T. W. Howarth & Co. Ltd.

Nigel Clark

Current Models

Interview with Nigel Clark
July 30, 1982 London

by Nora Post

Arriving in London after the Rigoutat, Lorée, and Marigaux interviews, I was struck by the feeling that the gap between France and England is a thousand times wider than the English Channel. Despite a healthy rivalry between the French makers, the truth is that they have their factories in the same area, the same man makes reamers for each of them, all cases and case covers come from the same place--it's a bit like an oboe makers' cooperative which helps keep prices down. In England, on the other hand, materials as well as labor costs are problems for a variety of reasons, and prices reflect this. Of the oboes in production, I can't think of one which is more expensive than Howarth's. Yet there's also some truth to the old adage, "You get what you pay for." Some of the design changes and ideas at Howarth are certainly fascinating and, more importantly, these oboes reflect a commitment of time in the finishing stages which is tough to match; I believe this is perhaps Howarth's strongest point. W. T. Howarth is managed by two co- directors -- Nigel Clark (director of the London shops) and John Pullen (director of the factory at Worthing.) In addition, Michael Britton joined the firm in 1978, no doubt Howarth's willingness to customize its oboes is due in large part to having a professional player on staff full-time. Describing his role at Howarth's, Mr. Britton seemed to sum up the Howarth experience: "It's all hands on deck here!"

NP: Can you tell me something about the history of oboe manufacture in England ?

NC: Well, a lot of it was derived from Triébert. [1] I think that Morton was the first English oboe firm, in the second half of the nineteenth century. [2] They were the first English manufacturers of keyed oboes in production. Copies of some of the Triébert military system, before the days of the Conservatoire system Morton oboes, were very good.

Hawkes & Son, Boosey & Co.--before they merged in the early thirties--made military system instruments, where what is now the side G sharp key operated the Bb and C keys (which the English thumbplate system is derived from).

The finest quality English oboes started with a company called Louis --The Louis Musical Instrument Company. They were on the Kings Road, Chelsea, in London. They operated between the wars and became famous for their oboes, though they made some clarinets and bassoons, too. The Louis oboe was a direct copy of Lorée--even the name! They just picked a name which sounded like Lorée, although they had no pretense of being French. Louis oboes were all open-holed ring model instruments; they never made the Gillet Conservatoire model, and they were quite popular before the Second World War. Their key work was great--all the keys were really hand-forged, which no one had ever done -- even though everybody says they have. Louis literally took lumps of metal and hammered them into shape; most of the examples of Louis oboes are in fantastic condition today.

NP: Do you have any idea how many oboes they made?

NC: Well, their serial numbers went up to something like six hundred and fifty, but I don't know what they started at. They may have started at ten. Louis, in fact, got bombed during the war and the directors sold the name out to Boosey & Hawkes after the war. Actually, they sold out to the famous English flute-maker Rudall-Carte, who was by then already a subsidiary of Boosey & Hawkes. Boosey & Hawkes became very powerful when they got together, and they used to buy out anyone who began to compete with them. They started doing this before the war; the result was that very few companies started up again after the war, and most of the people who left these other companies went to work for Boosey & Hawkes.

After the war, Boosey & Hawkes decided to begin mass production. They got rid of most of their skilled highly-paid workers. One of these, George Ingram, who had been one of the best men at Louis earlier, wanted to continue in the Louis Co. tradition. He and Frederick Mooney, who had been working before the war at the Selmer clarinet factory, started jigging up to make oboes. The name of Howarth was a long-established name in England, known since the late nineteenth century for woodwind repairs. It was a family of brothers who had several shops in London, mostly in competition with each other! One particular brother, Tom William, or T. W. Howarth, operated a repair shop on Seymour Place--Just down the road. So, after the war, that's where Ingram, Mooney and Howarth started to make oboes. They were there for three or four years, piecing together tools and jigs to start making instruments.

NP: Given the Boosey & Hawkes situation, what made them feel that they would succeed ?

NC: They could see that the new Boosey & Hawkes oboes weren't going to satisfy the professional. And they had seen how successful Louis had been.

NP: What were British players using at the time?

NC: Louis oboes, pre-war Boosey & Hawkes, and one or two Lorées. The English were very pro-English and anti-French at that time, so it was quite unusual to buy anything from Paris. In England the majority of the profession came through the military bands and the training at Kneller Hall, our Royal Military School of Music. It is very British and very traditional, playing traditional English Band music. They all used Louis or Boosey & Hawkes oboes.

NP: What key system was this?

