When I entered the world of the clarinet in the very early 1960s, Jack Brymer and Gervase de Peyer were in their prime. The players that I knew then, including Nigel Keates and John Fuest conferred on them an almost godlike status. Jack and Gervase were head and shoulders above everyone else and yet had very different personalities and musical styles, although playing on the same type of instruments, B&H 1010s. I'm pleased and proud to be able to say that I eventually came to know them both very well, as musicians and as friends.
My first teacher, Joseph Round, mentioned Jack's name in one of my lessons and shortly afterwards the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra appeared on television and I peered at the clarinet section with particular interest. At my next lesson I said to Joseph, "Did you mean that old man?" "He's not old!" was the indignant reply. He was right of course, Jack was not old but simply bald. At that time he would have been about 47 years old.
The first time I heard Jack play was in my first term at Music College in Manchester, when he came to give a recital and talk, financed by Forsyth's, the largest music shop in the city. He was playing his 1930s Boosey & Hawkes London & Paris Bb 1010 clarinet which had been chromium plated. The gorgeous vocal sound quality simply blew me away and I immediately started to wonder how it might be possible to sound like that. I instinctively knew that it was something to do with the way the sound was processed in the head, physically speaking, but also thought that surely his instrument had at least something to do with it. At the end of the recital, Jack left his instrument standing on its bell, near the edge of the stage. It could easily have fallen over. I walked up to it, pondering the magic that surely lay inside. I wanted to touch it, but a member of Forsyth's team saw me and frowned, which was enough to put me off.
At this point I didn't have the pre-war mouthpiece that became my favourite for some years but it cannot have been long after that when I managed to find it, in Barratts, another of the five or six music stores in Manchester. My teacher at college, Norman Macdonald, (recently retired as principal with the BBC Northern Orchestra), was not at all impressed by my early attempts to make the big, open sound quality that I now had in my head. Norman said, "I know what you're trying to do Peter, but this is not it". Norman was clearly not particularly enamoured by Jack's style of playing, quoting a reviewer, of a Glyndebourne performance I think, saying that Jack "sounded like Benny Goodman on a good day", though Norman did have the courtesy to emphasise that the reviewer was talking about Benny on a good day. I wasn't to be put off by my early attempts to emulate Jack because, on the whole, my instincts were right and over the next 2 or 3 years, I got somewhere near it, to the limits of my ability of course.
The next time I heard Jack play was in very similar circumstances, a few months later in Manchester. Three of the music shops in Manchester had decided to bring up one of the two pre-eminent clarinettists of the day, Jack Brymer and Gervase de Peyer, to give a lecture recital to promote Boosey & Hawkes instruments. Forsyth's had engaged Jack Brymer in the autumn of 1963, which was a highly successful evening. Barratts organised a similar and equally successful event early in 1964 but this time with Gervase de Peyer. The Roadhouse brothers, Johnny and Bill, decided that they needed to get onto the bandwagon and so engaged Jack, organising an event to be held at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, which was a grander venue than those chosen by Forsyth's or Barratts. I went into Johnny Roadhouse's music shop and spoke to Bill about this event in advance of the day. His rather snooty attitude surprised me a little, saying that they were hoping to attract the professionals and students, rather than the amateurs. I suspect that they had not realised that Jack had already played for the similar event with Forsyth's, just a few months earlier.
Bill's face was a picture as my friend and fellow student Nigel Keates and I walked into the hall; he looked deeply disappointed and I was soon to find out why, because the attendance was very poor indeed. They must have spent a lot of money, financing Jack's appearance, together with the leading piano accompanist in the Manchester area at the time and of course in hiring the Lesser Free Trade Hall. Jack played in his usual inimitable manner but when it came to taking questions from the audience, this was virtually taken over by one amateur player. Much to the dismay of the Johnny and Bill, this man had been down to the Boosey & Hawkes factory to choose instruments, rather than buying them through a local music shop, and found that he had a problem in getting them up to pitch. Jack mentioned that on his 1930s instruments he had a problem with sharpness and had to get the instruments remodelled to bring them down to pitch. He couldn't offer this man any helpful suggestions at all I'm afraid. The short question and answer session was brought to a close by Jack, saying that he had a plane to catch. So, in addition to all the other expenses that Johnny and Bill had, they even had to finance Jack's plane journey back south. Nigel made s wry comment about Jack enjoying the "big-time" aspect of this.
In August 1966, just before I went over to Belfast to join the Ulster Orchestra, I had a lesson from Bernard Walton, principal with the Philharmonia Orchestra. In the summer holiday following my first year in Belfast, I tried to telephone him to ask for another lesson, but he must have been away on holiday because the telephone was not answered. Shortly afterwards I went down to Birmingham to see my old teacher, CBSO principal John Fuest, at Birmingham Town Hall, and I chatted with him and the bass clarinet of the orchestra at the time, Frank Allen. Frank had had some lessons from Jack Brymer at some point and he very enthusiastically suggested that I get in touch with him for a lesson myself and gave me Jack's phone number. I initially spoke to Jack's wife Joan, who explained that Jack was always very busy but nevertheless we arranged for me to go down to see him at his lovely home in Sanderstead, Surrey. I made my way down there in my Mini Cooper S and parked near the bottom of his long, tree lined garden.
