Peter Eaton has become a world-renowned clarinet maker, who succeeded in the tradition of English clarinet making, which almost became extinct in the 1980s, when Boosey & Hawkes ceased clarinet production. Anna Hashimoto, whose name is on the list of official Eaton players, visited him at his home near London, to talk about his passion and craftsmanship.
What made you start making clarinets and when?
To answer that question, I need to give you some background information.
When I first went into the production of English clarinets in 1982, my first aim was to bring back the highest standards of design and manufacture. I felt certain that there was immense quality in the core characteristics of English clarinets and that instruments based on those core characteristics deserved a place in the world. I was determined to restore their reputation, which had declined in recent decades.
Peter Eaton clarinets are instruments in the English tradition made famous by Boosey & Hawkes in the 1930s and before. B&H 1010 clarinets were enormously successful in the hands of some of the world's most renowned players from the 1930s through to the 1970s. From the mid-1970s, many English players were abandoning their 1010s and changing to French instruments made by Buffet Crampon. The English clarinets had not developed significantly since the 1960s and production standards had fallen, whereas the French instruments had continued to improve. Taking advantage of the situation, Buffet mounted a strenuous and ultimately highly successful move into the English market. Playing styles then started to change in the hands of a younger generation of players who had not played English instruments in their early years.
I was aware of the falling standards at B&H and felt strongly that I could introduce significant improvements and recover the reputation of the English clarinet. In conjunction with woodwind makers Ward & Winterbourn, between 1982 and 1985, I produced some English large-bore clarinets which immediately went into the hands of some of the most eminent English players. These instruments incorporated a number of important design improvements including a new bore configuration which was patented in 1982. Emma Johnson, the well-known soloist, changed to an Eaton clarinet three weeks before she won the prestigious BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 1984. Other instruments from the forty or so made by me with Tony Ward and Derek Winterbourn went into the hands of internationally renowned soloist Gervase de Peyer, Roy Jowitt (principal, London Symphony Orchestra), Richard Hosford (principal, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Europe), Hale Hambleton (principal, English National Opera), and Ian Herbert (principal, Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden), all players of the highest international calibre. The great Jack Brymer would have joined these illustrious players but arthritis in his fingers made it difficult for him to change instruments at age 70, though he continued to be one of the strongest advocates of our clarinets.
In the early 1980s Boosey & Hawkes bought the French maker Buffet Crampon and ceased clarinet production in England. In January 1986 I was fortunate enough to be able to buy vital production equipment and many parts from Boosey & Hawkes, which enabled me to establish the business completely independently. At the same time, I employed an engineer to design and build special purpose equipment for the production of joints, drilling of tone holes etc. This included state of the art computer-controlled equipment, which was added to in 1991, to assist with mouthpiece facing work. The first model to be produced was the Elite, a large bore instrument in the 1010 tradition, but with greatly improved intonation, evenness of sound etc. It continues to be highly successful.
The introduction of our small bore model, the International, in the early 1990s has consolidated the position worldwide. This instrument can be played with the same type of mouthpiece as is used on all French clarinets, enabling players to change to this model more easily than would have been the case with the large bore Elite, which requires a special mouthpiece.
What was the biggest challenge in the early days?
By far the biggest challenge was the simple fact that I had no training in woodwind instrument manufacture at all. I had considerable experience as a professional musician and fortunately the musical side of the design of clarinets came quickly and naturally to me. Tony Ward and Derek Winterbourn were enormously helpful to me in those earliest days, because they made instruments for me to my design which I then finished, by cutting the bores and undercutting the tone holes as part of the fine tuning procedure. I could have continued producing clarinets with them for a long time but the acquisition of the production equipment and parts from Boosey & Hawkes, in early 1986, meant that I could set up my own production system. Even with that advantage, a wide range of skills were needed to build up a successful manufacturing business and I had an immense amount to learn in a very short time. I relished the challenge because it was enormously important to me and so I just got on with it. I wanted to be capable of handling any aspect of clarinet manufacture, and I'm pleased to say that I can, though of course I now leave much of the work to my colleagues. Graham Pinder was the last of the woodwind specialists at Boosey & Hawkes and is a wonderful craftsman. He joined me in 1986 and is principally responsible for the assembly of instruments, which he does superbly. My wife Joanna is a professional clarinet player who helps with the final finishing of instruments and also assists me with the fine tuning.
Were there any particular clarinettists who influenced you in the process of developing your clarinets?
