AN INTERVIEW WITH CO

-
LIN MATTHEWS; BENJAMIN
BRITTEN’S MOVEMENTS FOR A
CLARINET CONCERTO (DEVISED
BY COLIN MATTHEWS)
by Douglas Monroe
T
he clarinet world owes a debt of
gratitude to Benny Goodman for
his wonderful contributions to
our art as both a consummate swing art-
ist and for the miraculous commissioning
projects involving some of the great com-
posers of his day. Because of this commis-
sioning project, we have masterpieces like
Bartók’s Contrasts and Copland’s Con-
certo. But few know that Goodman also
commissioned Benjamin Britten to write a
concerto in 1941, shortly before the Unit-
ed States entered World War II.
Tragically, U.S. customs authorities
confscated all of the music Britten was
carrying with him on his way back to the
United Kingdom in 1942. It seems that
the U.S. was fearful that the music might
contain some sort of hidden code posing
a threat to the security of the nation. In-
cluded in these manuscripts was a nearly
complete frst movement of Britten`s in-
tended clarinet concerto. Unfortunately,
by the time the U.S. returned the music to
Britten a year later, he and Goodman had
moved on to other projects. Britten never
worked on the piece again.
Fortunately for clarinetists, the award-
winning composer and Britten scholar Co-
lin Matthews recognized a need to com-
plete the work. The frst movement exists
largely as Britten wrote it. Matthews used
two other works that Britten wrote during
the same period to round out the already
completed frst movement. Matthews` aim
was to devise a concerto “…that stands in
for what Britten hoped to write, and which
both flls a gap in his output and enriches
the clarinet’s repertoire.”
What we have today, thanks to Colin
Matthews’ efforts, is a deep, evocative,
and sometimes playful masterpiece—a
work known as Movements for a Clarinet
Concerto by Benjamin Britten (devised
by Colin Matthews). The great English
clarinetist Michael Collins has already
recorded the piece and has gained criti-
cal acclaim for a beautiful interpretation.
Recently, I was fortunate to have been
given the opportunity to give the North
American premiere in Grand Forks, ND
with the Greater Grand Forks Symphony
Orchestra.with the American conductor
Alexander Platt, who is also a recognized
Britten scholar.
Dr. Matthews was gracious enough to
allow for this interview about the work:
DM: What was your relationship to
Benjamin Britten and how did you
come to be involved with the Britten-
Pears Foundation?
CM: I worked as Britten’s editor from the
early 1970s, most notably making the
vocal score of Death in Venice. After his
unsuccessful heart operation in 1973 I
acted as an assistant, helping to prepare
scores, and in the case of his very last
works, orchestrating them under his su-
pervision. It was a natural progression
to be part of the Britten-Pears Founda-
tion, which looks after the heritage of
both Britten and Peter Pears, from its
inception in 1986.
DM: When did you hrst come into con-
tact with Britten’s clarinet concerto
material and what convinced you to
“devise” the Movements for a Clari-
net Concerto?
CM: I spent a lot of time in the 1980s
researching Britten’s unpublished and
unfnished manuscripts. I can`t remem-
ber when I frst saw the sketches for the
frst movement, but I edited and orches-
trated them in 1989 for a fund-raising
concert for the Aldeburgh Festival: the
young Michael Collins was the soloist.
It was clear to me that the movement
demanded a continuation—not least
because it’s hardly viable as a concert
item in its own right—but initially I
couldn`t see any way to expand it other
than by composing new material.
DM: Though the hrst movement is the
only one Britten wrote specihcally
for a clarinet concerto, the entire
piece is music by Britten. How did
you arrive at choosing pieces to use
as the foundations for the second and
third movements?
CM: There are only very vestigial sketches
for anything other than the frst move-
ment, so there’s no possibility of recon-
structing the work in any conventional
sense. It wasn’t until 2005 when I was
devising a Britten recording of mainly
unknown works that I thought again
about a continuation. I had for some
time considered the possibility of using
the Mazurka Elegiaca for two pianos,
composed in the summer of 1941, for
a slow movement: its lyricism offered
many opportunities for extracting a
solo clarinet line. But its companion
piece, the Introduction and Rondo alla
Burlesca, did not seem appropriate for
a fnale, and I returned to the idea of at-
tempting to write one from scratch.
However I ‘d overlooked the possibility
of using instead a substantial orchestral
sketch, whose frst workings were writ-
ten on the same manuscript paper as
the Clarinet Concerto, and are proba-
bly contemporary with it. Although it’s
not entirely certain what this work is,
it’s most likely to be the Sonata for Or-
chestra, which Britten frst mentioned
in the spring of 1942, and was still talk-
ing about to his publisher a year later
as a possible work for the 1944 Lon-
