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British Light Music: A personal gallery of 20th-century composers
2013 2nd edition
by Philip L. Scowcroft
Dance Books
ISBN: 9781852731632
£15.00 Soft Cover plus postage

The first problem faced in reading or reviewing this book is defining ‘light’ music: I believe that no-one has come to a truly satisfactory answer. A good characterisation is given on the web pages of the Light Music Society: ‘Light Music bridges the gap between classical and popular music, although its boundaries are often blurred. It is music with an immediate appeal, music to entertain and to enjoy. It has a strong emphasis on melody…’ Light Music is seen as being ‘more accessible and enjoyable, less highbrow and less elitist’ than the main run of ‘classical music’. The composers deemed to have contributed to this genre include Gilbert & Sullivan, the Strauss family, Sousa and more recently Eric Coates, Leroy Anderson, Ernest Tomlinson and Robert Farnon. Media typically include orchestral, chamber (palm court) and instrumental.
A more succinct definition is that of Lyndon Jenkins who describes the genre as ‘original … pieces, often descriptive but in many cases simply three or four minutes of music with an arresting main theme and a contrasting middle section.’ David Ades, of Guild, writes that ‘it is generally agreed that it occupies a position between classical and popular music, yet its boundaries are often blurred’.
This would appear to be Philip Scowcroft’s view. However he adds the important caveat that whilst being easier to assimilate than most classical music, it should have an artistic, as well as an entertainment element about it, with due regard for attractive orchestration and craftsman-like construction.’ Finally it ought to be listened to – not relegated to background music.
I would add that light music will often move the listener as much as more ‘serious’ pieces can.
Philip Scowcroft’s British Light Music will be of interest to a number of different groups of people. Firstly, reviewers and musicologists will be extremely grateful for this book when preparing essays or programme notes. I have often turned to Scowcroft’s ‘Garlands’ on MusicWeb International when trying to get to grips with some obscure piece of music or a composer that is not even a name to me.
Secondly, I would like to think that listeners will find helpful and challenging information in these pages. I know that the current swathe of light music CDs issued by Hyperion, Guild and Marco Polo are popular. It is to be hoped that listeners will use this book to give them a better understanding of the life and works of many of these composers with information that goes beyond what is contained in the necessarily restricted sleeve-notes.
Thirdly, and I hate to use this dumbed-down term, but it is an ‘ideas store’ (vide Tower Hamlets’ Library Service). There are page after page of names and numbers all waiting to be discovered. A dozen lifetimes would be too little to explore all the composers and music that are listed in this book but one has to start somewhere.
The fundamental structure of the volume comprises two major sections. The first is a generous selection of 31 composers who each have been given a miniature essay. The second part is a listing of the ‘best of the rest’. The book opens with a preface by the author where he outlines the ‘methodology’ of the book as well as defining the concept of ‘light music’. There follows a fascinating overview and appreciation by one of the greatest exponents of the genre, Ernest Tomlinson. At the conclusion of the volume there are two appendices. The first is a discography and the second is a brief bibliography of the genre.
The composers that have been chosen for detailed examination represent a wide-ranging cross-section of the field. Almost all the names are well-known to enthusiasts of the genre, but in most cases little is known about them. Glancing down the list would suggest that only about five of these names have ‘full’ biographies dedicated to them – Eric Coates, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Edward German, Billy Mayerl and Roger Quilter. The rest are lucky if they have entries in the current edition of Grove. I take an example at random: - Percy Fletcher. Apart from Philip Scowcroft’s essay on MusicWeb International, there is a brief reference in Wikipedia, a post on my blog, a few YouTube videos and a number of CD adverts. Digging a little deeper, I found a very short sketch on the Light Music Society’s webpage and a good entry on the Robert Farnon Society webpage which was contributed by Philip Scowcroft. There is a short note in Grove by Geoffrey Self. Apart from that the researcher would seem to be reduced to looking at CD liner notes, old journals and newspapers and programme books. Interestingly there is also a short reference in the recently published 3rd edition of the British Music Society’s British Composer Profiles.
Now Percy Fletcher (1879-1932) is in my opinion one of the doyens of the genre – certainly from the first half of the 20th century. He is recalled for some important brass band works such as Labour and Love (1913) and the Epic Symphony (1926). His monumental Toccata is still played in cathedrals and churches. His piano works are a pleasure to play even if they are typically sub-Grieg. His best-known piece is his Bal-Masqué. This is a work that I regularly give an airing to on my piano. It was once a favourite of pier-head orchestras.
Scowcroft dedicates three pages (about 1200 words) to Percy Fletcher: it is the longest essay in print (if not in existence) concerning the composer. This approach is given to the thirty favoured names. I was delighted to see essays on Hubert Bath, Ronald Binge, Leighton Lucas, Walton O’Donnell and Frederick Rosse, although each reader will have their own favourites or desiderata.
