Gervase de Peyer in his 80th Year. Part One

John Robert Brown

Gervase de Peyer is one of the great instrumentalists of the second half of the twentieth century. In 1956, maestro Josef Krips selected Gervase de Peyer as his principal clarinetist for the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). De Peyer held this position for seventeen years, while continuing an active solo and chamber music career, during what was acknowledged to be one of the high points of the LSO's history.

A mark of his eminence is that de Peyer toured as the chosen soloist with both Paul Hindemith and Aaron Copland when those composers conducted their own clarinet concertos. The clarinetist also recorded the Première Rhapsodie for Orchestra avec Clarinet Principale en Sib in the series of Debussy orchestral works conducted by Pierre Boulez, with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Later, in the 1970s, Gervase de Peyer moved to live and work in the USA, first of all in New York.

In May, 2005, I discovered that Gervase de Peyer was once again based in London, though still making American appearances. Eventually, on a sunny spring day, I met the clarinetist at his comfortable apartment beside the River Thames, within sight of London's Tower Bridge, where much of the following interview took place.

Charming and personable, with impeccable manners and courtesy, Gervase received me in his living room. Several opened boxes of clarinet reeds lay on one of the tables, together with sheaves of music and a copy of Richard Morrison's book: Orchestra: The LSO - a Century of Triumph and Turbulence (1). De Peyer had just attended the LSO's one hundred year celebration in London.

During our conversation we were joined by Gervase's charming wife Katia, who provided generous hospitality and refreshment. Together we spent several hours chatting. As a child, Gervase lived in London before the war, with his parents. "There was a co-educational school across Hampstead Heath called King Alfred's," he said. "In a way it was unusual because it was a private school, and a new form of open education. You know, everybody called everyone by their first names - teachers as well. I'd really hardly thought about playing the clarinet, because I was having private piano lessons. I loved music, but was not thinking of another instrument, until the school asked me to take up a wind instrument. Flute, oboe, clarinet or bassoon - I could choose the one I liked best.

"So I thought about that for a bit, and decided it should be the clarinet. I started having lessons with a lady who was a disaster, but I found another teacher with whom I got on well. Years later, when I joined for a short period the Sadler's Wells Opera Orchestra, I again met with this charming and amusing man who sat beside me playing as second and bass clarinetist, Mr. Wilfred Hamilton. For many years he was a member of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

"I had a lovely piano teacher named Mabel Floyd (2). She was a darling and seemed to take to me. So I got on quite well with the piano. By the time I took up the clarinet I had in fact played the piano at the Wigmore Hall. Mabel Floyd had a concert there every year, with her pupils.

"I was also inspired by Ethel Bartlett, who was my mother's older sister, and was half of a team called Bartlett and Robertson (3). They were duo pianists, the first really famous duo piano soloists in the world to make a big career. I don't think it had ever been done.

"Vronsky and Babin followed them along (4), but until 1954 Bartlett and Robertson were the reigning international duo piano team. I remember going to the Wigmore Hall not only to play my own little pieces but also when they gave a recital. They would give first performances of big pieces on two pianos. I was absolutely thrilled."

"They were great friends, and came down to visit us in the summer holidays. But I became fascinated by their playing. I loved it very much." Gervase points to a pencil drawing of Ethel Bartlett by Laura Knight (5), a famous painter of the time who was a friend of the family's.

"The relationship that I had with Laura Knight was first of all through these duo pianists. Laura Knight heard me play in one of the concerts at the Wigmore Hall - so we became friendly. When I had remarried in the late 1960s I was looking for a house. I heard that Laura Knight had died. I knew her lovely house in St John's Wood and was very glad to be able to buy it.

"The contact with the artistic side of London was really wonderful. Both my parents were singers, not particularly successful ones. My mother was very talented, but lost her voice due to bad training. She couldn't talk. As a part of my childhood I can remember her hardly talking. It was pretty grim. She finally got over that.

