Classical Music on the Web

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by Philip L. Scowcroft

Largely forgotten nowadays, Christian Victor Hely-Hutchinson's life was cut sadly short at the age of 45. He is another example, among many during his lifetime, who made a musical career in the BBC during its first quarter-century. He was however born in Cape Town, where his father was Governor and Commander in Chief of Cape Colony, on 26 December 1901, during the Boer War. Educated at Eton, Balliol and the RCM, he made his mark as a pianist at the former establishment and studied conducting with Adrian Boult at the latter. He was to take a D Mus at Oxford much later (1941) but in 1922 he returned to Cape Town as Lecturer in Music at the South African College of Music, later Cape Town University. Back in England he went to the BBC in 1926 where he had experience as pianist, accompanist and a conductor who secured sound, acceptable performances rather than virtuoso ones; in 1933 he moved to Birmingham as Midland Regional Director of Music. The following year he left the BBC on succeeding Granville Bantock as Professor of Music at Birmingham University. In 1944 he returned to the Corporation as Director of Music in succession to Arthur Bliss, a position in which his grasp of detail and flair for administration served him well at a critical period in the BBC's history. During his last months before his death on 11 March 1947, he was responsible for terminating Constant Lambert's connection with the Proms, which still leaves an unpleasant taste, though it was clear that it was Sir Malcolm Sargent who put down the poison about a conductor who probably had more talent than himself.

Hely-Hutchinson's compositions were varied though apart from one Sonata, a Suite of six easy pieces entitled A Field Day and, for Boosey, some arrangements of Old English Melodies, I have discovered nothing for piano solo. Chamber works included a Piano Quintet, String Quartet and a Sonata for viola and piano. Many of his songs were light-hearted: Three Nonsense Songs, to words by Edward Lear, Five Folly Songs, Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes (Belloc), The Rolling English Road (G K Chesterton), settings from Lewis Carroll's two Alice classics and, best remembered now perhaps, the Handelian parody of Old Mother Hubbard. A number of his other song titles - Silver, Adam Lay y Bounden and Trees - are lyrics better known in settings by others. Other solo titles included Song of Soldiers, The Jolly Beggar, Who Goes Home?, Cuckoo Song, Twa Corbies and Castle Patrick. Choral works include a setting of I Vow to Thee My Country, also better known to music by another, and two cycles for female voices, Five Songs of Innocence and The Echoing Green and (five) Other Songs. Two stage works, an operetta, Hearts are Trumps and the Nativity Play, The Unveiling, both date from 1932.

By and large it was his work for orchestra which was most popular in its day. This included an Overture to a Pantomime, a Solemn Prelude in G, Three Fugal Fancies for strings, a South African Suite based on traditional material remembered from his sojourn in his native country, a medley of Edward German songs, fanfares (for Empire Day 1946, and in O Canada and Advance Australia) for brass choir and quantities of incidental music for film, radio and the theatre. More substantial were the 18 minute long Variations, Intermezzo and Finale, given its British premiere at the 1927 Proms, and the symphony for small orchestra which was awaiting performance at the time of his death (it was hear in the 1947 Proms). Best remembered and it is heard even now. is the Carol Symphony, in four movements: not, properly speaking, a symphony but a suite of four 'choral preludes', each based on a well-loved Christmas carol, most delightfully harmonised and scored. I have affectionate memories of a performance at Sheffield City Hall in December 1948, early in my concert-going career - part of it was revived successfully by a youth orchestra here in Doncaster in 1985. First heard in 1929, it should keep his memory alive.

© Philip L Scowcroft.

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