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A TWELFTH GARLAND OF BRITISH LIGHT MUSIC COMPOSERS

Light music is still being written in considerable quantity, though as a genre it began to decline in popularity from the 1960s onwards. So let us begin this Garland with a look at two composers born in the 1950s. First, Matthew Curtis, born in 1959 and educated at Worcester College, Oxford but self-taught in a musical sense. During the 1980s he began writing a succession of shortish pieces which in their fluent, lyrical melody and neat, professional scoring are firmly in the best traditions of British light music. Some, perhaps all, of them would have sounded perfectly in keeping with the great days of light music between the wars. Fiesta (1984) sounds similar to a piece such as Coates' The Merrymakers Overture. Romanza (1982), beautifully written for strings and with a melting solo for oboe in the middle, Autumn Song (1995) - the solo here is for the viola, a suitably autumnal instrument - and Pas de Deux (1981) all have big romantic tunes and may have been inspired, consciously or unconsciously, by Elgar's lighter music. Curtis's feeling for rhythm is exemplified by the Scherzo Capriccioso of 1985 and the Festive March (1982), the latter piece almost a challenge to Coates' marches. Interlude (1982) is a pretty imagination with a lovely violin solo and somewhat longer than many British light intermezzi; the main theme of Rondo Brillante (1985) has something of a Spanish feel to it and Spanish colour is, of course, something purveyed by many British light music figures, most notably Frederick Curzon. Several of Curtis's works have been pioneered in Yorkshire by the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra: Suite for Orchestra, the overture An Improbable Centenary (1990), Amsterdam Suite, Divertimento for Orchestra and The Open Road (1997). The first two were specifically written for the SPO. Curtis's music shows many influences, but most particularly that of late nineteenth century French composers such as Délibes and Massenet. Curtis has also composed a number of shortish choral pieces. His music deserves a wider hearing.

In past garlands we have noted a number of latter-day film and TV composers. Another one is Richard Allen Harvey (1953-), conductor, composer and a woodwind player with major orchestras. Many of his compositions, for example the concertos for violin and guitar, are major "classical" works, but his scores also include a children's opera, A Time Of Miracles, a musical, Crosswords, which achieved publication and sundry incidental music for films and television, of which we may instance the scores for Game, Set and Match, GBH, Defence of the Realm, P.D. James's various Adam Dalgleish adaptations and the very shapely music for the latest adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's classic, Jane Eyre (1997) and most recently (I write in March 1998) the music accompanying ITV's serial Ambassador.

In lighter vein still one should note the work of conductor-composer Ronnie Hazlehurst, whose best known signature tune is that for the longest-running of all TV comedy series, The Last of the Summer Wine. This well-loved title melody, with its parts for harmonica, accordion and bass guitar as well as strings, woodwind and horn has proved to be capable of being metamorphosed into a waltz, a March and even a version of the Dallas theme during the programme's quarter century of existence. Hazlehurst also wrote music for the TV serials Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and To the Manor Born. Another BBC composer, but going further back, basically to the post Second World War period is Jack Beaver (1900-63), a child prodigy on piano later working in café orchestras and silent cinemas, educated at the Royal Academy of Music, who penned various medleys and incidental music for radio, music for approximately 113 films (especially when he was resident composer for Gaumont-British from 1934 onwards though he worked for other companies), a TV signature tune Picture Parade (especially popular) and even a test piece for the National Brass Band Championships of 1954, Sovereign Heritage. Other, basically orchestral, pieces by Beaver include the 'valse lente' Lilith, Meteorite (1952), Mannequin and the march Cavalcade of Youth, Highway 15, Operation Hazard, Spaceways, Golden Arrow (later incorporated in a film The Gold Express) and Workaday World, mostly for the mood music libraries of Chappells, Frances Day and Hunter and so on. Beaver, a backroom boy, rarely received the credit he deserved.

Two other TV composers worth a mention are Paul Lewis, whose theme for Brendan Chase (Southern TV, 1981) was actually published in a version for flute (or recorder, or whistle) and piano; Lewis has also composed mood pictures like Autumn Love. Julian Nott has, I am sure, recently (I write in March 1998) earned applause and affection for his shapely title tune to the 'costume soap' The Grand, set in around 1920, not to mention the music which has enhanced the award-winning Wallace and Gromit animation films.

A number of organists may be properly counted as composers of light music. Surviving theatre/cinema organs are nowadays so historical as to need preservation societies to keep them, and their music, alive. Their heyday was the 1930s and 1940s, which was roughly the floreat period of Reginald Foort, who gave recitals up and down the country in both pipe and electronic instruments (including one in Doncaster in 1939), but most importantly on the BBC. Foort's compositions include the ABC March and his ingratiating signature tune Keep Smiling.

