Classical MusicWeb

Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


Our first paragraph this time is devoted to one of the greats of British light music, for all that he relied on others to orchestrate and even notate his imaginations which were often memorably tuneful. I am speaking of course of Sir Noel Coward (1899-1973), singer and actor, playwright and composer. Best known of his musicals was Bitter Sweet (1929) but Operetta, Conversation Piece and sundry revues all did well. His songs, hundreds of them, included such favourites as Poor Little Rich Girl, A Room With a View, Dance Little Lady, Mad Dogs and Englishmen and London Pride.

Ivor Novello (1893-1951), or David Ivor Davies, to give him his baptismal name, was, like coward, an actor, playwright and composer. But he had a more distinctly musical background as his mother Clara Novello Davies was a music teacher and composer and Ivor himself played piano and sang in the choir of Magdalen College Oxford as a boy. His first song was published at the age of 17; during the Great War he had hits with Keep the Home Fires Burning and Till the Boys Come Home and had his first musical comedy produced. His musicals thereafter went from strength to strength with The Golden Hotel (1921: with P.G.Wodehouse) and then, all with lyrics by Christopher Hassall, Glamorous Nights, Careless Rapture, Crest of the Wave (which includes a train crash), The Dancing Years, arguably his masterpiece, Arc de Triomphe, his wartime (1939-45) one, Perchance to Dream and King's Rhapsody. He was a superb writer of melodies and there would surely have been many more had he not died at the early age of 58.

Our third writer of musicals, Vivian Ellis, died as recently as 1996, aged 93. He was, of course, more than just a writer of musicals. He began his career as a concert pianist having trained at the Royal Academy of Music under Myra Hess. He also composed many light orchestral pieces, not a few of them very well known: the suite Happy Week-End with its finale, Early Morning Train, and Holidays Abroad (Switzerland, Vienna, Costa Brava, Pisa, Paris Taxi) and the single movements Jolly Juggler, Alpine Pastures adopted as the signature tune for BBC Radio's "My Word", and, most famously, Coronation Scot, arguably the most celebrated of all "train music" pieces and familiar to all listeners to Paul Temple's detective adaptations in the late 1940s. But the theatre was nevertheless in his blood. He had bee writing songs for revues since the 1920s (he was a notable songwriter generally) and his own stage shows, around 30 of them, quickly achieved success and in growing measure: Mr Cinders (1929), Jill Darling (1934), Running Riot (1938), Big Ben (1946), Bless The Bride (1947), full of hits like "Derby Day" and "Ma Belle Marguerite", Tough at the Top (1949) and The Water Gipsies (1955), the last four to the lyrics of A.P.Herbert who in Ellis at last found a composer to produce true stage hits after some modest success with Alfred Reynolds and Thomas Dunhill in teh 1930s. Ellis wrote for films too, the last one being Listen to the Wind.

Our next composer, Ian Gourlay, active particularly in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, was also involved with the stage musical - The Bonnie Rogue (1961) and Oh! Glorious Jubilee (1970) - but he is rather better known as a prolific arranger, especially of Scots tunes for the BBC and the composer of such orchestral miniatures as The Song of the Clyde and The Travelling Salesman.

Another musician with a big reputation as a broadcaster (thought the writer has meet and personally heard him live in recital, as pianist and electronic and pipe organist, in Doncaster, several times) is William Davies, born in 1921, a very attractive personality and a capital arranger, improviser and indeed composer with titles like Just William, Organists in the Mood, Oranges and Lemons, Minuet for Melinda, Stampede and Duo for Caroline.

Ten more figures, now, who are known primarily as conductors. Sir Alan Charles McLaurin Mackerras, born in 1925 in America, brought up in the Antipodes but domiciled in Britain since the 1950s. His wide experience as a conductor, most notably maybe in the opera house, included a spell with the BBC Concert Orchestra 1954-6. His music includes some for various BBC radio productions and, better known, the two inventive ballet scores, arrangements really, Pineapple Poll (after Sullivan) and The Lady and the Fool (after Verdi).

