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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

EDWARD GERMAN: Serious or Light?
by Philip Scowcroft

"Let them (the British musical public) have muck. It’s all they care for".

"Muck", is according to the speaker, light music; the speaker is Edward German (1862-1936), born Edward German Jones in Whitchurch, the son of an organist and choirmaster. "Muck" or not, German produced a number of light music masterpieces and when Elgar said to him that he admired his music, we can be reasonably certain that it was to the light side of his output that Elgar was alluding.

German of course had plenty of serious music credentials, with study At the Royal Academy of Music (his composition teacher there was Ebenezer Prout). He was, soon after, composing major pieces, a Te Deum (1887) and a Symphony in E Minor (1887, premiered 1890), soon followed by a Second, in A Minor, subtitled Norwich as it was first performed in the East Anglian city in 1893, then a symphonic poem Hamlet and a lengthy symphonic suite, The Seasons (1899), quite as long as either of the symphonies. His Welsh Rhapsody, which includes as its climax a stirring setting of Men of Harlech, written for the Cardiff Festival of 1904, is on the borderline between serious and light, while his last two works of significance were both serious, Theme and Six Diversions (1919) and the tone poem The Willow Song (1922), inspired by Othello.

Not that German composed solely for the orchestra, though he never, unlike so many of his Victorian forebears, Sullivan and Elgar included, felt the need – or perhaps had the commissions - to write oratorios or cantatas. He published a small amount of church music (his father was, remember, an organist) and a much larger corpus of songs, choral, many with Shakespearean titles, others, like Rolling Down to Rio, O Peaceful Night and O Lovely May, still popular, and solo. The solo songs cover a wide range. All Friends Around the Wrekin: A Song of Shropshire was a tribute to his native county. Kipling’s verse spoke strongly to him, with settings of Big Steamers, Be Well Assured (from The Fringes of the Fleet), twelve Just So Songs based on lyrics from the Just So Stories and, movingly in the circumstances, Have You News of My Boy Jack? (1916). And many of his songs were ballads, like Charming Chloe, Cupid at the Ferry, Love the Pedlar, Sea Lullaby, Heigh Ho, Bird of Blue and, most memorably, the rousing Glorious Devon. German’s instrumental music is attractive and not a little of it is classifiable as "light". The violin was his preferred instrument at the Royal Academy and he composed for violin and piano Bolero, Bacchanalian Dance, Souvenir, Saltardle and a three movement Suite plus arrangements of his theatre music. But he did not ignore the oboe (Pastorale and Bourree), the flute (Romance in B Flat and Saltarello) or clarinet (a delightful Romance in F and a Song Without Words). His piano solos fill a CD, as Alan Cuckston proved some years ago … and ignoring arrangements, too. They include a Sonata, several suites and various individual salon miniatures showing the influence of Grieg, Moscheles and Victorian drawing-room composers stretching back to Mendelssohn.

German was writing for the theatre before he was out of his twenties. In 1888 he was appointed Musical Director of London’s Globe Theatre and he began by writing incidental music for Richard III (Sullivan admired its overture, a major work performed many times in the concert hall). Other commissions followed, for Shakespeare (Henry VIII – the suite from this IS light music, beyond a peradventure – Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It and Much Ado) and other authors, notably Anthony Hope and Edwards Rose’s English Nell. The Nell Gwyn Dances are another light music "standard", as was the Gypsy Suite, a concert work performed at the Crystal Palace as early as 1892. German’s light orchestral music was influential in the development of British light music. We have only to look at Eric Coates earliest orchestral suite, the Miniature Suite of 1911, to be convinced of this.

But it was the death of Sullivan which confirmed German as a light music composer. That event, in November 1900, left The Emerald Isle unfinished German agreed to complete the operetta and, premiered in April 1901, this remained popular into the 1920s. Basil Hood who had written the book produced another the following year which was to be more popular with Britain’s amateur societies. Merry England’s hits included O Peaceful England, The Yeomen of England, The English Rose and the stirring chorus God Save Elizabeth, plus enough dances to make another characteristic

German suite. A Princess of Kensington (1903) proved to be a less enduring operetta, though it was attractive enough, especially its dances; but Tom Jones (1907) was a great success and remained so for decades though at first some societies fought shy of it on account of the supposed bawdiness of Fielding’s novel. Its Waltz-Song was long a popular concert solo and the dances once again were great hits. I enjoyed pummelling its tunes out on the piano in the 1940s. German’s last operetta Fallen Fairies (1909) was however a failure despite the librettist being one W S Gilbert.

German was dogged in later years by ill-health and suffered a painful road accident during the Great War, but if latterly his composing output flagged he continued to conduct and he was encouraged by a knighthood (1928) and the award of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal (1934). He died on 11 November 1936, aged 74. It is his lighter music that has kept his name alive, whether this is operetta, orchestral, instrumental or songs. (Incidentally he is credited with being the first man to compose music for a British film, in 1911 – 16 bars, possibly more, for Henry VIII, for which he was paid £50. Unfortunately the music does not survive). We could do with more live performances and recordings; the latter at least have never been plentiful. He may in one sense be the heir of Sullivan, but he himself was the ancestor of many British light music composers.

Philip L Scowcroft

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