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A THIRD GARLAND OF BRITISH LIGHT MUSIC

Bertram Walton O'Donnell, Irish by birth, was one of three brothers who were all, at one time or another, service bandmasters. All of them in fact were in the Royal Marines. Percy S.G. O'Donnell (1882-1945), after service as an Army bandmaster with the Black Watch and the Royal Artillery in Gibraltar, was Director of Music at Plymouth (1916-28), then at Chatham (1928-37), then Senior Director of Music to the R.M. from 1937, and succeeded Walton as Conductor of the BBC Military Band in 1937, remaining with the BBC after the Band was dissolved in 1943. Rudolph, the third brother, was Bandmaster to the 7th Hussars, (in which the young Walton served for a short time), then after a time with the Marines at Portsmouth (1919-1931) went into the R.A.F. He is thought to be a unique example of bandmaster/musical director serving in all three services. Both Percy and Rudolph composed. As examples we may note the former's Empire Fanfare, for trumpet, cornet, two trombones and timpani, and the latter's waltz Celtic, plus a Fanfare on the R.A.F. March Past. But it was Walton who achieved most and who is remembered, albeit tenuously, today. Born in Madras in 1887 (his father was Bandmaster of the 2nd South Wales Borderers - interesting how military banding runs in families, one thinks of the Godfreys and the Winterbottoms and there were other examples). He trained at the Royal Academy of Music, one John Barbirolli being a contemporary there. His service in the Royal Marines after some time as an Army bandmaster, was as Director of Music at Portsmouth, from 1917 (he was commissioned in 1921); he moved to Deal in 1923, his band there accompanying the Prince of Wales on a tour of Africa with such success that its Director of Music was made a Member of the Victorian Order. (He taught the Prince to play the ukelele). He then retired from the Royal Marines went to the BBC and formed the Wireless Military Band (the "Wireless" was later dropped in favour of "BBC") in August 1927. This quickly became a fine ensemble (its opening concert was in September 1927) and it did much to raise standards in the military, or concert, band world. Its repertoire excluded musical comedy and other light selections and "novelty" items. It was exclusively a studio ensemble and apparently never appeared in public. O'Donnell was on record as saying that the microphone was the sternest possible taskmaster. Its basic strength of 26 players - which could be augmented as required - was the same and with the same instrumental distribution as "true military" bands of that day. A typical programme from December 1929 (programmes were usually an hour in length) comprised a fantasy from the ballet, Victoria and Merrie England (Sullivan), the suite from the opera The Miracle (Humperdinck), a selection from Turandot (Puccini), the Wedding Procession from Le Coq d'Or (Rimsky-Korsakov), Mock Morris (Grainger) and The Flight of the Bumble Bee (Rimsky-Korsakov), interlaced with vocal solos from Norman Allin and Kate Winter. The Band recorded over 40 separate 78 r.p.m. discs. - overtures, including less well-known examples like Suppé's The Jolly Robbers and Gounod's Mirella (the latter arranged by O'Donnell himself), marches, folk tunes and classical arrangements, brilliant, unique ones made specially for them. It inspired one of the finest works ever composed for military band, Holst's Prelude and Scherzo Hammersmith, first performed in 1930 (it was also orchestrated and was, I understand, originally tried out by the composer in a two piano version at St. Paul's Girls School, Hammersmith where he taught). Unfortunately, Hammersmith was not recorded by O'Donnell with the BBC Military Band, nor was any of his own music except (in 1935) the Crusader March. The Band's relations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra after the latter was formed in 1930 were excellent, to the extent that the same pieces were often - perhaps too often - broadcast within a short time of one another by both band and orchestra. However the Band's programmes were greatly admired and enjoyed, not least by King George V; Walton left it (and his professorship of harmony, composition and military music at the RAM) in 1937 to take up a position as head of the BBC's Northern Ireland Region which included the conductorship of the then Northern Ireland Orchestra. He was familiarly known at the BBC as "Bandy" and he took part in many Children's Hour programmes in the 1930s. Many regretted the Band's demise as a wartime economy measure in 1943. Walton was not there to see it, for he had died of pneumonia, aged only 52 on 20th August 1939.

