"I became quite busy in the freelance world, what with my introductions through John Amis, the Royal Philharmonic, and all that. I'd met a number of musicians by then - people like Emanuel Hurwitz, Terence Weill and Cecil Aronowitz, all of whom I got on very well with. We did a concert which was for the Arts Council, in a hall in a club-style building behind Piccadilly, near the Park, quite a nice concert hall. We had the opportunity of getting together a group to play there. This ensemble had the structure of the Melos ensemble, although it wasn't called Melos then. In fact we tried three or four titles, as well as a number of different players, until finally it gelled as the Melos Ensemble. It included five wind players, a string quintet (with double bass), a harpist (Osian Ellis), a pianist (Lamar Crowson, who made records with us early on), who was a very fine musician from California, and a teacher at the Royal Academy. He had been a student of Arthur Benjamin on the West Coast of America."
The Melos Ensemble of London became an outstanding concert group offering historic recorded programs, which were planned by de Peyer. These are still available on CDs from EMI from EMI and other recording companies.
"I had a personal connection with Arthur Benjamin: he knew my aunt Ethel Bartlett. He wrote a two-piano version of his Jamaican Rumba for my aunt and uncle, Bartlett and Robertson, which they played at the Wigmore Hall. Indeed, soon after that, Arthur Benjamin had completed a brilliant work for piano and clarinet, Tombeau de Ravel, and personally contacted me. I was immediately most interested by his call, as he asked me to try it through with him. I felt that certain passages were a bit awkward. Most graciously, he said: 'Alright, Gervase, look, you write something out and show it to me, and we'll see what we think.' "
"So I did. I made some slight alterations to it. I went back to him when I'd done this and we played it through. This was one of the occasions when the composer, very graciously, changed something with pleasure. I still play that piece. It's quite a tough piece to do well. I gave the first performance of Tombeau de Ravel at the Wigmore Hall, and also recorded it.
"The clarinet player who preceded me as the principal clarinet of the London Symphony Orchestra (of which I had no thought at the time), was also in an orchestra exclusively recording music for films. Muir Mattheson was the conductor. Somehow or other the LSO inner circle had got a hold on these recordings, which were better paid than doing extra rehearsals and concerts, for instance. I was phoned up to take Sidney Fell's place in the Wigmore Ensemble, I think it was called.
"This situation ultimately created a crisis for the orchestra which led to an extensive rebuilding, with a new generation of players taking over many of the most important positions. Much of this occurred during Joseph Krips' tenure as principal conductor, and the following period with Pierre Monteux. So, in 1956 Joseph Krips asked me to join the LSO as principal clarinetist."
Gervase de Peyer held this appointment for seventeen years, until 1973. As a soloist he acquired a formidable reputation throughout Britain and Europe. During that time de Peyer also played with The Philharmonia Orchestra under Herbert Von Karajan, Guido Cantelli, Otto Klemperer, Furtwangler and other distinguished conductors. Also, he undertook engagements as principal clarinetist with chamber orchestras such as the English Chamber Orchestra (ECO), the London Chamber Orchestra, the London Mozart Players and many others, keeping him busy performing concertos by Finzi, Busoni, Neilsen, Seiber, Weber and Mozart. Many concertos were dedicated to him. Amongst his many recordings with Decca and EMI, his concerto recordings have won The Grand Prix du Disque, Académie Charles Gros, and The Plaque of Honor of the Academy of Arts and Sciences of America.
The big change in Gervase de Peyer's life came when he moved to New York, in the early 1970s. How did that come about?
"There was the new hall built at the Lincoln Center. The director of the concert series was looking for players to make a completely new ensemble, which was going to be the resident ensemble there. I had come to America with the LSO several times. The first one was either in 1961 or 1962 with the Melos Ensemble, and also with the LSO on a world tour. The Melos ensemble was playing quite a lot of concerts, and started making recordings.
