Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
Few now remember Nicholas Comyn Gatty, born in the attractive rural village (well known to me in my younger days) of Bradfield, near Sheffield, on 13 September 1874 and who was 72 when he died in London on 10 November 1946. The second son of the Revd Reginald Gatty he was educated at Downing College, Cambridge (BA 1896, Mus B 1898, Mus D 1927) and at the RCM where he studied under Stanford, as so many other notable figures did. During the early years of the century he was assistant conductor at Covent Garden for a time. Organist to the Duke of York's Royal Military School in Chelsea. Like many other composers he eked out a living by musical journalism, being critic for the Pall Mall Gazette between 1907 and 1914, music correspondent of The Times for over 20 years and Assistant Editor of Grove's Dictionary (both 2nd and 3rd editions). At Cambridge and the RCM where they were near contemporaries he became a firm friend of Vaughan Williams and from around 1900 the latter was to spend summer holidays with the Gattys at Hooton Roberts, a pleasant village midway between Rotherham and Doncaster where the Rev Gatty was Rector until his death in 1914. At the prompting of the Gatty family a Musical Society was formed in Hooton Roberts in 1897; Nicholas' brothers Ivor and René took a notable part in its activities and while Nicholas did not, so far as I have been able to discover, compose anything for it, he played the harpsichord, then a rarity indeed, in a Society performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.
Nicholas's compositions were substantial and primarily, though by no means entirely, for the stage. The first decades of the present century were scarcely an ideal period for English operatic composers, but Gatty's work did nevertheless secure a modest hearing. His first opera was indeed performed in his native county and very nearly in his native heath. This was the one-act Greysteel produced in Sheffield on 1 March 1906 by the Moody-Manners touring company. This had a text by René Gatty after an Icelandic saga. Its rather Wagnerian idiom, appropriate for the subject, perhaps, made little impression but it was revived at Sadler's Wells on 23 March 1938 in a revised two act version. This was followed by the "farcical opera" Duke or Devil, also a one act affair, premiered in Manchester on 16 December 1909, again by the obliging Moody-Manners company. This opera at least achieved publication (in 1924), as did Gatty's next opera Prince Ferelon, or The Princess's Suitors, described as a "musical extravaganza" which won a Carnegie Award. Unlike Greysteel this was not at all Wagnerian in idiom and was first produced at the Florence Ettlinger Opera School on 27 November 1919 and later at the Old Vic (1921) and at the RAM on 1 June 1933. Its whimsical humour and spontaneous tunes caused Gatty's obituarist in The Times to dub it "a perfect little opera" and to suggest, optimistically in the event, that it alone of its composer's output was likely to survive. Gatty's other operatic works were: The Tempest, with a text by René Gatty (after Shakespeare), produced at the Surrey Theatre in April 1920 and at the Old Vic in 1922 and published in 1933 which was praised for its characterisation and lightness of touch and criticised for making Prospero sound too much like Wotan; the lighter King Alfred and the Cakes, again to René's libretto produced at the RCM on 19 December 1930; and three operas which remained in manuscript and for which I have not traced productions: another Shakespearean representation, Macbeth (in four acts), and two lighter operas, Gammer Gurton's Needle and First Come, First Served. Obviously one has had little opportunity of hearing Gatty's operatic output in actual performance, but in general terms it is attractive with a strong lyrical impulse and by no means lacking in dramatic power.
He excelled in other forms too. Orchestral works included a Concert Allegro for piano and orchestra premiered at the Proms in 1901 and a set of Variations on Old King Cole. The 15 minute Haslemere Suite for strings only, suggest by its title that it was inspired by Arnold Dolmetsch's still (1994) existing Festival devoted to old music and certainly the movement titles - Prelude (Divisions on a Ground), Sarabande, Air, Fugue, and Finale Alla Giga - appear to bear this out. That Gatty could write effectively in a consciously archaic style was shown when I heard the Kyrie and Gloria from his Mass for four voices at the Vaughan Williams Festival held in Hooton Roberts in October 1972, a work which despite its early 20th century harmonies, obviously owes much to the idiom of Byrd and Gibbons. Gatty's major choral work was the Ode on Time, to Milton's words with orchestra. This, too, was premiered in Sheffield at the Festival of 1905. There were also Three Short Odes (1915) to words by Clough and Shelley; of his partsongs, True Till Death received performances by a Doncaster choir in 1921. He contributed two original tunes - Laetabundus and Tugwood (but, curiously, not one called "Hooton Roberts"!) - to The English Hymnal edited by his great friend Vaughan Williams in 1905 and harmonised other tunes in that volume. In 1939 the Organist of Conisbrough Parish Church, in South Yorkshire less than three miles from Hooton Roberts, discovered a collection of music by various local composers including hymn tunes by Nicholas Gatty. His solo songs, which achieved some popularity early this century, include A-Maying, Fain Would I Change That Note, Relieving Guard, Evening and Touch Not The Nettle and show charmingly fresh melodic invention (owing nothing to folk song, incidentally) and taste in choosing and setting words. (I heard the latter two in performance at Hooton Roberts in 1972). Some of the titles show that Gatty derived some inspiration from the English 16th Century.
Gatty's instrumental output, though not large, maintained and even enhanced his reputation. There were some piano solos, notably two sets of waltzes and other short instrumental solos like a Bagatelle in D and a set of Variations, both for violin and piano. His Piano Trio of 1927 and the Variations and Fugue for string quartet, successfully premiered by the Spencer Dyke Quartet in 1926, were unpublished. Cobbett praises the latter for "staying close to the theme throughout" and also speaks highly of the earlier (it was published by 1916) Violin Sonata in G. Gatty himself played the violin and this doubtless helped him write idiomatically for it. The Sonata begins with a Prelude of gossamer lightness which contrasts with the more serious Larghetto and the finely written Scherzo which follows it.
As an English opera composer Gatty was perhaps born a generation too early, though even had he been born after 1900 he was for all his virtues no Britten or Tippett. Yet it does seem to be a pity that we have forgotten him entirely.
© Philip L Scowcroft.
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