Walton O'Donnell composed considerably for the military band. One piece I heard again recently with renewed pleasure is his Three Humoresques, brilliantly inventive and incisive, harmonically adventurous (for its time) and superbly scored. Its three movements, Pride and Prejudice, Prevarication and Petulance and Persuasion, supposedly derived from the novels of Jane Austen. The RAF Central Band played it on a record issued in 1986 and it was also recorded in the 1980s by the Coldstream Guards Band. Theme and Variations, Two Irish Tone Sketches, Woodland Sketches and Songs of the Gael (an extended selection of Irish melodies, which has also been revived in Doncaster in recent years.) (The last three were also arranged for orchestra) were other band classics and the Royal Marines Band Service at Deal still have at least the first two in their library. But Walton by no means confined himself to writing for band, or even to writing for wind instruments. For piano he published Two Lyric Poems (When the Sun is Setting and Before the Dawn) and for violin and piano A Slumber Song. His orchestral output, apart from the works arranged from band originals, showed an understanding of stringed instruments to rival his virtuosity in writing for woodwind and brass. The very lively and quite astringent Miniature Suite, for strings, was popular for many years (I recall a Doncaster amateur orchestra courageously tackling it in 1966) and there were also The Irish Maiden, based on two Irish traditional airs, a Minuet and the Fragment for strings. It would be pleasant to revive these, especially the Miniature Suite, but perhaps we should remember Walton O'Donnell primarily for his attempts to raise the status of military band music. Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Vivian Dunn, in a private communication to the author, has no doubt that the BBC Band was the finest in the world at the time, made up of the best professional wind players in London. Sir Vivian goes on to recall Walton O'Donnell as "a kindly man, a good sportsman, a gentleman to his fingertips, a paragon among British musicians". He learned much from him both at the RAM and in being privileged to attend rehearsals of the BBC Military Band at Broadcasting House. He himself ranks Walton's music with that of Holst and Vaughan Williams, high praise indeed.

Richard Addinsell, born on 13th January 1904, has a secure place in light music's Hall of Fame for having composed the Warsaw Concerto, not quite a concerto of course, but a Rachmaninoff-inspired fragment for piano and orchestra - one of many similar ones by a variety of composers for films - for the spy film Dangerous Moonlight (1941). For this he received the Polish Silver Cross of Merit. He studied at Hertford College, Oxford, at the RCM (1925-6) and then, between 1929 and 1932, in Berlin and Vienna. During 1933 he visited the United States, where he composed film music for Hollywood. Back home he began composing for British films and examples over the next thirty years included: Fire Over England (1937), based on A.E.W. Mason's stirring novel of Secret Service in the first Elizabethan age, Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), Blithe Spirit (1945), whose haunting waltz was arranged as a popular concert number, The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), A Tale of Two Cities (1958), Beau Brummell, The Waltz of the Toreadors (1962), Scrooge (1951), Passionate Friends, The Amateur Gentleman with its Invitation Waltz, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, The Big Blockade (1947) Out of the Clouds (1954) Under Capricorn, The Day Will Dawn, from which the charming Teatime Music, for piano and strings was extracted as a concert piece, South Riding (1937), Love on the Dole, Greengage Summer, Tom Brown's Schooldays (1951), and a variety of wartime documentaries of which we can mention The Lion Has Wings, as the march Cavalry of the Clouds was extracted therefrom. From 1941 Addinsell collaborated with Joyce Grenfell, writing the music for her "one woman" shows. Generally his music, if not for the cinema, was for radio or theatre. Radio plays and features for which he composed music included England's Darling (1953) and Saviours, the movements from the latter being entitled Hope of Britain, The Light of Britain, Remember Nelson and The Unknown Soldier. His first work for the theatre appears to have been for the revue the Charlot Show of 1926 and other revues like All Clear, Living for Pleasure, The Globe Revue, Penny Plain (1951) and Tuppence Coloured (1947) followed. Music for Clemence Dane's Adam's Opera, produced at The Old Vic in 1928 and Come of Age (also 1928), and Moonlight is Silver plus L'Aiglon, a staged version of J.B. Priestley's The Good Companions, Alice in Wonderland (1930), Ring Around the Moon, The Light of Heart and The Happy Hypocrite among other things was provided by him. "Pure" concert works included the Festival for piano and orchestra beloved of the Melachrino Orchestra, the Smoky Mountain Concerto also for piano and orchestra written in the US in 1950, Pantion Waltz, the pastoral-sounding The Isle of Apples from the 1960s, Journey to Romance, Tune in G, a charming piece yet again using the forces of solo piano and orchestra, the W.R.N.S. March and March of the United Nations written in 1943, while songs like My Heart's Light as Air, The Spanish Lady, I'm Going to See You Today and There's Nothing Now to Tell You appear to be "independent" ones. It would be interesting for us to hear something of Addinsell's besides the Warsaw Concerto. Luckily, I have very recently (February 1994) heard both Teatime Music, in a live concert, and the Blithe Spirit waltz. and this gives us a wider appreciation of his gift for delicately romantic melody supported by subtle harmony. He composed mainly at the piano, much of his work being orchestrated by Roy Douglas. Addinsell retired from composition in 1965 and died in November 1977.

