Friday, September 9, 2011

From violin to serpent: Andrew van der Beek's journey from string playing to becoming a renowned player of early wind instruments

On August 25th 2011, Andrew van der Beek (UK) and I met to talk in a café close to the precincts of the ancient Cathedral of Avila (Spain).

PH: Andrew, are you from a musical family?

Andrew van der Beek: Not especially. However, my father was a Church of England clergyman, which meant that singing was part of his job. My mother, a teacher, played the piano rather badly. But we did have a collection of 78 gramophone records and my parents knew the value of music, and, in fact, of all culture: they encouraged literature, music and the appreciation of painting and sculpture. My two sisters both learned the piano but did not show particular skills.

PH: What is your musical background?

AvdB: I have no musical qualifications beyond Grade 4 violin. However, I did attend a very musical boarding school in Canterbury. The school had a strong choir tradition; from time to time, we actually sang in Canterbury Cathedral and I remember taking part in a Choral Evensong which was broadcast on BBC radio, this being was unusual for a school choir. We sang a lot of Tudor music – Tallis, Gibbons, etc. – and the style really struck a chord with me. I felt an immediate rapport with this music. The school also had a madrigal group which sang the secular music of that period.

PH: Did you set your sites at a musical career?

AvdB: No. Not being a pianist, I felt there was no possibility of doing that, so I specialized in sciences, went to University College, London and took a degree in Geology. At the same time, looking back, I spent much of the time of my undergraduate years organizing chamber music concerts, as well as singing in choirs.

PH: So you took up the career of a geologist.

AvdB: Well, not exactly. I did not want to be a professional geologist doing work in remote parts of the world like Arabia, Alaska or the North Sea. I had an interest in publishing and journalism and decided to become a scientific journalist, working for not a geological- but for a chemical magazine, learning the editing skills needed for rewriting the articles “illiterate” scientists had sent in. I worked in that for a couple of years.

PH: Did you continue with music?

AvdB: Yes. During that time, a friend of mine I had known from home, who knew I was interested in early music, was sharing a flat in London with some people who had a recorder consort, and they invited me to come and listen to the group. I had never played a wind instrument before, not even a recorder. What I did not realize was that this meeting was a trap set for me, as the players had just lost their bass recorder player and they had a concert coming up in two or three weeks. The players had strategically left a bass recorder right next to me, later inviting me to have a blow of it. It suited the size of my hands; I was fit and had enough air to blow the instrument. Having been a bass singer, I could read the bass clef and managed to join in on that first session. I thought it was wonderful – so much more natural and comfortable a position than that of the violin and better suited to a person with large hands. One of the consort players was also interested in other Renaissance wind instruments and he brought along a recording of the Manitoba University Early Music Consort. On one track, there was a quartet of crumhorns. I discovered that crumhorns had a wonderful sound – like the skirl of the bagpipes or a Spanish organ. I remember how very well in tune that crumhorn quartet had played and thought I must go and find one of these instruments. There is a shop in London called Musica Rara that had one in stock. Crumhorns were only made in Germany then, in East Berlin, and the person who ran this shop was German and knew the ins and outs of going to East Germany to purchase the instruments.

PH: When was this?

AvdB: About 1970 or the very end of the 1960’s, at a time when it was not easy to trade with East Germany. Having started on bass recorder, I decided to buy a bass crumhorn so I could fulfill the same harmonic function should a crumhorn quartet spring up. Another person in the recorder group was also interested in crumhorns; he went and bought a higher one.

PH: And other Renaissance wind instruments?

Yes. Then I took up the racket (it looks like a large pepper pot), a 16-foot instrument of the range of the double bass; it produced a marvellous buzzing effect playing beneath other Renaissance wind instruments. It can also be played softly beneath viols, as one has a lot of control over the volume on it. Its sound is never really loud, but its presence is always felt because it is an octave below everything else. Anything above it manages to fill in the missing harmonics.