The partially-sighted Doncaster composer Gary McNichol had the idea of writing a concert suite, celebrating the recently refurbished (by English Heritage) stately home on the outskirts of Doncaster, Brodsworth Hall; his idiom ranges from "light symphonic" to jazz and each of the movements represents a different historical episode in the house's life (the span is not too long as the present Brodsworth is a Victorian edifice). The Brodsworth Suite is due to have its orchestral premiere in the summer of 1997. Mr McNichol plans to treat other stately homes similarly; and why not? Several writers of light music have previously found inspiration from similar buildings; One thinks of Montague Philips with his Hampton Court, or "Buckingham Palace" from Haydn Wood's London Cameos Suite, Geoffrey Burgon with the Brideshead theme, inspired by Castle Howard, and perhaps Laurie Johnson with the Royal Castles Suite. McNichol may be following in their footsteps.

The eminent pianist Eric Parkin is known to lovers of light music for his splendid recordings of the work of Billy Mayerl. But he once new light music as composer; in 1962 he wrote a wistful little number, which, orchestrated admittedly by Robert Farnon and given the title The Lonely Dancer, earned something of a vogue. Other Parkin compositions recently recorded on CD include Still Life, Let's Try Again, Reflections, Midsummer Mood and Birthday Waltzes for Robert Farnon, all inspired by Farnon and Mayerl Shots inspired by Billy Mayerl, all for piano solo.

Women composers have played their part in light music to a greater degree than one imagines; dozens of ballad composers from the mid-19th century onwards, the (mainly) light orchestral composer Susan Spain-Dunk (1880-1962), and so on. These garlands have included one or two more recent additions from the distaff side; another is Louise Denny who has received separate treatment in BMS News. Of the many women who composed more or less popular ballads in the generation either side of the Great War we select here just one, Kate Emily Barclay ("Katie") Moss (1881-1947) who was physically very attractive - although she never married - and was violinist, pianist and singer. She was brought up in London and studied at the Royal Academy, but her principal claim to fame is the composition of the still very popular ballad The Floral Dance, beloved of Peter Dawson and many bass-baritones since, although the story it tells apparently actually happened to the composer herself on a visit to Helston during the springtime 'Furry Dance' celebrations and the song was reportedly written in the train directly afterwards. (It would, I am sure, be a culture shock to hear this sung by a soprano or, contralto, however authentic this might be in one sense). A chart buster of 1911, The Floral Dance is one of the most popular songs of all time. Moss wrote other ballads, of course, but they never approached the success of her Cornish adventure. Somewhere in Connemara was recorded by Walter Glynne in the 1920s. Come Away Moonlight was issued - in the best drawing room fashion - with flute (or violin) and cello obbligati. Other Moss titles were The Morris Dancers, Out Of The Silence and the five piece song cycle Dreams Of Youth, whose individual songs were entitled Faery Song, The Daisy, Oh Sleep Little Pearl, 'Twas The Witching Hour Of Night and The Devon Maid. It would be good to hear a few of these sometime, if only to put The Floral Dance into some kind of perspective.

Henry Hall, born in 1898, is remembered - if not by most musical dictionaries - as an early conductor for many years of the BBC Dance Orchestra, an ensemble he took over in 1932 from Jack Payne, (I recall from my early childhood one of his records (78 rpm) which was his version of the Teddy Bears Picnic, with a number rejoicing in the title Here Comes The Bogeyman on the flip side). Hall's formal musical education was at the Guildhall School and prior to 1932 he worked for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway as director of no fewer than 32 bands in the LMS's hotels countrywide. It is a moot point whether the syncopated dance music of the 1930s and 1940s with which Hall is most associated is to be reckoned as "light music", but his skill as an arranger was also exercised in typical "light orchestra" potpourris of Lehár and musical comedy generally (e.g. The Musical Comedy Switch, 1931, Musical Comedy Waltz Concoction (1932), C.B. Cochran Melodies, Jerome Kern Melodies, etc) plus other selections like Victorian Melodies, Sweethearts Of Yesterday and Noah's Ark: Zoological tunes for children old and young.

Thus ends our twelfth floral offering. But, in the words of Henry Hall's well-loved signature tune, Here's To The Next Time!

© Philip L. Scowcroft.

 

 

 

Enquiries to Philip at

8 Rowan Mount

DONCASTER

S YORKS DN2 5PJ

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 rob.barnett1@btinternet.com


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