"Charles Wadsworth, who had been appointed director for the ensemble in the new hall at the Lincoln Center, heard one of the recordings, and liked my playing. So, when the LSO came, he took the opportunity to hear me. We did three tours, one with George Solti. I played Weber's Eb Clarinet Concerto in the first concert of the tour. That was quite a thrill for me.
"In 1967 Charles Wadsworth asked me: 'Would I be interested to come to New York to play as solo clarinet player with this group?' I said, 'Yes, when will it be? I'm rather busy.' Ultimately, I was appointed in 1969. I came over specially for a few weeks, did a few concerts, and came back to London. I was still with the Melos Ensemble, still with the London Symphony Orchestra, and so on. This was in 1969. It wasn't until 1973 that I gave up the job with the LSO. In America, the number of concerts had gone up, and I just couldn't do it all.
"It was quite a hectic period for me, and it was thrilling, too. The hall at the Lincoln Center was beautiful, a lovely chamber music hall, the Alice Tully Hall, about 1,000 seats, beautiful. Alice Tully was always at the concerts, sitting in a box. I met many fine American performers, which was very exciting for me, people like Janos Starker used to come and play a cello sonata. Richard Goode, the pianist, was the resident classical pianist for us. As one of the founding member of the Chamber Music Society (CMS) I stayed with them for twenty years. I played the entire classic repertoire and a considerable body of works newly commissioned from composers like William Schuman, Gunther Schuller and Ned Rorem. On the tenth anniversary of CMS, regular favorites included the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets. We did a lot of wind ensembles, including the music of Jean Françaix and the works of Francis Poulenc for solo groups and wind instrument, such as Duet Sonata for Clarinet, for bassoon, etc.
"We recorded many works under the label of Music Heritage. The Poulenc recording for wind instruments and piano received a prize. The CMS came to Aldborough early in the 1970s, also to the Spoleto Festival in Italy. In the last ten years of my tenure I went on a tour every year with the CMS throughout the USA, also giving master classes. We also performed regularly at the Kennedy Center, Washington DC. In 1992, I created the Washington Melos Sinfonia as a not-for-profit organization. With them we played at the Kennedy Center, the World Bank and in the Washington area."
De Peyer was involved in three CMS TV programs Live from Lincoln Center. He taught at Mannes College, and every year was either in residence at Banff Summer School and Music Festival, or Victoria, British Columbia or later on in Assisi, Italy, for their Music Festival, Festa Musica Pro. In the 1990s, he created a label Radiant Mastery, with which he recorded all the works for clarinet and piano.
"I had done Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto here with the London Symphony Orchestra. Ultimately, during the next few years, I played it about thirteen times, conducted by Copland. One of these was during seven concerts in a row in Mexico City. We were there for a week, and every night - Monday to Sunday - we had a concert. The last one was in the small hall in the University. There was an electricity cut. I'd played Copland's Concerto every day for a week. That night I'd finished playing, the second half had started when - suddenly in the middle of a Mendelssohn Symphony, which Copland was conducting - all the lights in the building went out!
"We were all in pitch darkness. People began to light candles and a few little lights appeared. I put my clarinet together and crept in from the side. I said to Aaron, who was sitting there, 'Would you like me to play something?'
"I said that I thought we needed something quiet, and it's a bit of a travesty really, but I could play the slow movement of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. So I did it, unaccompanied, in pitch darkness, with a few candles burning here and there. That went down quite well. Copland and I were very good friends, right to the end of his life. He was a very charming man, and I felt very privileged to have been asked to do that.
"Paul Hindemith was coming to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in three or four performances, and I played the Clarinet Concerto, with him conducting, about three or four times. He was absolutely charming, delightful, easy, had no problems, no fuss. He enjoyed himself, I think, and so did I. He spoke English enough - but he didn't speak English enough to be nasty!
"I met Francis Poulenc because Anthony Bernard (7) used to run the London Chamber Orchestra. He used to run important concerts with important people and very interesting programs. I did one or two concertos with him, including Gerald Finzi's Concerto and the Debussy Rhapsodie. This was around 1960."