don Proms. A neat copy (though not a
fair copy) laid out for piano duet (like
several sketches of the time) runs to
fve and a half pages and just over 100
bars.
DM: What other issues did you need to
consider in devising the work?
CM: Clearly I had to fnd a way to ex-
tend this substantial fragment, but it
involved very little actual composition,
and I brought back material from the
frst movement as a coda to the fnale.
I would estimate that the music of this
movement is 95% Britten : the other
two movements, orchestration apart,
are virtually 100% Britten. But of
course the major issue for me was to
devise a clarinet part for two out of the
three movements, using music that was
never intended to have a solo line.
DM: I can’t imagine the work involved
in such a process. One might also feel
the stress of “advocating” for Britten
as the project progressed. Is there
anything you might want to share
about the emotional side of prepar-
ing such a piece?
CM: Of course it`s very diffcult to know
if Britten would have approved of such
a project—probably not!—but I felt
that this planned concerto really did
deserve to be brought back to life, and
could be a worthy addition to the rather
small list of 20th-century clarinet con-
certos. That was what encouraged me
to undertake such a venture, which on
the face of it is an impracticable one. I
am very glad that I took the plunge.
DM: One can certainly hear the rela-
tionship tonally to the music of Peter
Grimes, especially in the harmonies
of the hrst movement. Were the two
works conceived during the same pe-
riod of Britten’s life? Are these simi-
larities signihcant?
CM: There is one particular link, the
gamelan-like deep triads which also
feature in the “Morning” interlude from
Grimes. Britten frst became aware of
gamelan music through meeting Co-
lin McPhee in 1940. Although Britten
didn’t start the composition of Grimes
until the beginning of 1944, the opera
was already in his mind in 1941.
DM: Michael Collins’ spectacular re-
cording of the piece has won vari-
ous awards including Gramophone
Magazine’s “Disc of the Month”
during 2009. It’s a beautiful perfor-
mance and represents the piece very
well. [For those interested, the CD
is called Unknown Britten and was
released by the NMC label.] Where
was the work premiered and how
was it received?
CM: The recording was taken from the
rehearsals and the frst performance, at
The Sage, Gateshead (near Newcastle)
in May 2008. I was a little disappointed
that the frst performance-unlike the
recording—did not attract a great deal
of attention at the time, perhaps due to
the hybrid nature of the work, which I
suppose does need some explanation.
But it’s now beginning to be played
more, and I was delighted when you and
Alexander Platt took up the challenge!
DM: We owe you the same debt of grat-
itude we owe Benny Goodman for
this work. Thank you so much for
allowing Alexander Platt and me the
opportunity to premiere the piece in
North America! What a great thrill
for us here. Congratulations on a re-
markable piece of music. Thank you
also on behalf of the clarinetists in
the world! It is a fabulous addition to
the clarinet’s repertoire. Your work
on this piece is superb craftsman-
ship. You capture such a wide spec-
trum of colors and emotions so well-
suited for the clarinet. What other
works do you have in your composi-
tional output for the clarinet that we
should look out for?
CM: Thank you for such kind words!
There is a chance that at some point
I might write a concerto myself, al-
though it won’t be in the near future,
and that would certainly plug a gap in
my work list as—much as I love the
clarinet (and bass clarinet)—I have
written very little for it as a solo instru-
ment. The only substantial work is a set
of Three Studies, derived for a work for
cello and piano, which is technically
quite demanding—it asks the player
to switch from B-fat clarinet to E -fat
and then to bass. I’m a great fan of the
contrabass clarinet too, so perhaps I
should add a fourth study!
About the writer…
Douglas Monroe, assistant professor
of clarinet at North Dakota State Univer-
sity, has enjoyed an eclectic career as clar-
inetist and conductor. His performances
have taken him to 47 states, Canada, and
nine European countries, where he has
performed at venues such as Carnegie
Hall and Royal Albert Hall.
In 1987, he was appointed principal
clarinetist of the Arizona Opera. Follow-
ing his tenure there, Monroe spent three
years with the United States Army Field
Band in Washington, D.C. While there, he
was a frequent featured soloist, including
concerto performances at the Interlochen
Center for the Arts, the Chatauqua Insti-
tute, Music Hall in Cincinnati and Meyer-
hoff Symphony Hall.
Monroe performs with Trio Élan, the
Red River Winds, and the Fargo-Moor-
head Symphony and Opera. During the
summers, Monroe is a clarinet instructor
at Interlochen Arts Camp.

photo captions:
1. Benjamin Britten
2. Colin Matthews

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