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THOMAS DUNHILL: MAKER OF MUSIC by David Dunhill with introductory essay by Lewis Foreman, Thames Publishing (London, 1997); xxiii, 126pp, 6pl. £12.50. ISBN 0 903413 83 3.


Thomas Dunhill belonged to an overcrowded generation of British composers of quite exceptional talent that began with Bantock and ended with Bax. In between we find Vaughan Williams, Holst, Coleridge Taylor, Rootham, Tovey, O'Neill, Brian, Hurlstone, Quilter, Gardiner, Holbrooke, Boughton, Scott, Ireland, Bridge, all born within a year or two of each other and all coming to maturity at about the same time. Small wonder that in such company a composer like Dunhill, so unassuming and as dedicated to the promotion of his fellow composers as of himself, should have become a forgotten figure in British music. True, his name lives on as the author of Chamber Music: A Treatise for Students, published in 1913 and still a seminal work on the subject. The entries he contributed to Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (1929) continue to be read with the greatest advantage. His short study of Mozart's String Quartets, published by OUP in 1927, is a yardstick by which future commentators will always be judged. Yet this is but a fraction of his legacy. The extent to which his reputation has dwindled is reflected in the last (1980) edition of Grove's Dictionary when the substantial entry of previous editions by G.S.K. Butterworth and H.C. Colles was reduced to a few paltry sentences of no value.

It is greatly to be hoped that on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death, or perhaps more happily the 120th of his birth, this timely and absorbing biography, written by his younger son, David, will do much to rekindle interest in the music and inspiration of this truly extraordinary musician, and who better qualified to undertake the task than David, who was witness to all of it everything that went on from the early 1920s up to the time of his father's death in 1946 and present at the birth of so many significant compositions. From the age of 16 in 1893 right up to the time of his death Tom Dunhill kept a day-to-day diary, sometimes frustratingly vague on detail but nevertheless an accurate chronology of everything he did. On the basis of this and his own personal recollections, David has been able to compile a full and totally gripping account of his father's life in a way that a more distanced biographer would have been quite unable to fulfil, allowing us to enter into the day-to-day triumphs and tribulations of the Dunhill household as a fly on the wall so to speak, while also providing us with some rare family photographs.

But first his book opens with a lengthy introductory essay by Lewis Foreman "writing what I could never have written: his perceptive and highly skilled appreciation of my father's music." as David generously puts it. This essay, written one suspects, under some difficulty with so much of Tom's music remaining unpublished and inaccessible for detailed analysis, nevertheless highlights in masterly fashion his most significant works which traverse a wide field from ambitious early chamber music indebted to Brahms or perhaps more accurately to the teaching of Stanford; his splendid light operas the most significant of which, Tantivy Towers, to a libretto by A.P. Herbert, is in real need of revival; his considerable educational music, his songs, few in number but of exquisite construction and his orchestral scores which range from short occasional pieces such as the Chiddingfold and Guildford Suites to the large-scale Symphony in A minor, not heard since 1935, for which Mr Foreman makes out a strong case for revival. Among all this neglected music one work at least has now enjoyed a modern CD recording, the Violin Sonata in F Op. 50, a work dating from 1917 that must count as one of Tom's finest compositions.

Tom's life was in some respects very prosaic, yet he played a fundamental role in the musical life of this country for more than four decades and we should be inspired by his achievement. Born in 1877 in north-west London, the fourth of a family of five, his father was a purveyor of tarpaulins, canvas and other requisites for horse-drawn vehicles. His brothers Alfred and Herbert ( 'Bertie' ) went on to establish a successful tobacco business; another, Harry, was mentally retarded. His sister Jane stayed at home to look after her parents and married late in life. The family did not remain long in London but moved to Canterbury where Tom spent his adolescent years, attending Kent College for a time, but there began private music lessons; in London with a Mr Kennedy and by the autumn of 1893 we find him entering the Royal College of Music as a 16-year-old student, being taught piano under Franklin Taylor and harmony with Walter Parratt and composition under the formidable Charles Villiers Stanford. His contemporaries at the RCM included Holst, Ireland, Hurlstone, Vaughan Williams, Bainton and Fritz Hart.

It was during his time there that Parry took over as Principal. In 1899, while still at the College, he was unexpectedly invited by Dr Harford Lloyd to join the music staff at Eton as an assistant master teaching piano. There he had occasion to teach George Butterworth. He remained at Eton until 1905 but then took up a teaching post at the RCM and he more or less continued there on the staff in one capacity or another for the rest of his life with a constantly busy round of teaching, examining, adjudicating at music festivals and competitions both at home and abroad and, of course, composing. One thing that strikes one quite forcefully when reading these pages is that the long years of teaching, adjudicating and examining that preoccupied so much of his time seem never to have become a grind, only a fulfilment of his mission in life.

Tom undertook a remarkable examination tour of Australia and New Zealand as early as 1906 for the Associated Board and on his return he inaugurated a notable series of chamber concerts to provide a second hearing for British chamber music compositions that were in danger of remaining on the shelf - including some of his own - which were to continue for many years. Yet another tour of New Zealand followed in 1908 and in 1910 a trip to Jamaica and Canada. With so much activity it is not perhaps surprising that Tom's health was occasionally undermined and he suffered from gastric problems throughout his life but rarely allowed such inconveniences to interrupt his routines for any length of time.

It was in 1913 that Tom met and a year later married his first wife Molly Arnold, a pupil at the RCM and a great-great granddaughter of the famous Dr Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby and a daughter of the well-known publisher Edward Arnold, the owner of a large house on Pook Hill, at Chiddingfold, a rural village near Godalming in south-west Surrey, where Tom was destined to spend considerable time amid a much expanded family circle.

