ especially in the "fluttering second subject [of the ‘allegro moderato’] or the ‘badinerie’".
The second movement is presented complete with ‘conventional’ repeats followed by a musette — which does not really have the expected drone sound of the medieval bagpipe. The movement concludes with a reprise of the ‘badinerie’.
The technicality of the five canonic variations and the fugal opening of the finale give some credence to the charge of ‘academicism’ often applied to this work. However, to any listener not equipped with the miniature score, Fricker’s contrapuntalism seems more like a partnership or dialogue between instruments rather than a dry-as-dust procedure. It really does not occur to the listener to worry about the theoretical nature of canon at the 4th, 5th, 2nd, 6th or 7th: it all sounds natural and not contrived.
The finale is written mainly in 12/8 time which is sub-divided into 3/8, 3/4 and 3/8, thus presenting considerable rhythmic vitality. The opening theme is reprised, giving a strong sense of unity to the work.
The Wind Quintet exhibits the influence of Paul Hindemith and Béla Bartók without descending into parody.
The score of the Wind Quintet, op.5 was published by Schott & Co. Ltd., in 1951. It was reviewed in Musical Opinion (September 1951) ‘This composer lacks nothing in technical equipment and his inventive powers are of a very high order. It is only in warmth of feeling - a much despised commodity with our younger composers - that he seems to be lacking.’ This is an estimation that seems to have lost its force when the work is heard 67 years later. Certainly there is an acerbic feel to some of this music, however there are moments when affability seems to be the dominant mood. The reviewer concludes by suggesting that ‘… all [the movements] demand playing of utmost neatness in detail and balance.’ The Chesterian (April 1952) usefully suggested that the score would have been better served if it had shown the actual sound of the wind instruments rather that their transpositions. Colin Mason writes there that the ‘very independent part-writing shows as a full realisation of the different capabilities of the five instruments, and the constantly changing distribution of the parts prevents monotony of timbre.’ Interestingly he suggests that Fricker has not attempted to ‘sharply [differentiate] instrumental characterisation’ or further the ‘pursuit of harmonic and instrumental sonorities for their own sake.’
Fricker’s Wind Quintet, op.5 has been recorded
commercially once. In 1962, the London Wind Quintet issued an LP (Argo ZRG 5326) of wind quintets which included Fricker’s. Other works on this album were Malcolm Arnold’s irrepressible Three Shanties for wind quintet (1952), Mátyás Seiber’s Permutazioni a cinque (1958) and Roberto Gerhard’s Wind Quintet (1928). The performers were Gareth Morris, flute; Sidney Sutcliffe, oboe; Bernard Walton, clarinet; Gwydion Brooke, bassoon and Alan Civil, horn. The album was recorded in association with The British Council.
Malcolm MacDonald’s review in The Gramophone (February 1963) suggested that the two major works on this album were the Gerhard and the Fricker. Of the latter, he writes ‘… [This] is a four movement work which extracts extraordinarily effective music from the five players. Much of it is extremely vital, and rather less astringent in idiom that some of Fricker’s later pieces.’ He reiterates the point that this was the first of the composer’s works to make ‘any substantial headway, winning the Clements Memorial Chamber Music Prize in 1947.’ Finally MacDonald adds wittily that he was ‘jolly glad [the quintet] was not submitted the year before, when a trio of my own won the prize.’ This was a Trio for piano, violin and clarinet; it seems to have sunk without trace.
Dennis Brain made a live recording of the Fricker Wind Quintet at the Freemason’s Hall, Edinburgh on 24 August 1957. Other works in the recital included Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano and Wind Instruments in E-flat major, op. 16, Paul Dukas’ Villanelle for horn and piano and Malipiero’s Dialogue No. 4 for wind quintet (1956). The original tape of the Fricker Quintet was re-mastered and issued on the BBC Legends label in 2006.
Marc Mandel reviewing this CD in Fanfare (September 2007) noted that the booklet described this recording as the ‘definitive performance’. He considers the work as ‘well-crafted’ but ‘thanklessly academic and cheerless’. Mandel also reminds the reader that the recital was held just a week before Dennis Brain was killed in a late-night car crash whilst travelling home from the Edinburgh Festival (1 September 1957). He was aged just 36.
The Brain Wind Quintet version of the present Quintet is still available on CD from record dealers, although I understand that it has been deleted from the catalogues.
Peter Racine Fricker’s Wind Quintet, op.5 would make an ideal piece for performers to play in concert or to record. It has an impressive balance between seriousness and wit. The ethos of the music represents what was one particular strand of musical thought in the post-war years. Others were represented by the ‘serialists’ like Humphrey Searle and Elisabeth Lutyens, the traditionalists including Alun Hoddinott and Kenneth Leighton, the conservatives like Edmund Rubbra and Robert Simpson and the disciples of Ralph Vaughan Williams. It was composed nearly a decade before the rise of the avant-garde led by the Manchester Group.
The Wind Quintet has considerable musical substance and does not present the listener with great challenges of extreme dissonance or long-windedness.
Gamble, Stephen & Lynch, William, Dennis Brain: A Life in Music, (Denton, Texas, University of North Texas Press, 2011)
Pettitt, Stephen, Dennis Brain: A Biography (London, Robert Hale, 1989)
The files of The Times, The Musical Times, Musical Opinion and The Chesterian.
London Wind Quintet, (includes quintets by Seiber, Arnold and Gerhard) (Argo ZRG 5326) 1962, LP
Brain Wind Quintet on BBC Legends Mono BBCL 4192-2 2006 (recorded 24 August 1957)