A delightful afternoon with Crispian Steele-Perkins

The first time I saw trumpeter Crispian Steel-Perkins perform live was in early 1996 in St Margaret’s Church in Topsham in Devon (UK) when I was a member of Exeter Youth Brass. Crispian was performing with groups from the East Devon Music Centre and played an arrangement of Haydn’s trumpet concerto on his E flat trumpet with us.

Before the performance, he had demonstrated parts of the concerto on the keyed trumpet, making an impressively well-tuned sound. A keyed trumpet is a trumpet with keys on it, similar to those found on woodwind instruments. The concerto was originally written in 1796 for the Austrian trumpeter Anton Weidinger, who premiered it on the 1st of January 1800.

Crispian has become well known for these sorts of lecture recitals. As a trumpet player, I find it is always interesting to put music into historical context like this. I’ve been a fan of his ever since that concert, so of course I was thrilled when Crispian agreed to meet me for an interview.

After a long journey from Dublin, my family and I arrived at Crispian’s cottage in Bexhill, near Hastings. Crispian spends some of his time there with his second wife Jane, who is a nurse. He also shares this cottage with two lovely classic motorbikes, which he is under strict instructions to keep in his garage and not in the house!

Above: Crispian on one of his motorcycles.

Crispian welcomed us in his usual energetic, charismatic style with a big smile and cheerful manner. We had approached Bexhill from the west, so we had travelled through Normans Bay which, Crispian informed me, was where William the Conqueror landed when he invaded England in 1066. As you travel along the beach you drive over a marsh that used to be in the sea. William the Ist chose the bay because it was shallow, which made it easy for his army to disembark. It is also near to Pevensey Castle, a Saxon Shore fort with complete Roman walls. A fort has stood on the site since the Iron Age.

History is one of Crispian’s many interests, which is perhaps not surprising since he has plenty of history in his family. Like me, Crispian is from Exeter in south-west England. His dad, Guy, was a fifth-generation doctor in Exeter and his mother was Sylvia de Courcy who danced at the Savoy Theatre, Strand, London under the direction of Madame Casavana. Amongst Guy’s patients were the Aclands, who used to own Killerton estate – a beautiful house and gardens in east Devon now owned by the National Trust. Crispian is related to Admiral Beatty, famous for his role in the Battle of Jutland in 1916. He also has Irish connections. Some of his ancestors were from Kinsale in County Cork and his maternal grandmother, Victoria Parker, was one of the first group of women to graduate from Dublin’s Trinity College.

We went inside and into his kitchen where we got straight down to the important business of tea and cake. He carved out two enormous slices of coffee and walnut cake. Then, after checking my preferred prescription, he poured two equally gargantuan mugs of tea.

Above: Crispian with a very large slice of coffee cake!

We moved through to his dining room, where he had laid out some of his instruments for me to examine. Crispian enjoys collecting antique instruments. He is one of just a handful of people on this planet who can play some of these instruments and he is a world authority on the history of the trumpet. “My collection used to have 155 instruments,” he told me. “It has recently been radically reduced to about 40 – I sold another three this week. They’re all in playing condition, though!”

As we pored over the instruments together, Crispian told me some of his professional history. He was a founder member of the Devon Youth Orchestra. He joined the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain as a 16-year-old in 1960 and was a member for two years. He’d attended Marlborough College before studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He has held several positions with prestigious orchestras: Sadlers Wells Opera (2nd trumpet); 1st trumpet with the London Gabrielle Brass; English Chamber Orchestra (moved from 2nd to 1st trumpet). He was joint principal trumpet of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Jim Watson until about 1980. Since then, he has been a freelancer.

Crispian explained that in the 1980s orchestral jobs were not regular, meaning that it was not usual for musicians to have longer-term contracts – most groups were freelance. This seems to have suited Crispian, who is a bit of a free spirit and enjoys having multiple employers. He has “fingers in lots of pies” and said he’s found that “a moving target is harder to hit”. If anything were to not work out with one employer, he has plenty of other things going on. Music, he explained, is a “fickle business”. This doesn’t seem to bother Crispian, who thrives on the uncertainty and seems to enjoy the adventure.

Crispian taught himself the trumpet for the first three years after using one belonging to his brother Barry. His parents bought him his own in 1955 when he was 10 ­– a B&H Regent. Crispian’s musical ability seems to have come to him over the years from various influences. His father was “totally unmusical” but his mother studied the piano at Brussels Conservatory for a brief period. None of Crispian’s three children have followed in his musical footsteps, though oddly in the last few years he has learned of a recent ancestor who was a professional trumpeter. None of his immediate family knew about this until recently.

Crispian can’t play the piano himself, but he is a very capable arranger of music. He published his arrangements for a few years but stopped when he got fed up with the publishing industry. If you want to hear some of Crispian’s great arrangements, many are featured on his albums.