Great English players such as Gervase de Peyer and Jack Brymer led enormously successful careers and were renowned all over the world, always playing English large bore clarinets. They influenced a whole generation of English players who also produced wonderful musical performances. I wanted the core characteristics of those instruments to be maintained but with the design brought up to the highest modern standards, so the instrument would be available for future generations of players.
Why do you think clarinets with such wide bore (the world's widest) were born in the UK?
I have recently started to research the history of clarinet manufacture in England from around 1880 to the present day and I hope eventually to produce a book on the subject. Clarinets with the core characteristics of the B&H 1010 instrument have been in continuous production since 1892, and possibly earlier; at least 119 years so far. This means that it is likely that this design concept has enjoyed greater longevity than any other clarinet model ever made. It was without doubt designed by people with great originality of thought who were not simply following what other makers were doing. The three core characteristics are: a basic bore dimension of around .6 of an inch (15.24 mm), a cylindrically bored mouthpiece of the same dimensions and the unique bell developed by Boosey & Co. towards the end of the 19th century. They were unique instruments, on which some of the world's most illustrious clarinettists have given live performances and made recordings which rank amongst the finest ever, on any model of clarinet. My Elite instruments retain those same basic characteristics, although greatly refined of course, to bring them to the highest modern standards. They continue to be played at the highest possible level in 2011, all over the world.
What is the crucial difference between the productions by big companies and hand finished instruments?
I am always looking to move forward and, when I find an improvement, we can implement it immediately, without having to consult higher management, which often slows things down in larger organisations.
We take immense trouble with our fine tuning and voicing, aspects given very little attention from most makers.
The production process of every single instrument is overseen by me personally, all the way through from the very beginning to the end. As an example, the wood comes to us as roughly sawn billets and leaves us as beautifully finished musical instruments. This makes the whole business feel very personal. When a customer has purchased one of our instruments, I occasionally remind them that although they now own it, it has my name printed on it!
I could have expanded production in the past but I like to be involved with each individual instrument myself and I do not want to risk a lowering of standards just to sell more of them.
Please state the innovative points and special qualities about your instruments.
Design improvements include the re-positioning of tone holes to gain vital acoustical advantages. All tone holes are hand-undercut to the appropriate degree to give best possible intonation, response and evenness of sound. As an example, the breadth and flexibility of sound around the break, allows those notes to be integrated into musical phrases with much greater ease and effectiveness.
Our substantial bell and barrel give greater sonority throughout the full range of the instrument.
Following extensive tests, a unique type of pad has been developed, which is exclusive to our clarinets. The outer rim is of synthetic material, which gives a perfect seal on the tone hole. In the centre is a hard, highly reflective resonator, unlike that used in commercially available reflector pads. This resonator has a truly remarkable impact on the resonance and musical qualities of the whole instrument.
Please explain about the two models, Elite and International.
The large bore Elite clarinet was our first model. This was a development from traditional English instruments but with greatly improved intonation, evenness of sound, flexibility and dynamic range.
The Elite clarinet must be played with a mouthpiece with a very large cylindrical bore. This means that it cannot be tested by a player using a standard French type mouthpiece, with its small conical bore. Some players become attached to a particular mouthpiece and can find it disconcerting to have to change mouthpiece before being able to try the Elite.
In developing the International model in 1992, we resolved that problem. This is a clarinet with the wonderful qualities of the Elite but which can be played with a standard French mouthpiece or with any of our own internationally renowned small bore mouthpieces. The International has proved highly successful and has been taken up by leading players around the world who would otherwise have continued to use French instruments.
The few remaining differences between the two models result mainly from the very different mouthpiece bores. The International model has a slightly brighter sound and is a little more centred. The Elite has a very broad, vocal quality, offering unrestricted freedom of expression and the widest dynamic range of any clarinet ever made.
When compared with French instruments, both models have a more flexible, warm and resonant sound, with a greater dynamic range, offering unrivalled potential for nuance and expression. The intonation on both the Elite and the International is of the highest possible standard.
Are there any new developments on your instruments?
In recent months I have given a lot of very careful thought to an improvement in the bore configuration of the International A clarinet, which I have now implemented. This has resulted in a worthwhile step forward in sound quality in what was already a highly successful design. I have now added a similar modification to the Elite A. The development that I'm working on at this moment is a special mouthpiece bore, which will be exclusively for the International model clarinet. I'm really enthusiastic about the results I've been able to discover and I will introduce it, along with two new mouthpiece models, in 2011.
Please tell us about the development and manufacture of your bassett clarinet.
