Analysed by Robert Walton
For many years I have been meaning to analyse Walter Mourant’s Ecstasy but somehow I never got around to it. I can’t believe I left it so long, because it’s one of the few openings that made such a lasting impression.
The first time I heard it was in 1958 when I was an announcer in Whangarei, New Zealand, at 1XN Radio Northland. Those were the days before sealed airtight cubicles when there was an open window in the studio overlooking an attractive garden and heavily wooded hills. Very civilized! Incidentally four years before, sitting in that very same announcer’s chair was Corbet Woodall later to work for BBC Television in London as a newsreader. We were both learning the ropes of broadcasting on live radio. I met him only once in 1976 at his Marble Arch delicatessan in London.
The 78rpm Brunswick disc (05153) in question featured clarinetist Reginald Kell with Camarata’s Orchestra. As I placed it on the turntable and cued it ready to go on air, it was just another recording.
After a few seconds of introduction, mysterious high strings carried me off to another world. I was hooked. Harmonically it kept wandering off into Debussyian byways as well as quite a bit of diving down, but always returning to the home chord on a major 9 like Poinciana. And speaking of Poinciana, occasionally you’ll hear the David Rose string sound. Some of the chords reminded me of Tony Lowry’s Seascape. I wasn’t a bit surprised that Tutti Camarata was in charge as every aspect of the recording indicated quality.
Then taking over this meandering tune, Kell makes his first appearance with the orchestra and is soon joined by a violin, with which he produces an atonal moment. After going totally solo for a few bars, the clarinet is once more partnered by the orchestra. Note Kell’s distinctive vibrato for which he was famous. From here right until the end it’s the mournful clarinet of ‘roving’ Reginald playing the melody supported by those now familiar harmonies.
At this juncture it might help to give you a brief bio of the comparatively unknown American Walter Mourant (1911-1995) who began his career in jazz. One of his best-known works was Swing Low Sweet Clarinet performed by Woody Herman and Pete Fountain. Clearly Mourant loved writing for the clarinet. Also his chamber music and orchestral compositions are well worth Googling. Various assignments included arranging for the Raymond Scott Orchestra at CBS and composing a March of Time theme for NBC.
Ecstasy is that the somewhat dreary second half of the arrangement does not fulfill the initial promise of the ecstatic opening. In spite of that, I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand but still recommend you to give it a listen and enjoy.
At first, when the title of Bob's new article caught my eye, I didn't immediately grasp what piece he was referring to, as I know of a few other pieces that bear the title "Ecstasy;" I,e., those by Felton Rapley and by Otto Cesana as well as the tango by that name that has been recorded by, among others, Sidney Torch, Philip Green and George Melachrino.
In truth, I had only a vague recall of this Mourant piece on finally ascertaining what was being discussed. I had to briefly relisten to it as when I originally purchased the Decca/Brunswick single, it was for the selection on the flip side; "Dance of the Three Old Maids" by Reginald Porter Brown in which Reginald Kell similarly shares the honors with Camarata, a piece that I find quite attractive and engaging. I had played the reverse side, this "Ecstasy" only once and never again returned to it as I did not find it sufficiently engaging to wish to cultivate it further, although I have to confess, it does really display Mr. Kell's abilities admirably.
However, I can refer others to a piece in a very similar mood that I have found a bit sturdier in its bearings; namely,
"Air for English Horn" (cor anglais for the benefit of my readers in the UK), contained in an album entitled "Frank Sinatra conducts music of Alec Wilder." The soloist in this cut is Mitch Miller, who has, in addition to his numerous popular recordings with his own group, contributed many oboe and cor anglais solos to many pieces in the serious and light repertoire (an album he produced along with Percy Faith entitled "Music Until Midnight" is especially notable). The mood of the Wilder piece is somewhat similar to the Mourant piece (of which latter I hear nothing at all ecstatic in it), with the difference that the layout and overall form of the Wilder at least to my ears seems far more assured and better shaped formally, but that could be simply due to my own idiosyncratic manner in how I receive these two pieces.
I will sum up by saying that I do not like all the same pieces that Bob likes, nor would I expect him to necessarily feel the same way about every piece that for my part I might express great admiration for. These matters are by nature totally subjective.