> Self Light Music in Britain since 1870[]: Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Book– A survey of the development of Light Music

By Geoffrey Self, pp.262 [published 2001]

Ashgate, Gower House, Croft Road, Aldershot, Hants GU11 3HR

ISBN 1 85928 337 3 £45


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This book lifts the veil on the last hundred years of British Light Music. The term seems to have come to prominence in the last decade, particularly by CD manufacturers who needed a common identity for the popular music of yesteryear. Only Ganzl and Traubner have provided some detailed documentation of this branch of music, but theirs is restricted to Light vocal Music within the theatre.

This volume by Geoffrey Self is much wider in its coverage of composers and encompasses both theatre and concert hall music. Complementing the theatrical slant of Ganzl and Traubner, Self neatly scratches away the tarnish on this silver of British culture. He covers interwoven links and associations but is uneven in depth, but successfully catches certain ideals to amplify a model. Good indexes are provided separately for Composers & Topics, and Songs & Operas. However, these are not complete since I noticed that names made in the text were not always indexed (Balfe is one which seems to be missing).

Covering such a wide topic requires good categorisation and organisation of facts. Self has adopted an excellent groundplan first by setting the scene prior to 1870 and then focusing in on a benchmark 1870s composer, Sullivan, who at that time was at the zenith of activity. As is fitting and proper, the introductory chapter sets the scene, giving the roots of the rise of orchestras, choirs and festivals prior to 1870. A point which might have been included was the corresponding rise of piano sales by Broadwood, Chappell, etc. which also reached their peak at this time. To be fair to the writer, he does in fact mention the growth of the cheaper parlour upright and important increased reliability of metal frame piano construction.

An in-depth chapter on Sullivan explains the dilemma which this composer had in deciding whether to concentrate on orchestral/choral commissions or the more lucrative theatre music contracts. (It was Sullivan and his accolades that brought about a proper British copyright system for composers and playwrights after this time.) Interesting detail shows how Sullivan managed to reconcile the worlds of operetta, cantata and oratorio. With a number of musical similarities taken from the Savoy operas, and matched with the more serious operas like Semiramide, we are shown how a gifted composer can bring popularisation of musical passages. The material covered shows that Self has a deep knowledge of this chapter of history. Perhaps detail about Gilbert’s plots sidetrack the main issues however interesting they are, since they are well documented elsewhere.

The survey then continues with those that followed Sullivan in theatre music (German, Monckton, and Jones) are also covered in detail and provide equally interesting reading. I would have hoped that the development of Light Music might have commenced at 1850 as little is documented on this period. Both Balfe and Wallace (only loosely mentioned in passing) were composers of Ballad Operas which helped give Sullivan his identity through editing their vocal scores for the Boosey Royal Editions. These two composers’ operas were ‘light’ and, like Sullivan, they wrote many popular parlour ballads. Wallace’s Maritana even gave Gilbert his base plot for The Yeomen of the Guard.

A chapter on Music Hall Songs is less successful. Although it reverts briefly to events prior to 1870 by mentioning a few 1860s song influences there is no chronological flow and much of the chapter is taken up with a detailed examination of Champagne Charlie, the drinking song.

Balladry which follows actually precedes the above Music Hall chapter chronologically, and goes on to cover much interesting detail of forgotten composers like Cowen, Tosti and Clay before moving into the 20th Century with Smyth, Woodford-Finden, Löhr, Coates, Quilter and Bridge. Self makes an interesting observation that ‘the star’ was becoming as increasingly important as the music itself: for instance we are told that in 1899 the singer, Edward Lloyd, was paid a very generous £250 for including The Holy City in his programme. Fresh information gives the behind-the-scenes role of the publisher at the turn of the century and action of the Performing Rights Society when established in 1914. I’m glad that George Grossmith was included in relation to this chapter, yet wonder what happened to his prominent contemporary, Corney Grain of the Royal Gallery of Illustration in the 1870s who escapes mention.

