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Classical Editor in Chief: Rob Barnett
THE GARLANDS OF BRITISH LIGHT MUSIC COMPOSERS:
The BBC's Light Music Festivals held in the Royal Festival Hall between 1954 and 1960 had a great sense of occasion and celebrated British light music at somewhere near its peak. The commissions for them are an interesting bunch; many of their composers we have alluded to already in the Garlands - all the commissions are worth noting.
Those of 1954 included four by established giants of the light music genre - ERIC COATES' waltz Sweet Seventeen, MONTAGUE PHILLIPS' overture Hampton Court, CHARLES WILLIAMS' The Bells of St. Clements and HAYDN WOOD's Gypsy Rhapsody - and one by a younger man born across the Atlantic who had by that time already done enough to be reckoned one of light music's top flight and whose A La Claire Fontaine, first heard as a 1954 commission, has since became one of his most popular pieces. I am talking of course of Canadian born ROBERT FARNON, whose overture The Frontiersman was 1957 commission.
In 1956 (there were no commissions in 1955) three concerted pieces - RONALD BINGE's Saxophone Concerto, MONA LITER's Scherzo for piano and orchestra and FRANCIS CHAGRIN's Roumanian Fantasy - figures along with the Festival Suite by ERNEST TOMLINSON and WILLIAM HILL, again (the Romance and Rondo for horn and orchestra) but from three composers better known for their work in "classical" music; WILLIAM ALWYN's Elizabethan Dances (although Alwyn, in the lighter sphere, produced 60 film scores, plus Scottish Dances, a Festival March (1951), Autumn Legend for cor anglais and strings and the bustling Derby Day overture), MALCOLM ARNOLD's Scottish Dances (and his contribution to light music surely need not be detailed here) and CHARLES SPINK's Concert Toccata for organ and brass. Spinks was scarcely known as a composer at all (Concert Toccata was only his Opus 9, other titles included a Suite for flute and strings (1958) and a signature tune Farm Fare, based on the folk song Mrs Bond) but he was a regular broadcaster on organ and harpsichord. Also from this year I recall with affection SIDNEY TORCH's London Transport Suite, while DENIS WRIGHT's Cornish Holiday, for brass band and orchestra surely made the Festival Hall rafters ring. DENIS WRIGHT OBE (1895-1967) was for many years employed at the BBC (1936-66) and was very much a brass band man. He studied at the Royal College of Music, founded the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain in 1952 and produced over a thousand scores for brass including some major works (eg Tintagel, Music for Brass), plus Danse Suite, Two Arthurian Sketches and Suite in 18th Century Style for orchestra.
1958 saw more commissions than any other year. Again several men well known in the classical field were represented GEOFFREY BUSH (Concerto for Light Orchestra, which has never quite rivalled in popularity his other well-known light composition the Yorick overture, inspired by Tommy Handley). ALUN HODDINOTT (Four Welsh Dances), IAIN HAMILTON (Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and Orchestra; Hamilton's Scottish Dances are another light music gem, worth exploring) and PHYLLIS TATE (the attractive London Fields Suite). Denis Wright was called on again for the Casino Carnival overture, again for brass band and orchestra; HUBERT CLIFFORD was asked for his Cowes Suite, JOHN ADDISON for a Conversation Piece for piano and orchestra. An intriguingly titled piece from this year was the scherzo The Nonsensical Tailer by "SPIKE" HUGHES. PATRICK CAIRNS HUGHES, born 1908, was Irish born (his father HERBERT HUGHES arranged many Irish Folk songs, still performed) and was known as a writer on music at least as much as a composer. His interests lay to an extent in the field of jazz (he was at one time a dance band leader), but many of his compositions are properly to be regarded as "light" and include incidental ,music for plays, a pantomime Cinderella, a ballet High Yellow (1932), a march, Wings Over Britain, an overture St. Patrick's Day, the serenade for strings, Luna Nuova and, for full orchestra, the Variations on a Folksong Theme.
1959 saw just four commissions mostly by composers better known in the "classical" field: LENNOX BERKELEY, President of the BMS in the years prior to his death, represented by an Overture, ALUN HODDINOTT, again, by the Nocturne and Dance for harp and orchestra, GORDON JACOB (the overture Fun Fare) and Armstrong Gibbs (Suite of Traditional British Songs). GORDON PERCIVAL SEPTIMUS JACOB, CBE (1895-1984, a superb instrumental writer, deserves mention in a light music survey for his Denbigh Suite and Two Sketches (English Landscape, August Bank Holiday), Both for Strings, the orchestral comedy overture The Barber of Seville, Goes to the Devil, the Suite Tribute to Canterbury and Celebration Overture, some film music and the Suite in B major and the Prelude to Comedy for brass band. Most notably Jacob wrote some arrangements of popular tunes which were such a wonderful feature of Tommy Handley's "ITMA" programme during the 2nd World War and after, a facet of his outlet continued in many later pieces including Old Wine in New Bottles, four English Tunes arranged for wind instruments. CECIL ARMSTRONG GIBBS (1889-1960), born in Essex, educated at Winchester and Cambridge and a teacher in various schools and at the Royal College of Music, certainly deserves to be mentioned for his lighter music as much for his symphonies, string quartets and large-scale choral works. it was his fate, as it was for Sullivan and Edward German, to be remembered less for the latter as for the Fancy Dress Suite of 1935, from which the waltz "Dusk" became enormously popular and, rather less celebrated, other lighter works such as the Essex Suite, Miniature Dance Suite, Peacock Pie Suite, Dale and Fell Suite, the Mediterranean Valse and the operettas The Blue Peter and The Sting of Love.