Our talk must have quickly moved to the subject of instruments and I was thrilled to hear that he had two pairs to sell. The pair that really gripped my imagination were his spare pair of London & Paris 1010s. By this time, Jack had changed instruments twice in the previous two years or so. In around 1965 he changed to instruments which were essentially the same as my own 1963 instruments, but with the first Acton vent mechanism. At around the time of my visit he had changed to the 1967 model, which had further significant improvements. I remember Jack's enthusiasm when he pointed out that he could now play a top E flat with the middle finger of his right hand. For myself, I couldn't understand why he changed to new instruments when he sounded so magical on the old ones. So, I was delighted that he was willing to sell me his spare set of magic. They became my instruments for the remainder of my playing days. My mind was buzzing with enthusiasm as I drove home to Stoke-on-Trent, to the extent that I ran out petrol near Derby. Luckily, a passing moped driver kindly noticed and went to get a can of petrol for me. When I returned to Belfast, Chris King commented on the 1965 pair of instruments that were also for sale. They didn't interest me at all, but Chris wisely pointed out that they must have been good instruments. Jack said that they were eventually sold to someone in Yorkshire.
In the mid-1960s Jack made a recording of the Krommer clarinet concerto, the Debussy Rhapsody and one or two other pieces on that 1965 instrument. At a lesson with Jack in 1968, we listened to a little of this recording together and he said that "I find that I have played this with no vibrato". So, what was the primary influence in this case? Was the instrument persuading him to play in a less vocal manner and with less vibrato, or was this an early suggestion of a later change of style in English playing, where vibrato was never used? I don't know.
All these years later I can clearly see that even when I was at my keenest to play, principally during the1960s, I was every bit as interested in the instruments themselves as I was in playing them.
Jack was kind enough to give me a few lessons during the late 1960s. On one occasion, when telephoning from Belfast to fix up a lesson, there must have been a misunderstanding, because I flew over on the wrong day. When he eventually arrived back home in the early evening, it seemed that he had been enjoying session work all day, but he agreed to have a quick bite to eat before giving me my lesson.
In my final year at Music College, I had heard Jack play in a wind group directed by Geoffrey Gilbert and felt that the sound quality was not quite what it was when I first heard him at the end of 1963. I always felt that Jack's sound changed when he moved off his pre-war London & Paris Bb instrument and I discussed that many years later with Keith Puddy, who agreed that Jack "never sounded the same again". The sound quality was just as fine really of course, but slightly less vocal, a little more along traditional lines perhaps, with less vibrato. Having mentioned his London & Paris Bb instrument, his A clarinet was not a London & Paris instrument at all, but a standard 1010 made in 1931 which Jack bought "shop soiled", a euphemism for second-hand, in 1937. Nevertheless, this does not invalidate my point about this change in sound quality in the mid-1960s. Jack later sold that A clarinet to Pier Luigi Bernard, who is now principal clarinet in the orchestra in Tenerife. Pier Luigi left the instrument with me for a few years and I eventually got around to trying it and, to be honest, I wasn't particularly impressed. In 2001, when visiting Jack along with Emma Johnson and Joanna, I mentioned this instrument and my reaction to it, saying that it made me realise that the thing that really counted was of course the player, rather than the instrument. Emma said that if I wasn't careful, I'd do myself out of a job.
When I first started to produce clarinets, in conjunction with Ward & Winterbourn, I was obviously very keen to interest the leading players of the day and some of them, including Gervase de Peyer, Emma Johnson, Richard Hosford, Roy Jowitt and Hale Hambleton had all enthusiastically changed to my instruments. I was very keen indeed to get Jack's approval, hoping that he would do the same. So, in early 1986 I had a small batch of instruments finished and I took them over to Jack's home in Sanderstead. There were probably two or three B-flats and a couple of As.
Usually, when I have a batch of instruments finished, it is fairly clear to me which are the most resonant and in this case Jack quickly agreed, though I didn't offer my opinion of course, leaving the decision entirely to him. He seemed to enjoy playing them, at one point saying, "this could be my clarinet". Jack was now around 70 years of age and about to leave his beloved LSO, so this was not the best time for him to be changing instruments. He also suffered rather badly from arthritis in his fingers and so had some difficulty in adjusting to the new keywork. He attempted to adjust the keys himself, using inappropriate tools, marking some of the keys rather badly. Eventually, he had to admit defeat and decided to revert to his 1010s. I've often thought that if I had caught him just a couple of years earlier, it would have made all the difference. His arthritis would still have been there but at that point there would have been no question of his leaving the LSO and his overall approach to the matter would have been more positive. So, after a few weeks he returned the instruments to me, agreeing to pay for the renovation of the damaged keys. One leading player who at that point had not changed to my instruments was Ian Herbert, renowned principal clarinettist with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera. I let Ian know that the instruments had been returned and he immediately tried them, liked them and bought them. I feel that because Ian knew that Jack had approved them, it helped him make a quick, positive decision. At this point in time, June 2020, at almost 90, those instruments are still Ian's favoured pair of clarinets.