We come now to the Austin brothers. Better known was the elder one, Frederic, born in London on 30th March 1872, baritone and composer, whose first lessons were from within his own family. He began as a church organist in Liverpool and then joined the staff of Liverpool College of Music where he remained teaching Harmony, until 1906. Meanwhile he had been studying singing with Charles Lunn and make his London debut in 1902 (at the Proms) at the reasonably mature age of thirty. Many singing engagements followed: at festivals and concerts - he was noted for his interpretations of the title role in Elijah; he sang Gunther in the Covent Garden Ring in 1908, and took part in the first performance of Delius' Sea Drift. He sang also for the Beecham Opera Company, took part in Rutland Boughton's Glastonbury festivals and became Artistic Director of the British National Opera Company in 1924. He was a good recitalist too and was also Professor of Singing at the Royal Academy of Music and, in 1941-2, President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians. But he was even more famous for arranging The Beggar's Opera, which in his version had a remarkable initial run of 1463 performances at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith starting in 1920, in which he initially sang the part of Peachum. Many still prefer Austin's arrangement, which for its time showed praiseworthy period style, to any other modern one, even though Benjamin Britten and others have had a go at The Beggar's Opera since. Following the success in this, he made a modern version of Polly, The Beggar's sequel, and this was put on in 1922. These two operas count as arrangements - Frederic also arranged the Agincourt Song and The Twelve Days Of Christmas, both with orchestra - but he was by the 1920s becoming at least as well known as a composer as he was a singer. His works include a Symphony in E, performed at a Balfour Gardiner concert in 1913, a rhapsody, Spring, premiered at the Proms in 1907, a choral work Pervigilium Veneris for the Leeds Festival of 1931 which experimented, not altogether successfully, with a more modern idiom than was usual with Austin, incidental music for plays such as The Way of the World (from which The Flute Player's Jig and The Ladder Dance were extracted for concert use), The Knight of the Burning Pestle and The Insect Play, which was quite well received in 1923 and again in 1926 when a suite from it was played at the Proms, despite critics regarding its idiom as 'modern' (it seems now to be no more than mildly astringent), the overtures The Rogues Gallery and (for the Bournemouth Orchestra) The Sea Venturer, the symphonic poem Isabella (played in London in 1909) and Palsgaard, Danish Sketches, in four movements, all for orchestra. He contributed along with Rubbra, Vaughan Williams, Alan Bush and others to a pageant marking the Festival of Music for the People, in the Queen's Hall in April 1938. For piano he published the movements One-Step, Three-Step and Waltz from The Insect Play and the dance suite, Maid's Delight (1931). Being a singer he naturally composed many songs, including, for solo voice, Gallant Men of Liège, inspired by that city's defence in 1914, the Shakespearean It Was A Lover and His Lass, Orpheus With his Lute and Sigh No More Ladies, the light-hearted "song cycle", All About Me, Songs in a Farmhouse based on traditional melodies, (with string quartet or orchestra and piano), the Three Songs of Unrest, the three songs Love's Pilgrimage, My Susan was a Bonny Lass, The Sailor's Song and, a tribute to a city in which he once worked, A Brave Town is Liverpool. Choral works were fewer, but even here we may point to the choral arrangement of his cycle of traditional songs, Songs in a Farmhouse and, also for mixed voices, Where Shall The Love Rest, Who Can Live in Heart so Glad? and the Swedish Drinking Song, plus some carol arrangements. He died in 1952. His son Richard we have dealt with more fully in our article on conductor-composers. Born in 1903 and educated at the RCM and in Munich, he directed for the Carl Rosa 1929-31, succeeded Sir Dan Godfrey as Conductor of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra (1934-40) for which, as we have seen, his father wrote an overture, and did much for the New Era Concert Society 1948-58. He returned to the RCM in 1946 and after nine years on its staff became its Director of Opera in 1955. It is not generally known that he composed an opera entitled Plain Jane, or The Wedding Breakfast - I have not traced any production of this.

