Obituary: Cecil James

THE BASSOONIST Cecil James was one of the most respected orchestral musicians of his time. His was a musical family, his father and uncle having been the leading bassoon players of London. His uncle Edwin was a founder-member of the London Symphony in 1904, while his father Wilfred succeeded to his elder brother's posts in the Queen's Hall Orchestra and as professor at the Royal College of Music. Both were Musicians in Ordinary to the Royal Family, as was also their brother Frank, a trumpeter who gave cornet lessons to the Prince of Wales at Balmoral.

Both Cecil and an older brother, Leslie, were taught bassoon by their father, Cecil being started at 15 on an instrument by Hawkes. Both won scholarships. Leslie went to the Royal Academy, but his career was cut short in 1930 by suicide, occasioned by an unhappy love affair. Cecil won a scholarship to Trinity, and a year later to the Royal College, studying with his father, who taught at all three of the Royal music schools. There he performed the Mozart Concerto with Orchestra, a rare exploit in 1933.

In the same year he started with the London Symphony Orchestra as second bassoon to Paul Draper. With them he participated in the pioneering opera seasons at Glyndebourne under Fritz Busch. Here he also encountered a former fellow student, the oboist Natalie Caine, whom he married in 1938.

During the Second World War he served with the Royal Air Force Central Band. Its conductor Wing Commander R.P. O'Donnell managed to recruit much of the cream of London's orchestras for this legendary ensemble: it contained such well-known players as Gareth Morris, Leonard Brain and Eddie Walker among the woodwind, Dennis Brain, Harold Jackson and Norman del Mar among the brass, and Harry Blech, Fred Grinke, Leonard Hirsch, David Martin, Jim Merrett and James Whitehead plus the Griller quartet among the strings. Notable engagements undertaken by the RAF Symphony Orchestra included a coast to coast tour of the United States in 1944, and an appearance at the Potsdam Conference the following year.

After demobilisation Cecil played for while with the New Symphony before being appointed by Walter Legge in 1951 to become principal bassoon of his Philharmonia orchestra. Here he was joined by Peter Parry, a fellow player of the French instrument, and by his former principal Paul Draper. He subsequently served as first chairman of the orchestra.

These were vintage years when the orchestra was arguably the finest that Britain has ever produced. Its recordings set new standards, while its foreign tours established the international reputation of British orchestral playing. In the 1950s it worked with such legendary conductors as Guido Cantelli, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer and Arturo Toscanini.

The playing of Cecil James was heard in such classic recordings as Stravinsky's Sacre de printemps under Igor Markevitch, Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony with Cantelli, and the Mozart Symphonie Concertante K297b with von Karajan. He also recorded the Mozart and Beethoven quintets with the pianist Walter Gieseking.

Most of his chamber-music recordings were made with Dennis Brain, an artist with whom he was especially associated. In 1961 he left the orchestra, playing for a time with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra next to Eddie Wilson. He continued to freelance, finally retiring from professional playing around 1980.

From a bassoon-playing point of view, Cecil James's signal achievement was to have remained faithful to the French ("Buffet"), as opposed to the German ("Heckel") system of instrument. This was the model almost universally in use pre-war outside German-speaking lands. However in London during the 1930s, in the wake of highly acclaimed concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras, many professionals switched over to the "safer" German system, with its reformed bore and tone-hole placemen. A similar scenario took place simultaneously with the French horn, both changes provoking considerable controversy at the time.

James never foresook the Buffet for what he termed the "mumblephone". He compared playing the French bassoon to "riding a high-bred horse - when all goes well, one enjoys a thrilling ride - but one can have an occasional fall!" He was an artist with the ability to play his instrument with a polished cantabile tone and style whose compatibility was never called into question - neither by an exacting connoisseur like Walter Legge nor by a conductor like von Karajan, who in 1969 felt constrained to replace both bassoon and horn in the Orchestre de Paris with German models.

Part of James's secret lay in his reeds, which he designed and made himself, and in his instrument, an exceptional example made before 1914 by Buffet- Crampon, Paris, and inherited in 1930 from his father. As his contemporaries retired, he saw them replaced exclusively by Heckelfagott players. At the time of his retirement, he was virtually the sole surviving professional player of the French instrument left in this country, and he felt this isolation keenly.

He never held a teaching appointment - perhaps not surprising in the circumstances. His occasional moodiness - irascibility might often alternate with charm - hardly fitted him for the role of teacher. He himself quoted the following exchange: "What really is the secret of a big sound?" "Well, you just blow the bloody thing. That will be pounds 5."

However in recent years he was happy to help an increasing number of players who came to seek help, not only on how to make reeds for "period" models of bassoon (to which the French instrument is closely related), but on how to play the basson itself. This noble tradition, once in danger of becoming lost, is currently being revived in many quarters - in Britain notably in the New Queen's Hall Orchestra.

Cecil Edwin James, bassoonist: born London 10 April 1913; married 1938 Natalie Caine (three daughters); died London 13 January 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high