Classical Editor: Rob
ENGLISH COMPOSERS FOR AMATEURS No 3 - THOMAS DUNHILL By P L Scowcroft
Of all the composers in this series of ten, Thomas Frederick Dunhill was surely the most ambitious. Apart from Markham Lee and Scott-Gatty, he was the oldest of them, being born in Hampstead on 1 February 1877 (he died in Scunthorpe on 13 March 1946). He studied at the RCM 1893-7 with Stanford for composition and Franklin Taylor for piano. He spent the years 1899-1908 as Assistant Music Master at Eton, concurrently teaching harmony and counterpoint at the RCM (he returned there as a professor near the end of his life in 1942). In this pre-1914 period he twice visited Australasia as an Associated Board Examiner (1906. 1908) and founded a series of concerts in London to revive chamber works by younger British composers. This ran from 1907-1919 and it is not surprising that Cobbett speaks so highly of him, nor that he was the first recipient of the Cobbett Chamber Music Medal in 1924. Dunhill married twice, his first wife being a great-granddaughter of Dr Arnold of Rugby but for the most part the story of his life is the story of his compositions. The most striking non-musical event in his life was surviving a nasty accident in a London taxicab in April 1935.
Much more than Rowley and Thiman, Dunhill was a composer for the stage. There were the ballets Dick Whittington (1935) and Gallimaufry premiered in Hamburg under the title Das Eiskönigin in December 1937, the Guildford Pageant Play of 1925, entitled The Town of the Ford and three light operas. The Enchanted Garden (1925), produced at the RAM in 1928, Happy Families written for Guildford in 1933, and best known of the three and finally and enjoying considerable success, Tantivy Towers, produced at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith on 16 January 1931 and later transferred to the New Theatre. The book was by A P Herbert, a noted wit who later achieved great success in musical comedy with Vivian Ellis but Herbert and Dunhill did not, as had been hoped, become a new Gilbert and Sullivan - possibly due to Herbert's over-writing (Tantivy has no prose dialogue) but partly also to Dunhill's not having quite Sullivan's musical stature - any more than Herbert and Alfred Reynolds did with Derby Day the following year, also staged at the The Lyric (Reynolds in fact was first given the book of Tantivy Towers and did some work on it until Dunhill was preferred). The opera involves a "horsey" set visiting Bohemian Chelsea and then returning to the country for a hunt ball. Such songs as I have heard from it display a pleasing lyricism; there was an unaccompanied quartet in the first act, recalling Sullivan, whose operettas were well-known to Dunhill, who had written a book about them and a setting of John Peel appeared later in the opera but he should perhaps have made a nod towards the jazz idiom for the Chelsea scenes.
A number of Dunhill's orchestral scores enjoyed considerable prestige. Unlike Rowley and Thiman he composed a Symphony, in A Major (subtitled Belgrade) in 1922. It was first performed successfully in the Yugoslav capital. At least five works were premiered at the Henry Wood Proms: Prelude The King's Threshold (1913), Dance Suite for strings (1919), then a big gap to Triptych: Three Impressions for viola and orchestra (1942), Waltz Suite (1943) and the Overture May-Time (1945). The BBCSO obliged for the latter three and gave first performances in the studio of the Dick Whittington Suite (1935) and a Divertimento (1942). The Elegiac Variations (in memory of Parry) were played at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1922 and Dunhill himself conducted his own music at Bournemouth on the platform generously made available by Dan Godfrey. The Guildford Suite Opus 66A clearly derives form his music for the Pageant Play mentioned earlier. Dunhill made many attractive contributions to the genre of the light suite. Some like the Chiddingfold Suite, In Rural England, Opus 72, Vectis Opus 82 and the (four) Dances in Miniature Opus 80 (1935) were for strings only, others, - Pastime and Good Company, Opus 70, the Three Pieces, Opus 67, the Suite or Four Pieces Opus 83 and The Fairy Suite, The Pixies, Opus 25 - were scored for full orchestra. Several of these plus such effusions as White Peacocks, Tambourine Dance and the two sketches Land and Sea were suitable for amateur orchestras.
Some of Dunhill's chamber music was similarly suitable though other works were more ambitious and were written for unusual instrumental combinations. His Quintet in E flat Opus 3, for horn, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, was composed when he was still a student at the RCM. This charmingly lyrical piece opens with a set of variations and includes also a graceful Allegretto and a finale combining a scherzo-like idea with a gigue. The Piano Quartet in B minor Opus 16 (1903) is still Brahmsian in influence and full of good tunes. The Phantasy Trio in E flat Opus 36, for piano, violin and viola was a Cobbett commission; other unusual combinations were the Pleasantries, in four movements, for two violins and viola, and a Quintet in F minor for horn and string quartet. Both Pleasantries and the folk-influenced Phantasy String Quartet are of only moderate difficulty. Marion Scott felt Dunhill's Violin Sonatas to be among his finest works. The first in D minor Opus 27 is characteristically English in invention, the second in F major Opus 50 has heroic qualities suggested maybe by the Great War as it was written in 1916-17. Dunhill wrote several single movement works for violin and piano and also for cello and piano most important being the Variations on an Original Theme Opus 18 (1905) notably performed at a Doncaster Chamber Music Society concert in March 1926 and which display a genuine concertante style, the Two Pieces (Alla Menuetto and Alla Bourree) of Opus 33 and the Capricious Variations on an Old English Tune (i.e. Sally In Our Alley), Opus 32, conceived for cello and orchestra but more often heard, even in its own day, for cello and piano. Nor did he forget the wind instruments as in 1941 he published a significant corpus of music for solo wind instruments and piano: for flute (Suite in Five Movements, Opus 93 and Valse Fantasia); for oboe (Three Short Pieces, Opus 81 and Friendship's Garland Opus 97, a suite of five miniatures); for clarinet (Phantasy Suite Opus 91), for bassoon (Lyric Suite, Opus 96); and for horn (Cornucopia, Opus 95). I know the Phantasy Suite and Cornucopia which have been most pleasantly recorded in recent years by John Denman and Ifor James respectively. Neither outstays its welcome and indeed one does sometimes, particularly in the Phantasy Suite, find oneself wishing its movements were a little longer and developed their attractive ideas more. For Dunhill's chamber music generally is delightful, pure in style and excellently written for the various instruments. Its lyrical idiom may be reckoned as "typically English" and it frequently draws on folk song and 18th century popular tunes. It should be performed more often.