Based in London, Tom's early years of marriage were disrupted by the outbreak of World War I. He joined the Artists Rifles on a part-time basis but was later conscripted as a bandsman in the Irish Guards based at Wellington Barracks and eventually ended up with a much less congenial occupation as an orderly clerk. By then he had become a family man. Robin was born in 1915, David in 1917 and with the household comfortably settled in Lansdowne Road and the war over he was soon able to resume his full-time schedule at the RCM and his creative work. His daughter, Barbara, was born in 1921 and from this point the more personal memories of Tom's life begin to intrude on David's narrative with holidays at the seaside and visits to Pook Hill.

The Symphony in A minor, begun in 1914, received its unlikely but very successful premiere in Belgrade in 1922, thanks to the efforts of his erstwhile Serbian pupil, Bratza and Dushko Yovanovitch who, incidentally, but not related in the book, still championed his Violin Sonata in F deep into the 1950s. Alas his wife, Molly was far from well and suffering from the first manifestations of tuberculosis, in those days an incurable malady. The family were eventually obliged to uproot from the unhealthy environment of London to seek cleaner air and settled into a house at Guildford, not far distant from Pook Hill and it was here that David spent his childhood, by all accounts a very happy time, but eventually Molly succumbed to her illness in 1929 and died at Merano in the Italian Tyrol where Tom's brother Bertie had a house, while Tom was back in England, heavily involved in the preparation of his opera Tantivy Towers in collaboration with A.P. Herbert, a work that was destined to enjoy immense success and to establish his reputation.

The trauma of being left a widower with three young children to support would have been horrific for someone as preoccupied as Tom but for a remarkable nanny, Wendy Moon, who took over the running of the Dunhill household and remained with the family for 18 years, enabling Tom to continue with his work without interruption, but the strain of commuting induced him to sell the house in Guildford and to move back to the hub of things in London in what the children found much more cramped conditions in Platts Lane, off Finchley Road.

Tom's subsequent works never attained the same success as Tantivy Towers but he had a passing success with his ballet Gallimaufry which was put on in Hamburg in 1937 and later broadcast by the BBC. By then he was heavily engaged in writing a book on Elgar, a composer whom he greatly admired, for the Scottish publishers, Blackie & Son. It is interesting to discover that while holding Elgar in the highest esteem, he could not abide the music of his contemporary Vaughan Williams but had a warm and close relationship with John Ireland. In 1938 Tom embarked on yet another Associated Board examination tour at the time of the Munich crisis, this time to India, not returning home until Christmas. It proved to be his last overseas excursion with World War II just round the corner.

It was during the last years of his life, at the time when David was away serving with the RAF in the Middle East, that the present reviewer, albeit as an adolescent schoolboy, may lay claim to have come into contact with Tom Dunhill. Late in 1942 after what appears to have been a brief courtship, he married for the second time. He met Isobel Featonby, a piano teacher, at an examination in Scunthorpe. She was 38, he already 65, but they were destined to have a wonderfully happy life together. By this time he had returned to Eton College at the invitation of the Precentor, Dr Henry Ley, to rejoin the music staff at first to take occasional piano pupils but later also to teach theory and to coach the school orchestra while at the same time leaving him free to continue with his other duties at the RCM. Belle also joined the staff as a piano teacher, the only female member on the teaching staff. She was still quite young, but prematurely grey, a warm and charming person, adored by her pupils, who brought a breath of fresh air to that austere monastic institution.

Tom was a tall, thin, commanding personality who entered very fully into the life of the school but it must have been a daunting prospect for someone used to conducting large professional orchestras to find himself having to train a school orchestra full of enthusiasm but of very limited talent into some kind of shape. True, one student of the period went on to become a distinguished professional viola player and another could have become a brilliant violinist had he not chosen to divert his talents to the cause of politics and yet another made a name for himself as a light tenor, but music was regarded as very much an extra-curricular activity in the Eton of those days, offering no music scholarships to attract pupils of obvious musical ability. Yes, Tom had many frustrations transforming cacophony into harmony yet managed to coach the orchestra through the challenge of Beethoven's first symphony to create a commendable public performance of a work that may well have been heard on that occasion for the very first time by the youthful school audience.

The infectious enthusiasm in everything he did seemed to overcome all difficulties for Tom during those years. Nor did he cease to compose. The Triptych for viola and orchestra, written for Lionel Tertis, was premiered to great acclaim, at the 1942 Proms, while his overture, May-Time, due for the 1944 season and his last significant work had to be postponed because of the bombing until 1945. Tom relinquished his position at Eton at Christmas 1945 upon the retirement of his boss, Dr Henry Ley. When news of his unexpected death at Scunthorpe reached the pupils he had left behind in March 1946, a feeling of loss and grief engulfed us all. He was truly a Maker of Music wearing many hats; an uplifting figure never to be forgotten.

All this and so much more comes vividly into focus as we read this absorbing biography in which David Dunhill has brought his father's life, work and personality most lovingly to our attention. It is a very good read and I was particularly touched by the photograph of father and son together which must have been taken in the mid-1920s and which graces the cover of his book. I noticed one or two minor slips in the text, perhaps worth correcting The New Grove Dictionary (last edition) is in 20 volumes, not 11 (p.11); Schooltime at Eton is known as a Half, never a Term (p.20 et seq) but my only complaint is that while there is a good index of works discussed in the text, no definitive worklist and bibliography is provided which would have greatly enhanced the book as a source of future consultation and reference, but we are told in David Dunhill's introduction that an accompanying book about the musical aspects of his father's life and work by Beryl Kington "will follow in due course". Hopefully this lacuna can then be rectified.

Richard D.C. Noble

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