Obituary: Cecil James
Thursday 04 February 1999
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.
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