Dunhill's piano music was a fruitful source for Associated Board set pieces, especially in the lower grades. The titles of the suites themselves show their intended appeal to younger players: In the Cowslip Meadow, Pamela's Garden, The Pied Piper, A Story Book, When Leaves Are Green, In Varying Moods and Lyric Thoughts; his books of graded studies, The Wheel of Progress, became well known to generations of young players - I myself recall them vividly. His piano duets, like the pieces Alla Pavana and Romanesca from Opus 87, were also designed for amateurs. He produced less organ music than either Rowley or Thiman, but such as there is again appealed to the student and the "average" organist rather than the recitalist - most ambitious was the Four Original Pieces, Opus 101 published in the year of his death.
Dunhill's solo songs like his piano music were to a large degree aimed at young performers to sing whether in class or festival; one thinks of Beauty and Beauty, A Child's Song of Praise, Countryside Ditties, The Dandelion (though I found mention of this being sung buy a professional singer at a Doncaster concert in 1937), Snowdrops, If a Mouse Could Fly, Three Fine Ships and The Happy Man. Items more specifically designed for adults included Comrades, for baritone and orchestra, and the cycle The Wind Among The Reeds Opus 30 (1912), premiered by Gervase Elwes, the third of whose four songs is the perennially popular The Cloths of Heaven, to W B Yeats' words, though I personally have never heard this sung by a tenor for whom the cycle was envisaged. There is a similar proportion of music for amateurs in his choral output. Many items are arrangements of traditional material, others are short partsongs for mixed voices like Memory, A Sunny Shaft, The Gift and To Gloriana, for two part voices, like A Wet Sheet and Flowing Sea, sung ina Doncaster Grammar School concert in 1911 conducted by Wilfred Sanderson, for ladies' voices (Hie Away, Oh What Comes Over The Sea, Bethlehem Bells and The Summer Night and most notably male voices (Crossing the Bar, Full Fathom Five, Chieftains O'Mine, It Was a Lover and His Lass, Let Us Be Merry, Puck's Song, Quiet Sleep, Song of the King's Men, The Wind and The Rain and You Gentlemen of England). Longer works included Tubal Cain, a ballad for mixed chorus and orchestra, written in 1903, and Song of the Rover, a cycle of four songs for vocal quartet, from 1916, but even in Dunhill's cantatas the emphasis is on music for children: Sea Fairies a cantata for treble voices appeared in 1912 and the Masque of the Shoe, also for children's voices in 1917. Dunhill's John Gilpin also achieved publication. For use at Christmas the Cantata of the Nativity (The Christmas Rose) for unison or two part treble voices, was published in 1936. Two of these works figured in successive years at Doncaster Schools (non-competitive) Music Festivals in the 1930s. In 1936 The Masque of the Shoe described by the press as a "tuneful cantata of nursery rhymes" (its finale is based on Oranges and Lemons) was sung with a "pure, bright tone, exquisite top notes and clear, well-pointed words" by a massed choir of fourth year junior schoolchildren conducted by Cyril Winn and accompanied by the professional Northern Philharmonic Orchestra and, as it is a masque after all, a ballet danced by children though the dancing uffered from lack of space. It was broadcast in the BBC's Northern Region and received further performances in Doncaster during the 1940s. Sea Fairies was the climax of the 1937 Doncaster Schools' concert.
Dunhill's books were fewer but more substantial than those of either Rowley or Thiman. Chamber Music: A Treatise for Students appeared in 1911 - chamber music was a subject, as we have seen, close to his heart. He put the spotlight on one particular part of the subject in 1927 with his Mozart's String Quartets. What a contrast it was when the next year brought Sullivan's Comic Operas. A Critical Appreciation - but Dunhill after all wrote comic operas, even if they have proved to be less durable than Sullivan's. Finally there was Sir Edward Elgar (1938) excellent in its day even if it has now been overshadowed by subsequent studies from Percy Young, Diana McVeagh, Michael Kennedy and Jerrold Northrop Moore.
Dunhill's works as a teacher and administrator we are happy to acknowledge but I would be sorry if our knowledge of him as a composer who brimmed over with lyricism were to be limited to The Cloths of Heaven and perhaps the Phantasy Suite for clarinet. Will not some enterprising impresarios revive Tantivy Towers, some of the orchestral music and, perhaps most urgent and least expensive, the violin sonatas, the quintets and the Piano Quartet?
© Philip L Scowcroft
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