Then another friend, Joe Skeaping, told me of a young musician called David Munrow, who was teaching an early music class at Dartington Hall. We drove down to Dartington and met the vibrant, enthusiastic David Munrow. There were people with a number of different instruments in his class and we formed quite large groups. We had a whole crumhorn quartet. I played the racket. This was the ideal opportunity to learn about yet other instruments. I learned that the curtal, also called the dulcian, (a Renaissance bassoon) was a slightly more versatile instrument than the crumhorn, with a larger range and more dynamic possibilities; the crumhorn is a wind-cap instrument - you blow into a chamber with the reed inside - whereas, in the curtal, you tongue the reed in your mouth, making for better control over intonation. So I ordered a bass curtal direct from a factory in West Germany, travelling there to take delivery of it, at the same time, bringing home some instruments from there that David Munrow had ordered, including a great bass racket!

PH: Were by you now only busy with music?

AvdB: No. I was still on the staff of the “Chemistry and Industry” magazine. But I was being offered money to perform. Joe Skeaping had a group that had a residency in a Tudor-themed restaurant in Mayfair, London. His trio played there every night, the players dressed up in doublet and hose. Once in two weeks they called me in to take over from one of the players; I earned seven pounds for an evening’s work there, wandering around in costume and playing bass crumhorn. It was nice to be paid to play music!

Then a big opportunity came my way thanks to David Munrow, who had a very successful group called “The Early Music Consort of London”. They were doing prestigious work – recordings and “proper” concerts in London concert halls, and I was thrilled when he asked me to join the group. He had had a bass wind player in the group, but, due to a personality clash, had asked him to leave, and I filled the position. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. That was in 1972. I then had four very happy and exciting years playing in the Munrow concerts whenever the music called for a wind consort. And Munrow was inspiring - all energy and vitality. We did a lot of recordings and television programs (some now on YouTube) with David Munrow. Sadly, David Munrow took his own life in 1976.

By this time, I had given up my job as editorial assistant, but luckily, having the editorial skills, I could do freelance work for publishers of scientific books, and there was a need for science editors. Having the use of a wonderful Tudor house in a remote area on the border between England and Wales, I would take myself there and work very intensively from morning to night, finishing each editing job in doubly quick time in order to have more time for music.

PH: You must have built up a portfolio of different musical skills by now.

AvdB: Yes.

PH: So when did you start playing the serpent?

AvdB: The sackbut player Alan Lumsden, who had played in David Munrow’s wind consort, and Christopher Monk, who had made it his life’s work to restore the serpent and the cornett to living instruments, wanted to form a serpent trio. They both played this bass wind instrument and they thought I might be interested to play it and that I would be quick to learn it. (I had never had the patience to practise 12 hours a day and become a soloist, but I was quick at learning to play new instruments.) Indeed, I was fascinated by the serpent, and it is an instrument that certainly presents a challenge to the player. Christopher lent me an old instrument from about 1830 which he had restored. The serpent, originally used for playing with choirs in French cathedrals, has existed from around the early 17th century right up to the time of Mendelssohn – its heyday – and later. It later survived as a sort-of folk instrument. The serpent is pictured in a French encyclopedia of musical instruments called “Harmonie Universelle”, published in 1630 by Marin Mersenne, but it is not mentioned in an earlier German book, called “Syntagma Musicum” (1615) published by Michael Praetorius.

PH: So what is this unusual instrument?

AvdB: The serpent is a long wooden tube - two metres long – with a brass-type mouthpiece you buzz your lips into. The wooden tube is carved in a shape that is convenient to hold, placing the finger holes fairly much together. The six holes are in two groups of three. The player uses the different harmonics, as in the playing of brass instruments. It is not ideal acoustically, and the player has to make a lot of adjustments with the lips. It needs a lot of “coaxing” to play in tune. The “g” on the third harmonic, for example, comes out like an f sharp and one has to slightly open other holes to get it in tune. The f at the top of the bass clef is always very out of tune, which is annoying, as it is perhaps the most frequently played note on the serpent! The adjustments to it using the lips are tolerable on a long note but tricky on a run…that is when some notes need “disguising”.

PH: Did you perform as a serpent trio?

AvdB: Yes. A humorous idea, as the instrument is best suited to playing quietly below a choir, as it did originally. Indeed, it fills in the inadequacies of the bass voice, with a lot of fundamental in the tonal spectrum. It does not, however, have many high harmonics to give it brightness; and it is not, of course, a solo instrument. (Its sound was once compared to the roaring of a bullock!) Nevertheless, Alan Lumsden, who had been an orchestral trombonist, did manage to make a nice sound on the top notes. We called the ensemble “The London Serpent Trio”, the name having a humorous touch, as there were well-known groups such as “The London String Trio” or “The London Wind Trio”. And “London” made it sound important!

