Draper and the End of the British Clarinet School

In Conversation with Colin Lawson

I have asked a few people about this. Some of them said there wasn’t a clarinet school; others said there was.

The British clarinet school is the share of individuality of the playing. And it causes a paradox, in a sense. But I think the kind of open sound that was initiated by the wide-bore 1010 clarinets, I think there is probably something there. The typical American sound used to be closer to the French – rather thinner and very vocal. I think sort of broader fat sound and not as woody as the Austrians.

What do you think was special about Frederick Thurston’s playing in comparison with other clarinettists?

Probably, I suspect it was just the ability to perform and really deliver a piece. You get the feeling of a sort of total commitment and a real sort of thing of total characterisation of music, and it was a real important life event. That’s the overwhelming impression that I have.

I listened to Charles Draper’s recordings and they were very different. You know, the rubato  he used. And everywhere I read, they said Thurston took everything from Draper, like his phrasing. But they were very different. What do you think about this?

I think there was more freedom with Draper. I think that is a general trend. I’m sure that Thea [King] herself was less free than Thurston had been. And in general things have gradually got less and less free.

And why do you think is that?

Well I don’t really know the answer to that, but I think it is very unfortunate because I think people had become much more neat and tidy and totally worried about wrong notes all the time. And there is, I think, a very regrettable trend now for clarinet players to play the Brahms Sonata in a much straighter way than viola players. If you compare the F minor, the viola player will really get stuck in, there would be a tremendous freedom. A typical clarinet player won’t do that.

Or the Schumann Fantasiestücke?

Or the Fantasy Pieces. Even the Weber Gran Duo. I think it has been a general trend. And you ask me why that is? A good question. Because is there any reason to do that? Just to be metronomic about what is playing. You can really say that about any instrument you are looking at – violinists, too. I think it is a general trend. I don’t know the answer why that is.

I think people have got terribly hung up about notation and delivering what’s in front of you. Rather than the imagination and the freedom. I think maybe the relation between Draper and Thurston reflects that generational thing.

I was surprised when I listened to the beginning of the Brahms Quintet by Draper. How free it was.

Yes, it is amazing. Although he didn’t use any vibrato. That’s probably about the closest you ever going to get to Mühlfeld’s playing. That degree of freedom. I’m sure if you hear Mühlfeld now, it would just be very, very free.

I think we have got much more keen on the notation – being faithful to the music. It’s like the historical performance movement in a way, and that’s become very important for people. Sort of worrying about whether everybody is playing at the same time. And if you are a pianist: if your left and right hands play together … Whereas the notation is just an indication of really how to play.

Ex­cerpted from ‘El clarinete en Inglaterra: Frederick Thurston’, condensed and edited for clarity. Copy­right © CC BY-NC-ND.