Our first year, 1960, brought more interesting figures. BRIAN BOYDELL, commissioned to write a Suite of Irish Dances, might be reckoned outside our terms of reference as he was born in the Irish Republic and has largely worked there since. However for me "British - from the British Isles and Boydell, born in 1917, studied at Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. His diatonic style was appropriate to the writing of light music from time to time and apart from the Irish Dances his titles in this direction included the Megalithic Ritual Dances and Shulmartin Suite for orchestra and Dances for a Ancient Ritual , Saraband and Sleeping Leprechaun for piano note. SIDNEY TORCH MBE (1908-90) was there again with his Duel For Drummers. Torch, a theatre organist before 1939, because Conductor of the RAF Concert Orchestra during the 2nd World War and later of the BBC Concert Orchestra, notably, between 1953 and 1972, in "Friday Night is Music Night". His light arrangements and even his original compositions were legion, the latter including besides the London Transport Suite already mentioned, single genre movements like All Strings and Fancy Free, On a Spring Note, Barbecue, Going for a Ride, Shooting Star, Cornflakes, Bicycle Belles, Meandering, Romany Rhapsody and, possibly most popular of all, the Trapeze Waltz of 1963.
JOHN GARDNER, born in 1917, a teacher of music at Repton, Morley College, St. Paul's Girls School (which his predecessors included Gustav Holst) and the Royal Academy, composed in an eclectic, tonal idiom and again some of his work may be reckoned as light - some incidental music, the overture Half Holiday, in the English light comedy overture tradition and, commissioned for the 1960 Festival, the Five Rhythms suite (the rhythms being Rumba, Waltz, Pizzicato Blues, Sentimental Song, Five-beat Boogie). ELIZABETH LUTYENS CBE (1906-83) is a surprise to see writing for a Lighter Music Festival - a suite, entitles En Voyage, apparently portraying a journey between London and Paris - But it was not, I believe, quite a "light" music one-off for this composer, usually regarded as an uncompromising serialist, because she wrote many scores and for films and radio features with titles like London Underground, Margate, The Thames, the Stock Exchange and Port of London. Finally, PETER YORKE's suite for brass Band, The Shipbuilders, was a commission this year. Yorke (1902-66) pursued a career in dance music in the 1920s, though he had been trained at Trinity College, London. He formed the Peter Yorke Concert Orchestra in 1937 (by 1949 this had grown to 36 players) and later a smaller Miniature Orchestra. Galleons Reach, The Explorers overture and Automation were other Yorke works for brass band, while his orchestral numbers included a suite, In My Garden and the individual movements Caravan Romance, Miss in Mark, Midnight in Mexico, Sapphires and Sables, Outrage, Neapolitan Holiday, Coffee Bar, Machine Tools, Fireflies, Parade of the Matadors, Flyway Fiddles and waltz intermezzo Faded Lilac. Another piece, originally entitled Silks and Satins, became theme music for TV's "Emergency Ward 10".
Let us backtrack and note more fully two of these composers who have not previous appeared in this Garland series: MONA LITER and JOHN ADDISON. Liter, who died in 1988 directed a number of light music ensembles, all heard on the BBC around mid-century. He was a fine pianist and an even finer arranger. His original compositions maybe did not equal his best arrangements but they were heard in their day and it is only right we should list a few of them: Mediterranean Suite, Harlem Suite, Two Southern Impressions (a bolero and a rumba), Serenade for harp and strings, Jota and Rumba, Irish Jig and Cossack Dance, all for orchestra, and a Valse Melancholique for solo piano.
ADDISON, born in 1924 and emigrated to the US, was born in Cobham, Surrey and studied at the Royal College of Music with Gordon Jacob, whose music Addison's often resembles (he was later, Professor of Composition there). Addison's works in the lighter mode include a ballet suite Carte Blanche, stage musicals like Keep Your Hair On (1958) Popkiss and The Amazons (1971),and scores for over sixty feature films, including, most notably, perhaps, Reach For the Sky, plus Joseph Andrews, Three Men in a Boat, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Cockleshell Heroes, I was Monty's Double, Carlton Brown of the Foreign Office and A Bridge Two Far, the last three named particularly notable for their marches, all of which were adapted for the concert hall.
The Light Music Festivals of 1954-60 were a splendid conspectus of the light music scene and the commission that we have listed were by most of the most notable light music practitioners then alive and active. The only surviving absentees I can think of are Frederic Curzon, Henry Geehl, Reg King, Billy Mayerl and Alfred Reynolds. Few of the 34 commissions are currently rewarded; what about the others, Marco Polo or whoever?
© Philip L. Scowcroft May 1998
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