Gwydion Brooke

Bassoonist in Sir Thomas Beecham's 'Royal Family'


Frederick James Gwydion Holbrooke (Gwydion Brooke), bassoonist: born Kentford, Suffolk 16 February 1912; married 1961 Jean Graham (two sons); died Bury St Edmonds, Suffolk 27 March 2005.

Frederick James Gwydion Holbrooke (Gwydion Brooke), bassoonist: born Kentford, Suffolk 16 February 1912; married 1961 Jean Graham (two sons); died Bury St Edmonds, Suffolk 27 March 2005.

The bassoonist Gwydion Brooke was the last of Sir Thomas Beecham's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra wind principals - the team of Gerald Jackson (flute), Terence MacDonagh (oboe), Jack Brymer (clarinet) and Gwydion Brooke (bassoon) - known as "The Royal Family", the extended part of which included Dennis Brain (horn) and Richard Walton (trumpet).

Born in 1912, Frederick James Gwydion Holbrooke (he used the name Brooke artistically from his twenties) was the son of the prolific English composer Josef Holbrooke, many of whose dramatic works were on a large scale and often on Welsh subjects. Gwydion was the fourth of five children, three girls and two boys, of which the last is Diana, widow of the great clarinettist Reginald Kell.

Their father had acquired a quartet of saxophones, Gwydion's elder brother taking to the alto while the 11-year-old Gwydion attempted to master the tenor instrument, both becoming fascinated by the extraordinary technique of the American Rudy Wiedoft. Two years later Josef Holbrooke acquired a French-system bassoon for Gwydion, together with a local teacher of the instrument. Many years later Gwydion recalled that he was "determined to beat the bloody thing", already demonstrating something of that cussedness for which he was later famous. Such was his success that, in 1928, at the age of 16, he was able to enter the Royal Academy of Music on a scholarship.

Through his father's friendship with the conductor Basil Cameron, Gwdyion took off the next year to gain orchestral experience with the Hastings Municipal Orchestra, playing also at Harrogate in the winter, before returning to complete his studies at the academy in 1930.

It was at this time that he heard Archie Camden's 1926 recording of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto and so experienced the sound of the German Heckel-system bassoon which was more in keeping with his own ideas. He took himself to Manchester to meet Camden and returned with a new German instrument, made by Adler, which was to be the very same instrument upon which he was to play throughout his career until retirement in 1979. His influence with this instrument had an immediate effect, not only fellow students following his example but also causing his professor, Richard Newton, to change over.

On leaving the Royal Academy of Music, "Gwyd" was lucky enough to secure a place in Sir Thomas Beecham's new London Philharmonic Orchestra founded in 1932, where he played second bassoon to John Alexandra. He remained here until 1934 when he joined the BBC Scottish Orchestra then based in Edinburgh, which gave him his first chance to hold the position of principal bassoon. Here he spent four happy years, during which he formed a light music group of distinguished wind players known as "Rhythm on Reeds" and "Rhythm Classics".

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Gwydion Brooke immediately joined the Army at Bathgate, first in the artillery and then in tanks. He embarked for Egypt via South Africa and fought at El Alamein, at Tobruk and eventually up through the length of Italy, not touching an instrument for nearly six years.

On demobilisation he joined the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Sir Thomas Beecham was conducting - it was September-October 1946, soon after he formed his own new Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - and he was looking for a principal bassoon. Brooke was offered the position, where he was to remain loyal to Beecham until the conductor's death in 1961. It was there in those years that concert goers heard arguably that finest ever wind section that became known as "The Royal Family".

Walter Legge had long coveted Gwydion Brooke for his Philharmonia Orchestra. In 1961 he finally achieved his ambition, and Brooke remained principal bassoon there until his retirement. During this period Legge tried to disband the orchestra, which then became a self-governing body temporarily known as the New Philharmonia Orchestra; Brooke served on the orchestra's council with typical humour and directness, his few words being always to the point. When the orchestra hit a troubled patch with Lorin Maazel, who had berated the council, the ensuing awkward silence was broken by Brooke with the words "Mr Maazel, we all wish you well in Cleveland". The conductor's parting became a mere formality.

Brooke's presence in the orchestra was greatly valued, no more so than in the Klemperer and Giulini years of conductorship, orchestral bassoon solos being delivered with his supreme artistry, yet often subdued for lesser conductors. His eloquent projection of the counter-melody at the opening of the last movement of Beethoven's Choral Symphony will remain in the minds of all who heard it.

By this time the Adler bassoon bought as a student required the attention of his additional skill with tools and mechanics, as he struggled increasingly to keep his instrument in playing order, stubbornly refusing to change or buy a new instrument. Already by the 1960s he could be seen on tour immersing his bassoon in the bath at night to check for leaks, informing colleagues that it had "the death-watch beetle". Subsequently more and more of the wood became replaced by modern resins and new tone holes were drilled until the instrument was playable only by Brooke and no other bassoonist, however talented.

Gwydion Brooke's playing career came to an end on 9 May 1979 when he telephoned the Philharmonia Orchestra office to say that he would not be attending rehearsal that day as his bassoon had been stolen. Although of no use to any other player, it was never recovered, and, refusing offers of instruments from colleagues, he finally resigned his position on 12 July that year.

In retirement he indulged his passion for car mechanics, making a speciality of repairing and restoring Renault 4 cars as a pastime at his home in Fordham near Ely. He also served as a trustee of the Sir Thomas Beecham Trust. However, most of his energy became directed in the editing, recording and promotion of his father's music, much of which he felt was unjustly neglected.

His own recorded legacy as a soloist is small but both highly valued and influential. Perhaps most significant is his 1947 recording of the Weber Bassoon Concerto with the Liverpool Philharmonic under Malcolm Sargent - a recording which made many aware of the wider possibilities of the instrument in the hands of a master. In 1958 he recorded the Mozart Bassoon Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic and Sir Thomas Beecham. Of this he said:

It was one of Beecham's genial recording sessions: we played it through and that was it. I remember I thought the orchestra played beautifully. The only thing he suggested was the little fillip at the end, where I usurp a few bars of the final tutti. Jolly good idea, too.

Memorable too is his playing of the cadenzas in Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade, evocative and spellbinding, very Gwyd, about which even Sir Thomas could do nothing. His own recordings of the J.C. Bach Bassoon Concerto and his incredible account of Mozart's Violin Concerto in G, which he transcribed for his instrument, continue to astonish later generations.

If Leon Goossens led the transformation of wind playing in Britain in the 1930s, it was Gwydion Brooke who extended that influence through the following decades. Brooke was an eccentric in the best sense of the word; he was also one of the great wind instrumentalists of our time.

Graham Melville-Mason

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