Cyril Ornadel (1924- ), who now lives in Israel, has a large portfolio of arrangements and compositions: the musicals Star Maker (1956), Pied Piper (1958), Ann Veronica (1969), Treasure Island (1973), Great Expectations (1975), Once More Darling (1978) and, most notably, Pickwick; orchestral miniatures such as Sunday Afternoon; and many film scores, including for the large screen, Some Love (1967) and Not Now Darling (1972), and for TV, Brief Encounter and Edward VII.

Percy Pitt (1869-1932), trained in Germany, is remembered best for his work as Musical Adviser to the BBC in its early (1920s) days and as Conductor of the BBC Wireless Orchestra, but he also conducted much opera, at Covent Garden and, again in the twenties, for the BNOC. He was also a prolific composer, highly competent if a trifle lacking in individuality: ballads, instrumental solos and orchestral music, serious and lighter, for example Coronation March (1896), Air de Ballet Suite de Ballet (1901), Three Old English Dances (1903), Serenade (1910) and the Sakura ballet suite, all of which received their premieres at the Henry Wood Proms.

Reginald Redman (1892-1972) was another associated with the BBC, which he joined after study at the Guildhall School of Music. In the 1940s he formed the West Country Studio Orchestra, which, largely because of its size, purveyed light music. Not that Redman was entirely a light music composer as his works included concertos, an opera, a cantata, tone poems and chamber music, but his lighter effusions included the suites Marston Court, From a Moorish Village (shades of Ketèlbey!) and West Country Suite, folklike in character, a Rhapsody on Somerset Folk Songs and - a piece I have heard twice - the charming Away on the Hills, for strings.

Sir Hugh Stevenson Roberton (1874-1952) was a choral conductor, primarily at the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, which he founded in 1901 and directed for 50 years. He was a prolific arranger and produced quite a lot of original choral compositions, too, of which All in the April Evening is easily the best known; I also enjoy White Waves On the Water which I got to know recently.

Iain Sutherland is another Scot, known particularly in conducting terms for his work for "Friday Night is Music Night" for which he has made many arrangements of traditional and popular tunes. His arrangements include a medley of tunes associated with fellow Scot Jimmy Shand. Sutherland's best known original composition is the Three Castles Suite; no. 1 is Edinburgh.

Vilem Tausky was born in Czechoslovakia in 1910 and is another who in his time conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra, tough he has also been seen frequently in the opera house. His works include chamber music and concertos and several of a lighter character: a suite From Our Village, a festival march, Men of Tomorrow, the scherzo Soho, a Ballade for cello and piano and two overtures for brass band, Cakes and Ale and Concert Overture, as well, of course, as many arrangements.

Geoffrey Toye (1889-1942), trained at the Royal College of Music, was conducted for the D'Oyly Carte Opera (for which he rearranged Ruddigore in 1921, compiling a fresh overture, used for many years), Sadler's Wells and other theatres. His works included operas for stage and radio, choral music and the ballets Douanes and, from 1935, The Haunted Ballroom, the ghostly waltz from which was for long a popular light orchestral number.

Sir Henry J. Wood (1869-1944) deserves a brief mention for his inventive, attractively scored Fantasia on British Sea Songs, a fixture on the Last Night of the Proms for almost a century, but we will end with a look at Guy Anthony Woolfenden, born in 1937, educated at Whitgift School and Christ's College Cambridge, who has done much of his conducting for the Royal Shakespeare Company for which he has composed around 150 incidental music scores in an accessible style and others for other theatres. This busy man has also composed scores for ballets and Anna Karenina, The Three Musketeers, La Traviata and The Queen of Spades, music for films, radio and TV, three musicals (one entitled What a Way to Run a Revolution, about the General Strike, 1971, revived 1985), a children's opera, concertos and chamber music. Several of his Shakespearean scores have been arranged for the concert hall, for wind band (Illyrian Dances, Deo Gracias and Gallimaufry) or brass quintet (Full Fathom Five). Another wind band composition is SPQR, a suite inspired by roads, ancient and modern.

Philip L. Scowcroft

Enquiries to Philip at

8 Rowan Mount



Philip's book 'British Light Music Composers' (ISBN 0903413 88 4) is currently out of print.

E-mail enquiries (but NOT orders) can be directed to Rob Barnett at

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