In 1992, when I was developing our small-bore model, the International, I again sought Jack's opinion, so I took an instrument for him to try. Because of the basic nature of small-bore instruments, it is necessary to use more undercutting than is necessary for the large bore Elite. We discussed the appropriateness of applying similar undercutting to the large bore model. Jack was against it, but I thought that I should experiment anyway and found that even on the large bore model there was improved flexibility and evenness of sound. All Elite clarinets produced since then have been undercut in that manner. Incidentally, all our earlier large-bore clarinets do not have that additional undercutting but also play beautifully, so perhaps Jack was right all along.
It was important to me to keep Jack in touch with the youngest clarinettists of the day so, at the end of August 1999, Joanna and I visited him and Joan at their retirement home at Oxted in Surrey, along with Julian Bliss. Julian's teacher Paul Harris and Paul's own teacher John Davies joined us for this enjoyable occasion. Julian played a piece showing off all his technical expertise, but Jack asked him to play the Carol from the Finzi Bagatelles, to prove that he knew how to sing a simple song.
Because this occasion had been so happy and successful, a few months later I wrote to Jack asking if would be possible for one or two other young players to come and play for him and Joan and the other residents of the retirement home. The players that I had in mind were Sarah Williamson, who at that time had not yet won the woodwind prize at the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2002, and the even younger Charlotte Swift, who had succeeded Sarah as principal clarinet with the National Youth Orchestra. I wrote to Jack on this matter so that he could have time to think about my suggestion, rather than telephoning him which might have put him on the spot, but I received a very upsetting telephone call from him in response. He told me that he had been in hospital for a cataract operation on both eyes and that "somebody must have sneezed at the wrong moment" and the result was that he had lost sight in both eyes. He said that it signalled the end of his clarinet playing because he could no longer adjust the reed. I suggested that his old friend, pupil and colleague, Roy Jowitt, could perhaps go along to play with him from time to time. Roy could adjust the reeds as necessary and they could perhaps play duets as well as talk about old times, but Jack didn't care for this idea. Jack agreed when I said that he had had a wonderful life and I told him that he had been one of the most influential men of my life. The loss of his sight was the beginning of a long downward slide for Jack. Until then he had been as lively as ever but, understandably of course, there was a quietening and increasingly inward-looking aspect to his demeanour from then on.
The next time Joanna and I went to see Jack and Joan we were joined by Emma Johnson. This visit was on national census day, Sunday, April 29th, 2001. Jack pointed out that it was also the birthday of Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Malcolm Sargent. I had taken along a list of things to talk about and, although we all did our best, because of Jack's sight problem, the conversation was not as fluent as it would have been in previous years.
A few weeks later I again visited Jack and Joan for Sunday lunch, along with Roy Jowitt. Joanna joined me on our journey over to Oxted, but we had our young son Arthur to look after and so she and Arthur went swimming in the excellent swimming pool right next to the retirement home. Jack recommended it strongly to Arthur, saying that he had been in there many times before. It was great to see those old LSO colleagues, Jack and Roy, talking happily together again. Roy was a pupil of Jack and fell into the category that Jack was happy to describe as "a young hopeful, eventually becoming a middle-aged giant". Jack and Joan were a devoted couple who tended to keep their private lives separate from Jack's professional work. Roy asked Jack about Joan's medications and he reeled off a list of names, doses and times of day that they were to be taken. This was prime bluebell time and Joan wondered if we could all go off together to view a bluebell wood. Understandably, Jack was not so keen, so we did not go.
It was a great shock to the musical community to hear of Jack's passing in September 2003 at age 88 and the news went around the profession like wildfire. There was a very large gathering for his memorial service at St Peter’s Church, Limpsfield, on the 24th of that month. Jack's friends and colleagues from the musical profession were there in force and the church was packed. Family members as well as musicians spoke and there were performances from individual clarinettists and instrumental groups.
There was a far smaller gathering for the interment later that year. The weather was very cold and Joan did not attend. Tim Brymer left it to Roy Jowitt to gather a few clarinettists for the event and there were only around a dozen people there in all. Nick Tschaikov, who played second clarinet to Jack in their RPO days, took us around the churchyard, talking about the other famous musicians buried there and spoke of the re-interment of Delius in 1935 and the burial of Sir Thomas Beecham in 1961. On that occasion too, there were only a very few people in attendance, including Norman Del Mar and Gwydion Brooke, as well as Nick himself.