There is interesting detail about early 20th Century composers and I should have been interested had space been found to give insight concerning their style of composition. To many of us, composers like Balfour Gardiner and Paul Rubens are known in name only. I had always understood that Stanford Robinson did much to promote the Light Music scene by making arrangements for broadcasting, some of which (Rubens’ Melodies for example) were actually published as sets of band parts. Robinson seems unfairly dismissed in a few words, but I do realise that it must have been difficult to know where to stop otherwise this book would have become a tome.

Self really comes to his own in his survey of Instrumental Music, which is provided in two parts. Much of the information would not I suspect be found in detail elsewhere (apart from Grove). We come to understand the reasons for writing certain compositions and importance of the colleges in moulding a particular style before war broke out in 1914. Elgar is compared with Delius and Cowen; Mackenzie (spelt two ways) is fully and fairly reassessed, as is Parry, Stanford, Bantock and Coleridge-Taylor. (An assessment of war songs here may not have been made before as the information was new to me.) Coates features strongly alongside Addinsell, and Coward. Like Ganzl, Self is sensitive to the vibrations which characterised those celebrated 1920-30s musicals and the introduction of jazz. Again ‘the stars’ provide much of the impact. Although Traubner’s book goes into some detail about Romberg I would have welcomed an analysis of such influential composers. Holst, Vaughan Williams, Bridge and Ireland all provided contributions to the Light Music scene, often through Henry Wood’s Proms, and are put into context with their major classical works. Quite rightly composers such as Coates are covered in considerable detail. No mention could be found of Francis Toye and only scant mention is made of Geoffrey Toye who wrote a masque with his brother; a BBC commission, The Red Pen; and along with The Haunted Ballroom, another important ballet Douanes (both to this day residing in Covent Garden’s music library). Since Geoffrey was also associated with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company he could have served as a link with the chapter covering Sullivan, and so this is perhaps an oversight.

Piano Music over this period is covered by one chapter. We gain insight from the role played by the OUP under Hubert Foss in publishing early works of Vaughan Williams, Rawsthorne and the then young Walton. An interesting paragraph on Alec Rowley is included, but only a passing mention of Walter Leigh (of Jolly Roger fame) is made.

In material on The 1930s the coverage is thorough: not only is jazz, the dance bands and musicals mentioned but also the contribution that composers made first to providing background for the silents and then the coming of cinema talkies. Good detail, of the structure within the BBC is made, itemising all their orchestras and bands.

In dealing with recent years British names which stand out as composers of musicals are Julian Slade with Salad Days, Sandy Wilson with The Boy Friend, and Lionel Bart with Oliver. Contemporary composers of light romantic instrumental music like Worland might have been remembered since he was writing well before 1960. However, I do agree with the observation that the domination of the musical stage by Andrew Lloyd Webber is today as complete as Sullivan’s was a century before. London’s Palace Theatre was built by Richard D’Oyly Carte from the profits of the Savoy Operas and is now run by our twenty-first century entrepreneur in similar fashion.

As one progresses through the book one becomes openly aware of the immense volume of music which is part of our heritage and which, today, we never hear. The BBC had provided series ‘This Enchanted Isle’ and ‘Britannia at the Opera’ some years back, yet since the ’60s it has neglected to provide a balanced output of British Light Music. A look through the BBC Music Library catalogue shows that they have many of the pieces mentioned and are in a prominent position to be able to air some of these fascinating works. Beecham was able to float freely from Wagner to La Calinda (Delius) and The Bohemian Girl (Balfe). But where are such conductors today?

Ashgate ought to be congratulated for bringing out this publication. Judging by the dust jacket they seem to be taking this subject seriously for I notice two other volumes which may interest readers: The Singing Bourgeois, about music in the 19th Century, and Chanson, about the development of the French singer-songwriter. A few monochrome portraits accompany the book and apart from Coates they seem to have been included without much association to the chapters and like the cover picture their use seems obtuse. To have four pictures to a page and processed with higher definition would have been useful. Throughout, many passages of music usefully punctuate the book, a much needed valuable resource, which should find place on the shelves of every music college and library. Although it can be used as a reference aid it makes an enjoyable read for all wanting to widen their knowledge in this area.

Raymond Walker

MusicWeb is the Internet resource on British Light Music in the form of Philip Scowcroft's Garlands

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