Frederic's brother Ernest was nearly three years younger than him, being born on 31st December 1874 but he predeceased him by some five years. He only began composing in 1907 after pursuing a business career. Largely self-taught, he produced a highly respectable corpus of compositions including a Symphony and chamber music - five piano trios dating from pre-1914, some based on traditional melodies and one, In Field and Forest, originally for flute, horn and piano, plus a Lyric Sonata in D for violin and piano described by Cobbett as "effectively written, in a romantic vein and touched slightly by modern harmonic influences". His orchestral music enjoyed some success. The Variations on The Vicar of Bray Opus 35, for strings, was performed at a Henry J Wood Promenade Concert in 1910; at about 18 minutes long it was a substantial piece. Other Ernest Austin orchestral compositions we must notice are the suite, Stella Mary Dances, Opus 58 (1918, in which year it was played at the Proms), and Sweet Night, for flute, clarinet, cornet and strings. His work for solo piano included suites and sonatas, the former including the (six) Dream Themes, (four) English Pastorals,To Music, in seven movements, Under Blue Skies and the Tone Stanzas, of which he produced over two dozen between 1908 and 1924. Additionally there were two books of Preludes, Opus 56, An Indian Pipe Dance (1921) and for children, much music including fourteen sonatinas on English folk-songs and Through the Eyes of Youth. His best known instrumental work was the imposing Pilgrim's Progress, a twelve section "narrative tone poem" after John Bunyan, for organ solo with optional 6 part choir and narrator, an enormous offering taking 2½ hours to perform; it was revived in November 1988 at St. Michael's, Cornhill. He was an even more prolific writer for the voice than his brother. Solo songs included the cycles Songs from the Highway and A Sheaf of Songs (5) and "separates" like Aspiration, Fountain Song, I Made Thee Mine, The Infinite Voice, Life,Sigh No More Ladies, April Wears a Smiling Face, Tony the Turtle, Cradle Song, Sea Dogs, Sleep Little Rose, Sweet Night, The Woodland Tailor and A Song of Folly, which between them cover the whole spectrum from Shakespeare to ballads, both sentimental and hearty, and even embrace a vocal setting of Brahms' Waltz Opus 39 No.15 entitled Thoughts. His choral music is similarly varied, including the Hymn of Apollo and Ode on a Grecian Urn, both with orchestra, unison songs for children, The Dream Maker, for female voices, sometimes used as a test piece, and the cowboy song Home on the Range, for four-part male voice choir. Like all composers he earned money transcribing the works of others and in this direction we may mention his piano versions of Elgar songs and, in the same album published in 1926, that composer's Sevillana, originally for orchestra, and Mot d'Amour, originally for violin and piano. He wrote a book, The Fairyland of Music in 1922, described as "a fairy tale with music",1913). He did indeed find pleasure and perhaps magic in writing music. Another publication was The Story of the Art of Music Printing (1913). He would probably be sorry not to be remembered forty years after his death.

