William Waterhouse

John Robert Brown

One afternoon, long ago, Sir Adrian Boult1 was rehearsing the BBC Symphony Orchestra. William Waterhouse was playing bassoon. Boult remarked that since Beethoven had doubled the first violin part in the bassoon in a particular passage, it seemed logical for the viola part to be thickened by the second bassoon. "It's not in the Urtext, Sir Adrian," Waterhouse announced. Nevertheless, the orchestral parts were adjusted.

During that evening's rehearsal the orchestra was joined by the choirs. Boult then decided that a particular passage with the horns also required doubling, to balance with the voices. Asking the horns to organise this, Boult added quickly: "If that's alright with you, Mr Waterhouse."

That story tells us a lot about William Waterhouse. Oboist George Caird2 , Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, calls him the Thinker-Player, the Philosopher-Musician par excellence, and says: "His scholarship and whole approach to understanding his speciality is an object lesson to all others. He reads up his subject as thoroughly as would a scientist."

One of the world's leading bassoonists, William Waterhouse worked successively with the Philharmonia, Covent Garden, Italian Swiss Radio and the LSO. The composers Jean Françaix3 and Gordon Jacob4 both dedicated a pair of works to him. He was a member of the famous Melos Ensemble5 of London, and taught at the RNCM for thirty years.

Waterhouse sums up his playing career in a couple of sentences: "I was just in time for Toscanini6, Cantelli7, Furtwängler8; we did a lot with Ben [Britten]9, in the LSO at the time, including the War Requiem. I was at the Garden at the time of Callas10, Gobbi11, Flagstad12, and did the records of Richter with the LSO." Modestly he adds: "It's naming names, I'm afraid." Making light of what has been by anyone's standards a great career, Waterhouse describes himself self-deprecatingly: "An aged bassoon player who's now chucked it."

But that's not entirely true. Yes, he may have 'had enough' of orchestral bassoon playing by his early fifties (he was born in 1931), but Bill Waterhouse was never solely a bassoon player. He describes his breadth and brilliance by using the German: auf mehreren Hochzeiten tanzen, meaning 'one dances at several weddings'. And to see him in action today, still waltzing elegantly around a multitude of musical challenges, no-one would describe Bill Waterhouse as aged.

"I owe a great deal to having had this career," he says. "Not only being exposed to artists who were far better than I, but also to be prosperous enough to collect, to travel, to have a family, and privately educate the kids. It was great while it lasted, Luckily, I've got very good German, and also Italian and French. I've had three years in Switzerland, nine months in America, lived in Australia, travelled around a great deal.

"I was head-hunted to teach at the RNCM by Geoffrey Gilbert13, when he was in charge of the woodwind. That was forty years ago," says Waterhouse, who no longer teaches the bassoon. "I'd done enough teaching here," he says. Instead, now he is acting curator of the RNCM Collection of Historic Musical Instruments.

"My services are retained, so that I come here for two days once a month. My boss is the librarian. If anyone wants to look, she will open it up. The catalogue has chapter and verse on every instrument. We have a child's Strad14 violin there, a real one. That's the most valuable single item. But the one next to it is a Barak Norman15. I'm still cataloguing. I want to have the catalogue printed cheaply in-house, so that I can send this around to my fellow curators world-wide. We all know each other."

He reels off a list of the world's significant musical instrument collections, in Berlin, Brussels, Edinburgh, Leipzig, New York, Oxford, Paris, Rome, Vermillion (South Dakota), Vienna, and the private universities outside Tokyo, at Kunitachi16 and Musashino17.

A natural link with his curatorship of the RNCM collection is his work on The New Langwill Index: A Dictionary of Musical Wind Instrument Makers and Inventors. "I met Langwill when I was in my teens. He was an amateur bassoon player, but by profession an accountant. His assumed work in life was to list makers of woodwind and then brasswind instruments. Langwill put various typescript lists into book form. He published what he called Langwill's Index in 1960.

"By 1980 he was very old, and the Index needed updating. He'd reached the sixth edition, so he appointed me as his literary executor. I spent ten years researching this book. This edition was 1993, and is still selling two copies a week. However, we've got a second edition lined up. It really has to be done by an institution, and online, gratis, rather than a commercial book which sells for money."

Waterhouse's recent book The Bassoon18, in the Menuhin Guide series, appeared in 2003 and has already been reprinted. "The good news about this is that it's been accepted by Bärenreiter Verlag, translated into German under my supervision, out for the Leipzig Fair in October. It's also being translated into Japanese."

And still there is his proposed book on the bassoon for Yale, learning the double bass, playing piano duets, his work with the Galpin Society and the Double Reed Society, writing entries for New Grove, tending his own library of books and manuscripts and his interest in neglected composers from Dohnányi to Skalkottas.
Yes, still dancing.

Bill Waterhouse died in Florence on Monday November 5th, 2007.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in Classical Music Magazine, October 2006. Used by kind permission.

Web references:

  1. Sir Adrian Boult
  2. George Caird
  3. Jean Françaix (Site Officiel, En Francais)
  4. Gordon Jacob
  5. Melos Ensemble
  6. Toscanini
  7. Guido Cantelli
  8. Furtwängler
  9. Benjamin Britten
  10. Callas
  11. Gobbi
  12. Flagstad
  13. Geoffrey Gilbert
  14. Stradivarius
  15. Barak Norman
  16. Kunitachi
  17. Musashino
  18. The Bassoon
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