"At Bedales, after taking school certificate, I won a scholarship for both piano and clarinet to the Royal College of Music. I studied there for a year, having clarinet lessons with Frederick Thurston, piano lessons with Arthur Alexander. One of the deputies who came along to teach me harmony was Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was absolutely charming, an absolutely delightful person, so quiet and humble, and really openly generous-hearted. I brought along a harmony exercise. He was rather slow, and very quiet. He studied this carefully and played a little bit on the piano. Then he said: "I hope you will have the patience. I'm just going to write you something." So he then wrote out an exercise on the same melody. I thought it was absolutely beautiful. I wish I'd kept it, but it got lost."

Another eminent composer who was part of that circle was Arnold Bax. "One couldn't help meeting Bax in one particular spot in London, which was The Glue Pot - the pub just round the corner from the BBC," says de Peyer. "I was extremely young at the time, and quite surprised to find Bax already pretty inebriated!"

De Peyer got into the Royal Marines Band Service (RMBS) at eighteen, without even requiring an audition. This was not so surprising, because they did have their own training scheme. Naturally, they trusted the Royal College of Music's recommendation.

As a wartime measure the RMBS had evacuated to Scarborough in Yorkshire. There it occupied the two best hotels in town, overlooking the North Sea. "Our duties were not arduous," says de Peyer. "Some band rehearsals and concerts in the town, a three-week tour in the fall of 1944 from Hamburg and down the North Sea coast of Germany, which was by then occupied by the Allies. We were playing for the occupation soldiers and any Germans who cared to attend; a rather dejected and miserable group did so. Early in 1945, I learned I was to be sent to the Pacific. The purpose was to join a heavy cruiser needing extra musicians, and we would travel on a troopship. So I was going out to Japan, which is a journey I'll never forget," he says. "The Royal Marine Band Service was to take me half around the world, on an old boat that creaked its way down the Bay of Biscay into the Mediterranean.

"It wasn't the first time I'd been so far. I had already spent several summers in France, on the southern end of the Bay of Biscay, south of Bordeaux, before the war. In fact, we'd almost got stuck in 1939. We'd gone down there by car, and got back just in time to listen to the broadcast declaration of war that weekend. It made a big impression on me; the thing that thrilled me about the place, as a kid, was that there was a professional tennis championship which I watched with much excitement. I kept up my interest in tennis, which I used to play rather well. At Bedales School, they said, 'If he doesn't want to be a musician he can be a tennis player.' "

I asked if Gervase considers there to be any connection between athleticism and playing a musical instrument. "I think there is," he says. "It's a case of physical and mental coordination. It helps if one is physically alert and the muscles are working well."

But the Royal College of Music, and tennis at Bedales, was a long way from life on a heavy old troopship, packed with sailors and soldiers, all going to the Far East as reinforcements for some of the ships who had casualties during the fighting," he explains.

"Our old ship broke down after coming into the Red Sea through Suez, and had to call in for repairs. After this delay, we arrived in the Indian Ocean and the whole ship's company was summoned to muster on deck. The commanding officer told us of the atomic bomb explosion in Japan. That was August 1945. I was absolutely amazed and horrified but I knew that we were not going to fight the Japanese much longer. By the time we got to Trincomalee, in southern Ceylon, about a week later, we disembarked the ship. I hadn't even unpacked when I was called to play in the officer's mess. The Japanese had capitulated.

"There I was with an upright piano, and three musicians who had no music, but we were asked to play anyway. I drank myself out of the Japanese war. I was absolutely plastered. I don't remember the end of the day. I think I was carried back to the barracks. I realized how bad you did feel if you did get properly drunk. I've never done it so much again, ever.

"I stayed for six months in Colombo, as people who had been fighting in the Pacific had preferential passage back to Europe. I gave the first classical music broadcasts from Colombo while I was there."

Gervase de Peyer then came back to the Royal College of Music, to the same teachers as previously. They were the clarinetist Frederick Thurston, and the pianist Arthur Alexander. "Almost immediately I was offered work with Sir Thomas Beecham's Royal Philharmonic, whenever they needed an extra clarinet. The manager of the Orchestra was John Amis. The wind players included Gerald Jackson flute, Leon Goossens or Terence McDonald on oboe, Gwydion Brooke on bassoon, Dennis Brain or Alan Civil on horn, and they had recently appointed Jack Brymer as principal clarinet.

