Pianist, composer, educator and celebrity, Billy Mayerl, was one of the most
brilliant and popular figures in British music from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Beginning his career playing the piano for silent movies, his story could
almost be one of the screenplays he accompanied.
Mayerl was born in London in 1902. As a boy he was a fine swimmer and high
diver but he also worked at his piano for six to eight hours a day. He entered
Trinity College of Music at the age of nine and studied there until 1915
(Barbirolli also studied there at the same time). Mayerl however left because
his habit of playing syncopated jazz was considered to be subversive and
his love of Stravinsky considered beyond the pale.
According to Dickinson, Mayerl's experience in cinemas as a teenager seemed
crucial to his whole musical makeup. "Around 1916 he was paid around £15
(in today's value) a week and played from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. including Sundays.
Describing his routine Mayerl commented, "Most of the films in those days
were about cowboys and Indians or about the American Civil War and I had
a lovely bit of hurry music that fitted all films of that type - the quick
bits of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Then I used to play 'Hearts and Flowers'
whenever there was a passionate love scene! And when I was in doubt there
was always the Mayerl music! After all - that was my reason for being there!"
In fact, Mayerl developed a technique of rapid response to the equally rapid
on-screen movements and changes of scene and mood, that gave him an approach
which his faster music never seemed to loose.
Mayerl also moved around the country playing in local gigs and he was fortunately
in the right place at the right time to make the big step that would boost
his career. He was playing in a hotel in Southampton, probably in 1922, when
he was heard and liked by Bert Ralton who had just arrived in England to
form the Savoy Havana Band but without a pianist. Mayerl of course got the
job. Dickinson goes on to describe the great success of the Band particularly
through the early days of radio (2LO the early predecessor of BBC Radio was
conveniently headquartered around the corner in Savoy Hill). The highly popular
Savoy Orpheans concerts at the Queens Hall are covered; so too, is the first
British public performance of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue for which
the soloist was Billy Mayerl! Dickinson comments: "Mayerl's performance of
Rhapsody in Blue would certainly have been authentic in style
since he had heard Gershwin play it, had met him, and was in totally sympathy
with his aims." Indeed, when he heard of Gershwin's premature death, Billy
Carrol Gibbons, Henry Hall, Zez Confrey, Paul Whiteman and Gershwin himself
are just a few of the personalities that cross the pages. Dickinson covers
Mayerl's work in the music halls including his many stunts like playing two
pianos at once; and the highly successful Billy Mayerl School, founded in
1926, for teaching syncopated piano techniques. Its students included the
Prince of Wales (later the abdicated Duke of Windsor) and the Duke of Kent.
Its equally successful offshoot, the Billy Mayerl Club, that, amongst its
many activities, promoted the playing of Mayerl's transcriptions, is covered
too. Mayerl's less successful song writing career is detailed -- and his
more popular light music that occupied him increasingly after World War II
(during which he played an important role entertaining the troops) when the
fashion for syncopated music fell away.
Dickinson's book rightly concentrates on Mayerl's piano compositions, which
in quality and quantity are the most significant contribution to the genre
of the novelty piano that succeeded ragtime and overlapped with early jazz.
The pace of these dazzling, cinematic sketches in rag form perfectly encapsulates
the hedonism of the jazz age. But Mayerl also wrote more contemplative pieces
belonging to the English pastoral tradition: he was never just the composer
of Marigold. Indeed he loved Delius and his work shows that composer's
influence and of a number of other English composers - both of light music
and more classical forms - including Cyril Scott, John Ireland and Frank
Bridge; plus Edward German, Roger Quilter and Eric Coates. His love of Grieg
and the French impressionists - Debussy and Ravel -is also very apparent.
Dickinson analyses Mayerl's music and proves its classically-based craftsmanship.
The 29 pieces on the accompanying CD all played by Mayerl, show his incredible
technique and wide range. The numbers embrace the early Six Pianolettes
demonstrating his breathless speed (but delivered with a light touch) through
to the less hectic but more romantic Ace of Hearts and the impressionistic
and atmospheric Harp of the Winds taking in his immortal
Marigold on the way.
[I would just mention, in passing, the paragraph on the Four Aces Suite
since it assists in the appreciation of the performance of the Four Aces
Suite on the Marco Polo Billy Mayerl Light Music for Piano and Orchestra
CD that is also reviewed on the site this month. "The cover design (of its
sheet music) is ingenious
It depicts the four playing cards with figures
standing on them. The 'Ace of Clubs' is a blindfold ballerina who looks as
if she has materialised from above as a result of a magic wand brandished
by an acrobat as 'Ace of Diamonds'. The 'Ace of Hearts' is a cherub with
a quiver-full of cupid's darts. He is gesturing towards a black, cloaked
Mephistophelean figure as the 'Ace of Spades'. Since spades are used to dig
graves, he looks like the symbol of death, seen as the ultimate end of all
The book includes illustrations, the full Queens Hall concerts programmes;
an analysis of Mayerl's BBC broadcasts; his Performing Right Society earnings
(1926-1998); his Desert Island Discs choice (he was Roy Plomley's 'castaway'
guest on 21st April 1958); a list of works compiled by Alex Hassan,
an exhaustive Billy Mayerl performance discography compiled by John Watson,
and a bibliography. What is missing is an additional discography of recordings
of Mayerl works made by other artists, especially Eric Parkin.
For composer, pianist and writer, Peter Dickinson, who is an Emeritus Professor
of the Universities of Keele and London, this book is clearly a labour of
love. He is meticulous in gathering and presenting his facts almost to the
point of being pedantic (some facts have been rendered hazy by time and therefore
Dickinson has felt obliged to offer alternative viewpoints of the truth)
As Dickinson points out, Billy Mayerl's magical and essentially happy music
acts as a kind of therapy sorely needed as the stresses of modern
life reach unparalleled severity and we meet the challenges of a new millenium."