PH: What repertoire did you play?

AvdB: We played mainly 18th century wind trios - works, for example, for three bassoons, three-part Renaissance polyphonic music and recorder trios and we arranged Baroque- and Classical trio sonatas (two solos plus the bass part). In fact, we transposed a lot of works and were always busy making our own arrangements.

PH: Would you like to talk about the performances of the serpent trio?

AvdB: Yes. We would present a full evening’s concert in two halves, but they were not confined only to playing. Christopher Monk was a very entertaining speaker and he gave a history of the serpent and talked about its history and construction in a colorful and humorous manner. We performed in music clubs and festivals; we did quite a lot of work for radio and television Because of its unusual shape, audiences were always interested in the instrument. We did three tours of the USA in the 1970’s. That was a marvellous opportunity for me in my 30’s. We played at Yale University all three times (the university has a very interesting instrument collection). We played in the Detroit Institute of Arts in a Sunday morning program they called “Brunch with Bach”, where the audience was issued with plastic plates and cutlery so as not to disturb the music while eating. We played in the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston – a superb Renaissance palace bought and brought from Italy; it was like being in Florence!

PH: For how long did the LST exist?

AvdB: As such, till 1990, when Christopher Monk died at the age of 69. But we went on playing with other artists. The first was Clifford Bevan, who had been pianist and arranger in a professional jazz group called “The Temperance Seven”. He was also an orchestral tuba player. Then there was Phil Humphries, a trombonist. We still kept it as a trio. (Alan Lumsden had gone to live in France.) I then decided to move out of London. I had been playing in the trio for some twenty years and felt it was time to hand over to someone else. That person was Stephen Wick, a very good tuba player, who also played the ophicleide, which is the metal version of the serpent from around 1830, an instrument that looks rather like a bass saxophone. The ophicleide (“keyed serpent” in Greek) is fully keyed so the finger holes can be much larger and no longer need to be placed in two groups of three.

PH: Do you still play the serpent?

AvdB: After Christopher Monk’s death, I bought the serpent that he had leant me from his widow. It is a lovely old instrument, made in England in around 1830. With a few bits of brass on it, the maker’s name is stamped on it – “F.Pretty, maker”. Pretty was a well-known London instrument maker of the early 19th century. The instrument also has the dealer’s name on it! People have offered to buy the instrument, but I am not selling it. It has been part of my life.

I took part in the first recording of Mendelssohn’s “St Paul” on original instruments with Das Neue Orchester (Cologne). However, I am sometimes asked to play it for carol services at Christmas, possibly because, following its heyday in Mendelssohn’s time, it lived on as a folk instrument in West Gallery Choirs of English parish churches; the band of a village church would have included the serpent, along with ‘cellos, clarinets and old boxwood flutes (depending on what players were at hand) providing there was no church organ. I suppose it was found in villages because it was the kind of instrument a village blacksmith or carpenter could make fairly easily.

PH: It is also mentioned here and there in literature.

AvdB: Yes. In Thomas Hardy’s (1840-1928) “Under the Greenwood Tree” a group of locals laments the “passing” of the serpent, with a harmonium being brought in to the parish church by an incoming young school mistress, and the Gallery band is being put out to grass. “Old things pass away ‘tis true; but a Serpent was a good old note: a deep, rich note was the Serpent”. And I do think the instrument does have unique characteristics because it is so simple and can be played in a vocal, cantabile and sensitive way. Modern valved instruments can sound a bit mechanical in comparison.

PH: Have modern composers written for the serpent?

AvdB: The Scottish composer Judith Weir (b.1954) wrote an arrangement of “Cherry Ripe” for the London Serpent Trio. In British composer Peter Maxwell Davies’ (b.1934) opera “Taverner”, there is a serpent in the stage band. I was the player of it at Covent Garden and also recorded it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Knussen.

PH: Andrew, there is that amazing photo of you holding a contrabass serpent.

AvdB: Commonly referred to as the “anaconda”! That instrument had been restored by Christopher Monk and I played it. The owner wanted to sell it, so I was photographed with it for publicity.

PH: Andrew, many thanks. This has been most interesting. Many of us are curious about early wind instruments and know too little about them. You have given us much information.

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