Crispian told me about some of the trumpeters who have inspired him. The first was the popular English trumpeter Eddie Calvert who after appearing with the Stanley Black Orchestra around the middle of the last century became known as ‘the man with the golden trumpet’. “Derek Watkins was a great player,” Crispian told me. “He really played from the heart.” Crispian feels that this is very rare these days.

Bobby Pratt and his sidekick Bert Ezard from the Ted Heath Orchestra were “big heroes” of Crispian’s. Another was the French trumpeter Maurice Andre. I share his admiration for Andre – my first teacher introduced me to his recordings when I was quite young, and I love his clear and creamy sound. Crispian told me that when Andre recorded, he endeavoured to put his tracks down in one take. Many of Crispian’s recordings likewise have been made in as few takes as possible, as he believes this is a more musical way of doing things.

He detests buyouts – when a musician is offered an upfront fee in return to waiving their rights to any subsequent royalties made by a recording or concerts. And although he holds the view that the best recordings are done in one take, are not heavily edited and are to all intents and purposes rough and ready, he is not a fan of recordings of live concerts. He believes there is a fine art to making a recording which cannot be replicated in a live recorded performance. I see his point of view: if one’s energies are directed towards a live audience, this will produce a different musical output than that from a focused recording session.

I asked Crispian: Do any moments in your career stand out as particularly satisfying?”

“Well, you remember the f-ups!” he laughed. He performed two B Minor Masses in Bayreuth in Germany that were “brilliant!” He has enjoyed working with John Elliot Gardener, and also an especially memorable performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and the Ring with Reginald Goodall in 1969/70. He is particularly proud of a recording of the album ‘Six trumpet concertos’, which is currently available on the ‘Musical Concepts’ label. “The album was made using very few takes, so it’s fresh and has lots of energy,” he said.

Crispian has fond memories of playing the Haydn Concerto with a severe hangover in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh to 133,000 people. Some years back he also enjoyed playing in the castle moat of the Tower of London, where, he said, “everyone was stoned out of their heads. I was playing lead trumpet for ‘Barclay James Harvest’. Rick Wakeman was right in front of me! At this time in my career I also played lead trumpet for Curved Air and Led Zeppelin.”

Then I asked if there were any years that stand out as being a bit more challenging? “It’s hard to say,” he said, after a pause. He explained that when things go quiet, it can be hard. “Any time without concerts is challenging because no amount of practice can keep you match-fit.” This is known all too well by many brass musicians ­– including me.

Crispian’s music has taken him all around the world. He is a huge fan of archaeology so was very happy to visit Iraq and Syria some years ago – also Uruguay. He has played to numerous VIPs, including a particularly memorable performance for the late Queen Mother in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, and another for the former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, in her private residence.

I asked how many recording sessions Crispian had played. His answer was: “Haven’t a clue – 80 films, maybe? I took it all for granted.” He is proud of his first recording of Handel’s Eternal Source of Light Divine by Handel with the King’s Consort, and a recording of Handel’s Messiah with the conductor Andrew Parrot for EMI. For this, Crispian used a trumpet originating from the 1720s that’s known to have belonged to the leading 19th-century British trumpeter Thomas Harper.

Given his success over the course of such a long career, it surprises me to hear that Crispian was never particularly ambitious. He became a soloist gradually in order to survive in the cut-throat world of professional trumpeting. When he started out, he was one of a handful of players with his specific skill-set, though as time went on more trumpeters came onto the UK scene. He has always done his lecture recitals, which call on his specialist knowledge of older lip-vibrated instruments. Also, over the years, he found himself working more with the concert promoter Raymond Gubbay, which further established his soloist status.

In Crispian’s dining room, time was marching on. To conclude our interview, I asked: “What future projects are you looking forward to?” He answered: “Queen’s College Oxford own a solid silver trumpet from 1660. I will be performing a concert on this trumpet on the 6th of November,2019 as a lunchtime concert with the celebrated

Australian Organist Anne Page [with whom I perform quite regularly]. I would like to make a recording, so people can hear the sound of it.”.

Above: Crispian playing one of his natural trumpets.

It happened to be St George’s Day on the day I met Crispian, so before I left he took one of his natural trumpets – with no finger holes or valves – and played ‘Saint George’ by Henry Purcell for me, beautifully.

I would like to thank Crispian for so freely giving me his time, for the giant slices of coffee cake and mugs of tea – and for meeting me again the following day at a garage in Brighton to return my wallet which, in my excitement, I’d left on one of his chairs!

Thanks a million, Crispian, and we hope to see you in Ireland soon.

Above: Crispian with one of his Cornets in his dining room
Above: Crispian returning my wallet which I left at his house by mistake.