"At that time, William Glock had become music director of the BBC Third Programme and he also ran the Dartington Summer School Festival. This is where I met him, thanks to his assistant John Amis."

"This was all going on while I was at the RCM. After two-and-a half years there I decided to study in Paris with Louis Cahuzac.(6) This widened my horizons a bit.

"The pianist Cyril Preedy had been a fellow student at the RCM. I'd had an offer to go to one of the Oxford colleges to play. I'd heard him, thought he was extremely brilliant, and asked him whether he would be interested to play together. I was quite astonished when I first went to his place for a rehearsal. It was in Notting Hill Gate, and it was one of the conversions down a little alleyway, which had formerly been a garage road. Quite a lot of the garages had been adapted as houses as well. There, to my utter astonishment, one of the upper rooms in these tiny houses was almost totally occupied by a grand piano. Amazing! This was where Cyril used to practice, and where we started to rehearse for that concert in Oxford."
My friend the violist Cecil Aronowitz, who was working in a group called the Wigmore Ensemble, asked me to deputize for [clarinetist] Sydney Fell, to do an audition for the Arts Council of Great Britain.

The audition was successful and proved to be invaluable for me personally, since a month or two later I was phoned up and told that the Arts Council was forming a group called Music in Miniature, which was going to be a concert version of a broadcast which had been going on for years at the BBC. It was half an hour only. During that half hour there was non-stop music, all of it rather short things, not a whole work, but a movement, maybe, of a symphony. This program had been copied by the Arts Council as a Music in Miniature on tour. It consisted of a cellist, Vivian Joseph, a violinist Ivri Gitles, the pianist Margaret Chamberlain, clarinet - I'd been asked for - and a singer, who varied from tour to tour. This was exciting news for me, and I came back from Paris to do an audition with this group.

1. Visit Faber's website

2. Mabel Floyd, a very well known and respected piano teacher, lived in Tottenham, London

3. Ethel Bartlett (born London, June 6, 1896, died Los Angeles, April 17, 1978) and Rae Robertson (born Inverness, Scotland, Nov. 29, 1893, died Los Angeles, Nov. 4, 1956). This couple toured extensively in Europe and North and South America as a two-piano duo from 1928 to his death. They also taught at the Matthay School of Music and arranged and published two-piano music. A number of composers wrote two-piano music for them. They are credited with beginning the popularity of the piano duo team.

4. Victor Babin was born in Russia and met his wife/performing partner, Vitya Vronsky, while studying with Artur Schnabel in Berlin. Vronsky also studied with Alfred Cortot and with Egon Petri. Babin and Vronsky, once described by Newsweek as 'the most brilliant two-piano team of our generation,' embarked upon a career as a duo that took them all over the world. Their recordings were issued by RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca and EMI. Despite a break from performance during World War II (during which Babin served in the Armed Forces and Vronsky worked with war casualties in Washington D.C. hospitals), the duo still managed to perform well over 1200 concerts in North America alone. In 1961, Babin became Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, where both he and Vronsky served on the Institute's faculty. Babin died in 1972. Vronsky died in 1992.

5. Dame Laura Knight, British Painter, 1877-1970

6. Louis Cahuzac (1880-1960). Cahuzac was one of very few clarinetists who made a career as a soloist in the early part of the century. He was an exceptional artist, with a glorious sound and smooth technique. He remained active his whole life, recording the Hindemith Concerto under the composer's baton at the age of 78! His Pastorale Cévenole and Cantilène are encore-type pieces; The Pastorale is a musical picture of Cahuzac's beloved southern France and its mountains. Various echo-type effects are employed to represent the open, mountainous spaces. Arlequin is called 'a character piece' and is a musical representation of the jester-like character of the traditional Italian Commedia Del Arte.

This article first appeared in the December 2005 edition of The Clarinet, the journal of the International Clarinet Association. Used by kind permission of the editor. Not to be reproduced.
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