Gervase de Peyer, obituary: The musician who defied time

Acclaimed as the most recorded clarinet soloist in the world, he was the principal of the London Symphony Orchestra, a regular soloist at the Proms and his later career expanded to giving master classes and teaching in America

Robert Ponsonby
Monday 24 April 2017 19:42
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The clarinettist was born into a musical family in 1926
The clarinettist was born into a musical family in 1926

To celebrate his 80th birthday, Gervase de Peyer – “and Friends” gave a remarkable concert at the Wigmore Hall. In every one of eight items (plus an encore) the octogenarian clarinettist introduced the music – by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Ponchielli, Bartok, Bliss and Joseph Horovitz – and led his ensemble with elegant mastery. The programme was justified in remarking that “Gervase de Peyer defies time”: he looked, and sounded, half his age; his commentary was urbane and humorous.

Born in London on 11 April 1926 into a musical family (Adrian, the tenor, was his brother, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, the piano duettists, were his aunt and uncle) he began clarinet lessons at King Alfred’s School and broadcast the Mozart Concerto while at Bedales. At the Royal College of Music he studied with Frederick Thurston and later, in Paris, with Louis Cahuzac, who had worked with Debussy and Stravinsky. Two years’ conscription did not impede him and he was prominent in an exceptionally gifted generation of young wind players, among them Alan Civil, Philip Jones and Thea King. Sir Thomas Beecham was soon offering him work with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, where he encountered Jack Brymer, who was 10 years older than he and whom Beecham had just appointed his principal clarinet.

In 1950, with Cecil Aronovitz, the violist, he founded the Melos Ensemble, a flexible group of wind quintet, string quintet, harp and piano. The Ensemble’s personnel, which included Emanuel Hurwitz and Osian Ellis, remained unchanged until 1972, by which time they had made more than 50 recordings, had often provided the chamber group in Britten’s War Requiem, had toured the USA (1966) and had appeared at the Edinburgh Festival several times, twice – in 1956 and 1962 – giving the Bliss Clarinet Quintet, which they had recorded in the presence of the composer. (Sir Arthur had apparently been as good as gold and had said “not a single word”.)

De Peyer was invited by Josef Krips to join the London Symphony Orchestra as principal, a position he held from 1955 till 1972 creating the London Symphony Wind Ensemble by the way. With the Orchestra he was a regular soloist at the Proms, performing Weber’s 2nd Concerto, with Basil Cameron in 1962, the Debussy Rhapsodie, with Monteux in 1964, the Mozart, with Colin Davis in 1965, and Rossini’s Theme and variations, with Mackerras in 1968. Early the following year he premiered Thea Musgrave’s Concerto, an event which was the source of a famous anecdote; the composer requires the soloist to move to specific positions at given points in the score and on this occasion (presumably a rehearsal) de Peyer arrived at the music-stand by the brass section to find, instead of the music, a note inviting him to “Bugger off!” He performed the Concerto in four Scottish cities, with Alexander Gibson and the Scottish National Orchestra, shortly after it London premiere in February 1969, reviving it at the 1971 Edinburgh Festival, with Andre Previn. Other living composers whose works he championed included William Mathias, Alun Hoddinnott, Gerald Finzi, Matyas Seiber, Arthur Benjamin, Edwin Roxburgh and Berthold Goldschmidt.

In 1965 he played Aaron Copland’s Concerto with the Scottish National Orchestra under the composer and consequently became Copland’s preferred interpreter. (Later, they performed the work 13 times on an American tour). After the composer’s death de Peyer said they were “very good friends, right to the end of his life”. The American connection developed radically when in 1969, he was appointed soloist with the newly formed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, New York. For a while he commuted across the Atlantic to continue his work with the LSO and the Melos Ensemble, but in 1973 he settled in America. With the Chamber Music Society (of which he was a member for nearly 20 years) he played all the standard repertoire, the wind music of Francaix and Poulenc among others, and new works by William Schuman, Gunther Schuller and Ned Rorem: he made recordings and appeared in live TV programmes from Lincoln Centre; he gave master classes; he taught at Mannes College. In the summer he was in residence at summer schools either in Banff or in Victoria, British Columbia. In due course settling in Washington, he created the Washington Melos Sinfonia in 1992.

As a young man he had played for Furtwangler, Klemperer and Karajan in the Philharmonia Orchestra and had absorbed the lessons to be learned from such masters so that, quite early in his career, he was appointed associate conductor of the Haydn Orchestra, which Harry Newstone had formed in 1959. Much later he also conducted the Melos Sinfonia in Washington.

In 2004 de Peyer returned to Europe, making homes in London and the South of France. He had married Katia Aubry in 1980, earlier marriages to Sylvia Southcombe and to the singer, Susan Daniel, having been dissolved. Awarded the Gold Medal of the Worshipful Company of Musicians (1948), the Charles Gros Grand Prix du Disque (1961) and the Plaque of Honour of the Academy of Arts and Sciences of America (1962), he was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Music in 1992. After his return from America he slowed down a little, devoting more time to his hobbies of cooking and kite-flying, but his 80th birthday concert proved that his hands and lips and lungs had lost none of their expertise. His innately empathetic musicianship – and his humour – are nicely illustrated in the account by Suvi Grubb, EMI’s legendary producer, of de Peyer’s recording, with Daniel Barenboim, of the two Brahms Sonatas. Asked if they had rehearsed, they admitted that they had only talked on the telephone. But the recording proceeded, without retakes, and when it was complete Grubb heard, over the intercom, de Peyer say, “Danny?” and Barenboim reply, “Yes, Gervase?”. Then came sound of a long, wet kiss – an effect produced by the moistening of the clarinet reed and the sucking in of air.

Apparently “the most recorded clarinet soloist in the world”, Gervase de Peyer nevertheless attached more importance to quality than to quantity. He was a master musician.

Gervase de Peyer, clarinettist, born 11 April 1926; died at age 90 on 4 February 2017

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