A figure one constantly comes across in researching the composers of the 1920s and 1930s is Gerrard Williams, born in London in 1888 and who died aged 58 in Surrey on 7th March 1947. He arranged vast quantities of music by seemingly everyone for almost every medium. The BBC Orchestral Catalogue alone lists hundreds of arrangements of folk-songs, folk dance tunes, popular melodies, Bach and so on. His arrangements for the BBC Military Band were similarly legion, but although he did not begin until 1911 he was a composer himself and the length and subject matter of many of his works justify us in reckoning him a "light music" composer. For orchestra he composed a ballet, The Wings of Horus (1928), an Elegiac Rhapsody, a suite Ring Up the Curtain, originally for piano, Three Miniatures after Shelley, a little cycle of eight fragments, mostly only about a minute long, entitled Pot-Pourri, each fragment given the title of a flower (also originally for piano), Cortege on a Ground Bass, Fantasy on Kalyani (an old Indian Song), for flute, oboe, clarinet and strings, Facets: Aspects of an Original Theme and music for sundry radio features, like the Three Fanfares used in the programme Italian Surrender. He had two string quartets to his credit, the second, composed in about 1923, being published. It reflects French influence, especially that of Debussy with perhaps a whiff of Delius and Cobbett praises its winsomeness and grace - its lively finale is alternately in 5/4 and 7/4 time. In February 1923 The Times reckoned it a first-rate addition to British Chamber music, "a work full of fine thought". For piano he published Three Preludes entitled By Haworth Falls, Solitude and Autumn, and Four Traditional Irish Tunes. His piano music has been compared to Ravel's. His many solo songs included several for children, like the set collectively entitled Playbox, plus Dusk, Idyll, Moon, Mid-winter Madness, Reflections, Rondel and An Inconsequent Ballad. The Times critic described him as a songwriter as having "the power of writing a melody which sounds easy without being obvious". The colour of his accompaniments was also praised. Some of Williams' stage works were for children, such as Sweet Winter and The Tale of the Shoe; we may also note the operetta The Story of the Willow Pattern Plate and ballad opera Kate the Cabin Boy, inspired by the phenomenal renewed success of the Beggar's Opera in the 1920s and produced at the Kingsway Theatre in 1924. His choral music was mainly brief in format, even the "choral suite", A Cycle of the Sea, for eight-part voices which was twice sung in Doncaster between the wars, takes only about seven minutes to perform, but his output embraced songs for mixed voices (e.g. Diaphenia, Sweet Kate, Fair, Sweet, Cruel, Charming Chloe, Three Sleeps, When Laura Smiles, Whither Runneth My Sweet Heart? and the wordless Tragic Fragment), women's voices (The Hawthorne Tree), four-part men's voices (e.g. Old Farmer Buck, Thou Sent'st to Me a Heart and Scizzars are Pumpy) and two part children's voices (e.g. Welcome Sweet Pleasure, I Loved a Lass and Foreign Craft). Besides these he arranged many folk tunes for various vocal combinations. Originally an architect, he, like Ernest Austin, came relatively late to music, but he embraced it wholeheartedly and contributed much. It is pleasing to notice from the pages of The Times that a concert entirely of his music was arranged at the Aeolian Hall in March 1922, comprising songs, piano pieces and the 2nd String Quartet.

© Philip L. Scowcroft.

 

 

 

Enquiries to Philip at

8 Rowan Mount

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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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