Thursday, 13 November 2014

Humphrey Searle: Suite for Clarinet in B flat and Piano, op.32

I was in the Oxfam Music Shop in Southampton a few weeks ago. Like all second-hand shops the stock is very often a matter of luck. On this occasion, I found six pieces of music that appealed to me. The one I want to consider briefly is Humphrey Searle’s Suite for Clarinet in B flat and Piano, op.32. 
Searle was born in Oxford in 1915 and was subsequently educated at Winchester and Oxford. Later lessons included working with Gordon Jacob, R.O. Morris and John Ireland at the Royal College of Music. He travelled in Europe where he studied with Anton Webern. After war service he worked at the BBC and in 1951 Searle was appointed as musical advisor at Sadler’s Wells Ballet. His appointments also included two years a secretary of the I.S.C.M. and honorary secretary of the Liszt Society. Often criticised for writing music in an uncompromising ’12-tone’ idiom he was at heart a romantic. Much of his music is inspired by his interest in Franz Liszt.  Important works include five symphonies, a trilogy for speaker/s, chorus and orchestra from texts by Sitwell and Joyce: ‘Gold Coast Customs’ (1949), ‘The Riverrun’ and ‘The Shadow of Cain’ (both 1951) and a number of operas including ‘A Diary of a Madman.’ Searle died in 1982 aged only 66 years.

The present Suite was composed in 1956 for the Attingham Summer School (Shropshire) of that year and was published by Schott & Co Ltd in 1957.  It is a relatively short work lasting for ten minutes. There are five movements.
  1. Prelude. Lento
  2. Scherzo & Fugue. Allegro
  3. Rhapsody. Lento. tempo a piacere
  4. March. Moderato
  5. Hora. Allegro molto.

As expected, this work was conceived using serial techniques which are presented with a considerable degree of latitude.  Although the entire row is heard in the opening bars, Searle does not manipulate it in strict fashion. He is content to repeat chords and melodic fragments with attention to musical effect rather than pedantry.
Huot Fusher, in a detailed study of this work (A Critical Evaluation of Selected Clarinet Solo Literature Published from January 1, 1950 to January 1, 1967) has written that the suite ‘is a rather effective combination of traditional forms, tempos, and rhythms.’ Looking at the clarinet part reveals a challenging but ultimately satisfying piece of writing that belies the serial construction. The piano accompaniment is also effective but less complex. I do not believe that this Suite has been recorded however, from a reading of the score it looks like a promising work for revival. 

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