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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    

A 136TH GARLAND OF BRITISH LIGHT MUSIC COMPOSERS

Many previous Garlands have included figures who are regarded as serious composers but who have composed much that we may regard as light music. Another such is John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948), born in the Scottish border country who studied at the Royal Academy of Music whither he later returned as Professor of Harmony and Composition and where, from 1924-36, he was Principal. His compositions included the Solway Symphony, choral works, a Viola Concerto and seventeen string quartets, all serious, though some movements from the string quartets yielded concert suites for orchestra which are tuneful and light or lightish in character. These include The Jocund Dance (1916: individual movements are Moderato, Tempo di Valse, Tempo di Tango and finale: Vivace) and a Suite of National Dances. Other McEwen suites included a Suite and a (separate) Ballet Suite (the latter's movements are La Señorita, Intermezzo, Valsette and Alla Marcia) for theatre orchestra, Suites Nos. 3 and 4 for strings, dating from 1935 and 1941 respectively, an early Suite in E for full orchestra from 1893. Also on the lighter side were his arrangements of Old National Dances for strings, English, French, Scottish and Japanese, the seven bagatelles for strings called Nugae, the Highland Dances for strings (or violin and piano), the Scottish Rhapsody for violin and piano or orchestra, the piece Heath and Bracken for cello and piano, Under Northern Skies for wind quintet and an early Comedy Overture from 1894. His best known work was Grey Galloway, one of Three Border Ballads, but this is not quite light enough to be haled among McEwen's lighter work. Light or serious, McEwen's music often illustrates the topography of his native Border country. In 1905 he founded a Society of British Composers and was deservedly knighted in 1931.

Stephen Roberts, a French horn player with various ensembles including Fine Arts Brass, has tried his hand at a number of inventive arrangements for brass instruments of popular tunes; the one I have found particularly enjoyable is an amusing one of Come Landlord Fill the Flowing Bowl.

Nick Bicât had two musicals, both with a 17th Century flavour, neither very successful, produced in the single year 1981. Eastward Ho!, a musical version of a play by Ben Jonson, had 45 performances at the Mermaid Theatre; then Restoration achieved 62 performances at the Royal Court Theatre. His compositions since then have included much for film and TV (The Cleopatras).

Let us finish with two more basically serious composers with something of a "light" input into their work. John David Davies (1869-1942), born in Birmingham, became a Professor at the Guildhall School of Music. His works embrace many genres, especially chamber music, and are often serious but on the lighter side one might point to the ballad-like songs At Even, If I Could Steal Your Rings, Good Night - which has a cello obbligato - and Spring and to two short works for string quartet: the pictorial impression Summer's Eve at Cookham Lock (1916) and a movement using The Londonderry Air (he was one of five composers, including Eric Coates, who were commissioned in 1908 to compose quartet movements on that tune).

Roberto Gerhard (1896-1970) was born in Catalonia, Spain, but spent his last 32 years in England, mostly in Cambridge (though he held no official teaching position there) and was naturalised in 1960. He thought of himself indeed as an English composer, but much of his work is not merely serious but seriously tough listening, reflecting his studies with Schoenberg and his later enthusiasm for electronic music. However there are lighter pieces: several ballets, not particularly Don Quixote, but perhaps the "divertissement flamenco" Alegrias (from which a suite was arranged, being premiered in 1944 by the BBC Theatre Orchestra conducted by Stanford Robinson). Gerhard wrote much incidental music for radio, (e.g. for Columbus, including a "Latin American feature", Dorothy L. Sayers' The Man Born to Be King, [variations on the hymn O Come O Come Emmanuel] and for Pericles), for television (e.g. War in the Air, 1952) and for film, though not all of this music is "light". He also arranged Catalan folksongs and other old Spanish music.

Philip L Scowcroft

October 2000

 

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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