On the subject of the Debussy piece, de Peyer offers an interesting anecdote concerning the time he played the work in Paris with Bernard. "When I first rehearsed the piece with him he said: 'Monsieur de Peyer. I must show you something about the Rhapsodie: Première Rhapsodie for Orchestra avec Clarinet Principale en Sib.' So I didn't think anything of it, particularly. Then the rehearsing started. So he said. 'All play. And Monsieur de Peyer, you will remember we looked at the music. And the music, it says not Première Rhapsodie for Clarinette et Orchestre. Non. It is Première Rhapsodie for Orchestre avec Clarinette Principale.' And the point was made.
"Poulenc was hired to play with Anthony Barnard and the orchestra. Bernard did a LOT of French music. He received a Legion d'Honneur because of his services to French Music. He'd hired Poulenc, and Poulenc came to play his Piano Concerto. I was playing in the orchestra, and was intrigued - as many people were - to see Poulenc coming into the BBC studio wearing his bedroom slippers! So he sat down at the piano, and proceeded to play his concerto, and it was very nice, very fine. He had a very pleasant personality. The next day was the concert in the big studio at Maida Vale. To my astonishment in comes Poulenc, in front of an invited audience, still in his bedroom slippers. I thought, 'This is an opportunity I can't miss. I'll go around and make a little teasing remark after the concert. I went into the artists' room. The two of them were there. We chatted a little bit. I said: 'Monsieur Poulenc, J'ai un question pour vous. Pourquoi portez-vous des pantoufles? Ce n'est pas habituel?'
He said: 'Monsieur, you know, I do not play so many concerts. I am usually at home, and I have to practice at home because I do not play so much. I have to practice very hard, and I'm in my own home, I'm always wearing slippers. So when I come to sit for the concert, it is SO different without my slippers. So I decide: I will still play in my slippers.' " (8)
As he approaches his eightieth birthday celebrations, Gervase de Peyer still exhibits seemingly tireless energy, traveling between his homes in France and London, giving concerts, workshops and master classes across the globe, choosing repertoire for yet another CD recording, and practicing. One special forthcoming master class is to take place in Vidin, Bulgaria, from July 24th to July 30th 2006. Vidin is a lovely town on the bank of the Danube, very close to the border with Romania, a stopping harbor for boat trips up the Danube and the Black Sea.
At the time of writing, Gervase is working towards a celebratory birthday concert, to be given in London's Wigmore Hall on 4 April 2006, the very same hall where, as a child, he played the piano in one of Mabel Floyd's annual piano concerts all those years ago.
And, even if the ghost of Francis Poulenc may be watching the great clarinetist that evening, I'll bet that the ever-immaculate Gervase de Peyer won't be wearing slippers!
7. Anthony Bernard (1891-1963) wrote much incidental music for BBC productions. His scores included Iphigenia in Aulis (1951, later re-used with additions of his own by Rae Jenkins, himself sometime conductor of the BBC Welsh and BBC Variety Orchestras), The Tempest (1951), A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Ion and Bacchae of Euripides. In 1956 Bernard made a version for the BBC of The Beggar's Opera, scoring it for flute, oboe, bassoon, harpsichord and strings. He is best remembered for his conductorship of the London Chamber Orchestra, which for upwards of thirty years explored unfamiliar repertoire. He also directed the BNOC (1924-5) and at Stratford-on-Avon (1932-42). He studied composition with Bantock and Ireland and was an organist and a piano accompanist. His earlier works include an organ prelude, Rorate Coeli (1916), Variations on a Hill Tune, for piano (1920) and songs like The Cherry Tree Song.
8. Poulenc's Clarinet Sonata was found after Poulenc's unexpected death. It is a very late work (1963). Soon after the discovery, Poulenc died. Says de Peyer: "He had sent it off to somebody; this was a piece that hadn't been heard. So concerts were arranged, the first one in France. But no one knew where the music was. So there was a search, and finally the manuscript showed up at the bottom of a cupboard. I did the British premiere, in an Arts Council production. It was an all-Poulenc program. The other artists were Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and I also played in a performance of the Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano. The bassoonist was Roger Bernstein."