NC: Thumbplate. I think the thumbplate system was established around the turn of the century, when Lorée was making it. Thumbplate is found today in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and even Canada. Lorée made very good thumbplate instruments and certainly knew what he was doing. What Louis did was a copy of that. And what we did after the war was a copy of what Louis had done. Though nowadays everyone is continually changing, doing new things, and looking to see what everyone else is doing!

[At this point Mr. Clark took out a hand- written ledger of the earliest Howarth oboe sales.]

The first instrument we made was number 1001, which was sold on the sixth of April 1948. During that first year Mooney, Ingram and Howarth produced thirty-six instruments. But shortly after they got started, there was a falling out over business matters with Tom, who went back to repair work with one of his brothers. But the company had just been registered as T.W. Howarth and they didn't have the money to change the name again, so they were just stuck with the name! Of course, the names of the other two makers, Mooney and Ingram, weren't exactly attractive names! At least the name Howarth was a nice Yorkshire name.

NP: Of course, while the English manufacturing tradition was being established, there were exceptions, most notable Léon Goossens with his 1907 Lorée. How did this happen? A kind of detente?

NC: With the French? Well, there was some rivalry between the makers after the war, inasmuch as the English occasionally saw exhibits of French work, though they never made any contact, never met. It was surprising that Goossens always played on a Lorée. He was quite unusual in that.

NP: So to play a Lorée then wasn't really mainstream?

NC: Oh, no. It was all Louis. I'm not sure how Goossens ended up playing Lorée, not Louis. He was positively the exception. Of course, in 1907 Louis wasn't established, so I suppose there wasn't much else to buy!

Louis tried to make an instrument for Goossens, but Goossens had become very established, very famous with his Lorée, which he liked --although he plays a Louis d'amore. Lorée has never become as established in England as, say, in the USA.

NP: Can you guess why?

NC: Well, they weren't distributed in England after the war until we started selling them about five or six years ago; there was no English dealer until then.

NP: How about Rigoutat and Marigaux?

NC: Marigaux was being distributed. That was the competition from one of the other Howarth brothers, George Howarth & Sons. He imported Marigaux in the sixties and Marigaux made an instrument exclusively for the English market--a ring model thumbplate oboe called their Model 26. But Fred Mooney and George Ingram worked very hard and eventually most of the Louis customers came back to them. All the big names in the orchestral scene here were playing on Howarth after the war. It was just a few of the recital players who travelled and went abroad who did not play Howarth. Other than Goossens, the only other big name was Janet Craxton. She was a pupil of Goossens and, I suppose, because of his influence she also played a Lorée--ring model simple system.

NP: No side F?

NC: No, I don't think so. Her technique was fantastic. So was Goossens'! It shows you don't need all those keys to play well.

NP: And how about the current crop? Are most of them playing Howarth?

NC: Yes. With one or two exceptions, most of the English professionals play Howarth.

NP: Incidentally, do you make a student model ?

NC: Yes, we do. We don't make a very cheap student model; we make a range of plateau instruments in Conservatoire and thumbplate models. The most expensive of these "intermediate" models is about half the cost of the professional model.

NP: I see. What percentage of the Howarth production is thumbplate?

NC: About 80%, of which about half are the dual system -- Conservatoire and thumbplate -- the others are pure thumbplate.

NP: Can you explain exactly how thumbplate works?

NC: Thumbplate is a mechanism operated by the left-hand thumb for playing Bb and C. On a pure thumbplate system, there is no mechanical connection between the first and second joints. So, instead of putting your right hand first finger down to play Bb and C, we take our thumb off. Bb is played only with two fingers of the left hand; C is played with only one.

NP: That's unadulterated thumbplate?

NC: Yes, pure thumbplate. At the same time, the key which you know as the right hand G sharp key becomes a side Bb and C key, doing the same thing as the thumbplate -- left over from the military system. The advantages of the system -- and we do happen to think we're right--is that on a Conservatoire instrument Bb is very stuffy, dull note because you have to use the first finger of the right hand. It's an uneven sound. There's a lot of resistance, which the other notes around it don't have. The C natural becomes very nasal -- a hard, edgy sound. The reason that the Conservatoire system took off, and the reason that Gillet liked it so much, was that it allowed you to keep more fingers on the instrument. Apparently the teachers at the Paris Conservatory didn't like the idea that they were holding the instrument for Bb with just their thumb and two fingers. But to any English person who's learned on a thumbplate system, they consider the Conservatoire system to be so illogical and so "Why should you (when you're playing notes with your left hand) suddenly be using your right hand?" The Conservatoire system makes some passages very, very difficult. You don't have that problem with thumbplate.