The second major section of this book is a list of ‘short’ entries for more than 300 composers not explored in the essays. Naturally, a selection like this is going to be subjective. It is pointless to argue that this or that composer has not been included. From my study of these entries I would make three observations. Firstly, there is considerable depth to these names. Just glancing at the letter ‘I’ there are three composers mentioned. The first is John Ireland (1879-1962): he is not necessarily everybody’s idea of a light music composer, however Scowcroft does suggest that ‘Sea Fever’, ‘The Holy Boy’, the ‘Overlanders’ and the ‘Epic March’ fall into this category. Ernest Irving (1877-1953) certainly deserves his place in these listings, even if only for his music to the film Whiskey Galore. I have never heard of Herbert Ivey; however the author notes that his Glimpses of London Suite and Four Little Dances are worthy numbers. A glance at COPAC suggests that there are more to come.
Secondly, there is huge stylistic disparity in the works of many of these composers. I accept that Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances and Alan Rawsthorne’s Street Corner Overture or his ballet score to Madame Chrysanthème are definable as ‘light’ music. These works have a musical structure, subtlety and inventiveness that seem a million miles away from the pop-saturated utterances of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yet, all three composers are listed here. It’s all a matter of opinion. There are no hard and fast rules when defining ‘light music’.
I do feel that a long article about Robert Farnon would have been appropriate in the first section. He died in 2005 and is not still ‘active’ as the Preface suggests. Farnon does have his entry in the ‘shorts’ section.
Thirdly, I guess that Philip Scowcroft has utilised extensively his excellent ‘Garlands’ published on MusicWeb International to provide much of the information in these pages. It is good to have them printed in ‘hard copy’.
One important feature of this edition is 30 photographs of composers and venues. It is always good to put a face to the music. I could have spotted a ‘mug shot’ of Eric Coates but not Vivian Ellis, Montague Phillips or Frederic Curzon. A great bonus.
The Discography is disappointing. No attempt has been made to update these listings since the first edition of the book in 1997. Since then, there has been a flood of CD releases made available for interested listeners. Key amongst these must be the Guild Light Music series. This is a massive library of re-mastered recordings that first began appearing in 2004. Since then more than a hundred well-filled CDs have been issued. These contain a huge variety of light music – from the early days of Edward German and Edward Elgar - who does not get an essay or entry in this book - through to the nineteen-sixties. Many of the composers are American or European, but a large number are British and have entries in Philip Scowcroft’s book. I can understand that the author did not want to give a complete listing of these CDs with in excess of 2000 tracks: I do feel that it would have been helpful to have mentioned them, along with a hyperlink. Another important release was the four CDs of the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra on the Dutton Epoch label. Finally, many of the recordings noted in the text are now only available as MP3s or from second-hand record shops.
The ‘select’ bibliography has been updated to include Robert and Nicola Hyman’s fine book about the Pump Room Orchestra which was published in 2011 and Geoffrey Self’s Light Music in Britain from 1870, for example. Yet, many important books in the field of light music have been omitted. I would have expected to see references to Kenneth Young’s important study of Music - Great Days in the Spas and Watering Places (1968), Ernest Irving’s Cue for Music (1959), Alan Hyman’s Sullivan and his Satellites, Peter Dickinson’s essential study of Billy Mayerl (1999) and Mike Carey’s Sailing By: The Ronald Binge Story.
I note the short list of Light Music Societies. I do wonder about giving ‘GPO’ addresses as opposed to web URLs. In the lifetime of this present edition these are likely to go out of date. Incidentally, anyone trying use the information given to contact the Eric Coates Society will do well to put a full stop between the forename and surname of the secretary in the email address.
The book, on the whole is well-presented. It feels nice and has an attractive soft cover. The font size is excellent and the quality of the print good. The book achieves what it seemingly set out to do - it provides detailed essays on 30 composers and short notes on 300. The cost of the book is £15.00, however if it is purchased from MusicWeb International before the end of April 2013 it is priced £10. As for value for money, it seems to me to be good. There are 180 pages full of useful and fascinating information. If you are a light music fan, then I suggest that this is a book that sits close to your chair by the CD player. It will be a constant reference guide as you make your way through some of the many tracks now available on CD. However, the listener may occasionally be frustrated when a name he expects in the listings is not there.
Finally I mentioned that this book is a book of ‘ideas’. Perhaps I ought to have said of ‘wildest dreams’. Even the briefest of flick-throughs reveals names of compositions that excite, delight and will ultimately frustrate the listener if they cannot get their hands on a copy of the music. At random I suggest that Montague Ewing’s Suite: Guy Fawkes Night, Christopher Le Fleming’s London River Suite and Frank Tapp’s English Landmarks Suite are all desiderata that deserve rediscovery. There are thousands more such pieces mentioned in Philip Scowcroft’s British Light Music. Happy hunting!

John France
A book of ideas and the wildest dreams.