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In January 1881 Somervell was sent to Cambridge to study composition under Sir Charles Stanford (who also, much later, taught Dr Gordon Jacob). Two years later, at the age of nineteen, he obtained his BA and at Stanford’s suggestion went to Berlin to study at the Hochschule für Musik. His teachers there were Friedrich Kiel and Woldemar Bargiel. Kiel had been Stanford’s mentor and was of the sound classical school (he wrote an Elegie for clarinet and piano). Bargiel was a disciple of Schumann and step-brother to Schumann’s wife Clara. In 1885 Somervell returned to London and, again at Stanford’s suggestion, became a student at the Royal College of Music under Sir Hubert Parry. This was followed in 1887 by two years as a private pupil of Parry. In 1894 Somervell joined the staff of the Royal College of Music. From 1901 to 1928 he was Inspector of Music to the Board of Education and is well remembered today as a music educationist.
Somervell’s greatest successes came from his vocal and choral compositions. His instrumental music which he wrote later in life included, besides the Clarinet Quintet, compositions for orchestra, for piano and for violin. He did not strive after novel effects and his style is reminiscent of at least half a century earlier. (In contrast, his son Hubert showed marked adventurousness in a song-cycle What silent love hath writ for tenor, clarinet and strings.) This late-Romantic style was of no disadvantage where the choral works were concerned and they were readily accepted into the repertoire. With the instrumental works it had the opposite effect, and after their initial performances they were not revived. The Clarinet Quintet was no exception. It was given its first performance by Haydn Draper in London’s Wigmore Hall on 19 May 1919 and then forgotten. Now, over eighty years later, it is possible to realise that this beautiful and well-constructed work has considerable value to the clarinettist as a quintet in late-Romantic idiom, of which there are few examples.
Somervell, like Brahms in his quintet Opus 115, uses the A clarinet for his first movement and opens in impassioned compound duple time. The Intermezzo which follows is gentle in character and in basic three-part form. The slow third movement is in variation form. Both the second and third movements are scored for the B flat clarinet but in the final movement Somervell, like Stanford in the Concerto Op 80, turns again to the A instrument and writes an opening theme which has all the sparkling zest of his master.
from notes by Pamela Weston © 1981