The dual system is simply adding a thumbplate to an existing full Conservatoire system by keeping your left thumb on the back of the instrument all the time. Alternatively, you can lift your thumb and play it as a thumbplate instrument. That gives you all the advantages -- a nice clear Bb and a good steady C natural.

NP: How about third octave keys on thumbplate systems?

NC: They don't go together particularly well. Very few people have both; most use semi-automatic octaves here. When we make instruments for export we normally have a third octave--except to America, where third octave isn't standard yet. Of course, Lorée hasn't been a great exponent of third octave, where Marigaux has been; Marigaux invented the third octave.

NP: With thumbplate, it makes an awful lot going on for one finger, doesn't it?

NC: Yes. It is not altogether satisfactory. And very little is known about the third octave. Players don't know when to use it, whether to use it with the back octave or not. Some use it for E, others don't use it till F sharp. So it's still somewhat experimental. Manufacturers have come up with a standard hole size for it, a straight hole like a trill key with a fairly uniform hole size. And really, the opening of the key is so small that to make it work you have only got to make it leak. And, unless the key is well-made with strong metal, it bends. Players tend to strain and squeeze a bit when they get to the top, and they just bend the key in. So the third octave gets bent into the back of the second octave, and we regularly do this repair. At Howarth, we make the key thicker, a hand-forged key instead of a casting or anything else. It's not the perfect design, but then the oboe design isn't perfect anyway.

NP: And you do it primarily for export. Incidentally, what percentage of your business is export?

NC: At the moment it's still very small. Our total production is about twenty professional models a month and another fifteen to twenty student models a month. We could be lucky to sell twenty instruments total this year outside England. We're still working very hard at it. We sell to Japan, Australia (some of these are the old-fashioned English system -- pure thumbplate with open holes), and a bit to the States. For the most part, the export oboes are standard Conservatoire system.

NP: How about import activities? What percent of your business is import?

NC: Well, John and I took over the company when it only made oboes. But we started a woodwind shop and have slowly built it up over eight years. Our own manufacture is probably about one third of the total turnover. The rest is flutes, oboes, bassoons, clarinets, saxophones, music, accessories, and repairs.

NP: Well, then I'd like to ask a question only about your oboes -- what percentage of your oboe sales are Howarth oboes?

NC: Well, that's all changing now because we have gradually been increasing our own production and some waiting lists have come down. A few years ago, there seemed to be shortages of good quality instruments, but nowadays good quality instruments are much more readily available. Now we sell about two to three Lorées and three to four Cabarts a month. Rigoutats were in great demand in England a few years ago, when we couldn't get them; but now that they are more available, the demand dies off. When you can't get something everybody wants it!

With Marigaux we are lucky if we sell six in a year, but we keep them in stock so that we can show the customer everything--Howarth, Lorée, Rigoutat and Marigaux. That way people can always choose an instrument on the merits of what works best for them.

NP: I didn't ask about your materials. How long do you age your wood?

NC: About four years. We're very happy with our blackwood, or grenadilla. Blackwood lasts much longer than the rosewood which was its predecessor, used by oboe-makers in the last century. Rosewood is much softer and has a more limited life -- the bore shrinks more. Of course, the oboe has a limited life -- after all it's only a piece of machinery. People don't like to believe that their oboes are worn out. We had a tradition in England that you bought an oboe when you were a student and you had that instrument for the rest of your life. When we first came into the trade, that was still the thinking. When we heard that in America you change your oboes every couple of years -- like your women and your cars -- it shocked us! Of course, when you look into it, you begin to see the problems that some of the older English players are having, playing on very old instruments. When they do realize that they must move on to a new instrument, it becomes very difficult for them to change.

NP: Yes. I buy an oboe every few years. And, at the risk of being accused of conspicuous consumption, so far I've bought at least one baroque oboe of some kind every year.

NC: And to us that's staggering. Though more and more of the English players are catching on to the advantages of new instruments. We're always making little changes. Hopefully, you'd notice the improvements.

NP: Well my guess is that the players do notice. Tell me, how many people do you have working for you at the moment?

NC: At the workshop, I think it's seventeen.

NP: And what's your waiting list these days?

NC: About three months. Though we've increased our production a great deal in the last few years, we're still nowhere near that of Rigoutat, Marigaux or Lorée. Of course, for us the most important part of the business is customizing our instrument - we'll make literally anything anybody wants, and we're delighted to do it. It's much more interesting for the staff; people look forward to it, though it does slow down production.