Emma Johnson was the first to ask for a bassett clarinet and we made one for her based on the large bore Elite clarinet in 1998. A few years later, Michael Collins asked if we could make one for him, based on our International model, and we were happy to do that. At around the same time, Anna Hashimoto also asked for one and so we made two together. I was puzzled by some of the design decisions taken by other makers of bassett clarinets over the years and so I decided to think it through for myself, from first principles, without considering what other makers had done. These two instruments worked out exactly as we had hoped, I'm pleased to say, with a very full, even sound and superior intonation compared to bassetts from other makers. I managed to get excellent intonation without using a complex speaker mechanism, so these instruments can be played with the player's usual A clarinet upper joint. Having worked out all the musical aspects and made the wooden joints myself, I asked my old friend and colleague Tony Ward to build the keywork. Tony is a wonderful craftsman, capable of working in the traditional handcrafting manner. He did a superb job, making most of the key components by hand. So, in all ways they worked out wonderfully well. We made one more bassett for Mark Simpson who, like Emma Johnson, won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2006. Sadly, there will be no more because at over seventy years of age, Tony Ward has now retired.
Are you thinking of making E flat, C, or bass clarinet in the future?
I have researched the bore design of E flat and C clarinets in the past and found some important factors that could be used to improve the design of these difficult instruments, especially the intonation. The overall standard of E flat clarinets from the major manufacturers is very poor and there are undoubtedly improvements that could be introduced. Unfortunately at the moment I do not have sufficient time to investigate this any further.
Why are Peter Eaton clarinets not sold in shops?
We can make only limited numbers of instruments and can easily sell all that we make ourselves. We do not make enough instruments to be able to offer them to all the dealers who have asked for them over the years. From a financial point of view, our instruments are more expensive to make, compared with the production line models from other makers and so, selling them ourselves, means that we can maintain a competitive price and at the same time give our customers exceptionally good value for money. We take a lot of extra trouble with the purely musical aspects, such as the fine tuning, voicing and final finishing, which we would not be able do if we were a larger organisation needing to produce lots of instruments. Also, players seem to like the idea of being able to speak directly with the maker. Customers come to visit us from all over the world to buy clarinets.
Please tell us about your mouthpieces.
The mouthpiece business began as a part-time venture in 1976, becoming the full-time occupation for me from 1982, shortly after the clarinet making project with Ward & Winterbourn began.
I have spent over thirty years of practice, experience and development in this extremely painstaking and intricate craft. Extensive research went into the development of my system, initially involving the detailed measurement of a very large number of excellent mouthpieces, many of which were used by fine players, to establish the ideal curve formation for this purpose. I was the first mouthpiece maker to introduce facing curve definitions using a computer in1981 and, in 1991, the first to use computer-controlled equipment to produce a preliminary facing curve, which I then finish by hand. The standard of finish achieved by these methods is far higher than that of any other maker and they have a very considerable reputation worldwide. For the last two or three years, it has become increasingly difficult to finish a sufficient number so that I can sell them to players of instruments other than our own, because we're so busy with clarinet production. However, I am taking important steps to increase mouthpiece production and in the next few months I hope to have systems in place to enable me to make more mouthpieces.
What is your marketing strategy and how do you see the way forward?
We have a website but spend no money on advertising. Our reputation and word of mouth recommendations have been sufficient to enable us to sell all the clarinets that we currently have the capacity to produce.
This is currently a niche market: the nature of the English clarinet, in both large bore and small bore forms, is a little different in nature to the French. They certainly appeal to players of other playing styles from around the world, when musicians are given the opportunity to get to know them. A quick look at the players list on our website will prove that. I am sure that there is considerable potential for growth with an appropriate marketing strategy. I hope that in the next few years, a small group of enthusiasts for the English clarinet tradition will come forward, to take over this business. I hope that they will maintain standards but increase production and sales. I've made detailed notes on all production procedures, to make the transfer as smooth as possible. It would be great if production of English clarinets could remain in England but, as long as the enthusiasm for the concept and the business is there, it doesn't really matter where in the world it is based.
Where does the idea of the unicorn logo come from?
The unicorn was the mark of at least nine English woodwind makers from around 1770 through to the middle of the 19th century, so I have simply re-introduced an old English tradition.
How do you handle the after-care of instruments for the people abroad.
Some of our customers like us to care for their instruments and so send them back to us when some attention is needed and we are always happy to do that. We obviously have an advantage because we know how the instruments were set up in the first place. Having said that, in many parts of the world there are expert repairmen who can also do an outstanding job.
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