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The Travels of Albert W Ketèlbey

by Philip L. Scowcroft

'Albert Ketèlbey? Ah yes, the chap wrote In a Monastery Garden. And wasn't there something about a Persian Market?' Ketèlbey, like most of our light music composers, is remarkable for just one or two tuneful short movements - but it is surely something that he is remembered. In fact in the LP era he has done better than most of his peers for new recordings of his work.

He was born in Birmingham in August 1875 and showed promise at an early age. His early teachers included Alfred Gaul, composer of cantatas popular with small provincial choirs. A Piano Sonata written when Ketèlbey was only 11 earned approval from no less a person than Elgar when it was performed in Worcester (mind, Elgar himself cut no great figure in the world of music in 1886). Two years later he won a scholarship to Trinity College, London - to which in later life he returned as an examiner - where he earned many awards, beating a certain Gustav Holst into second place for one of them. He studied piano, organ, cello (his favourite instrument), clarinet, oboe and horn and wrote music during his student days and for some time afterwards which has a curious look from the composer of In a Monastery Garden and Sanctuary of the Heart: a Caprice for piano and orchestra, a Concertstück for piano and orchestra, a quintet for piano and wind, a Dramatic Overture, a Suite de Ballet and at least one String Quartet plus Polish Dances and two sets of Studies (Opp. 50 and 51) for examinations at Trinity College. At the age of 16 he became Organist of St John's, Wimbledon and remained in this position while pursuing his studies. When just twenty he toured as musical director to a light opera company and at 22 became musical director at the Vaudeville Theatre. He had previously appeared at several concert venues as piano soloist. His primary aim was always however to compose music; the problem lay in making a living out of it. The story goes that his creative genius was directed into light music when the popular cellist August van Biene offered in 1912 a prize of £50 for a cello solo to equal the amazing popularity of his own Broken Melody. Ketèlbey, a cellist himself as we have seen, successfully offered his Phantom Melody; he won another prize worth £100 in an Evening News competition, for a song. Even so he was forty before In a Monastery Garden won popular acclaim in 1915; In a Persian Market followed five years later. Ketèlbey's music was always tuneful and distinctive in its colour and this enabled him in succeeding years to write a series of convincing travelogues such as In a Chinese Temple Garden (1925), By the Blue Hawaiian Waters (1927), Italian Twilight, originally for piano (1931), With the Romanian Gipsies, Jungle Drums (Patrol), From a Japanese Screen, Algerian Scene, In the Camp of the Ancient Britons, Silver Cloud: An Indian Maiden's Song, The Vision of Fuji-San and In the Mystic Land of Egypt (1931). These geographical mood pictures and others like Bells Across the Meadow (1927), In the Moonlight, Souvenir de Tendresse, The Clock and the Dresden Figures (1930), The Sacred Hour, Valse Appasionata and Sunday Afternoon Reverie were ideal for creating atmosphere in the silent cinema whether the instrumental resources were an orchestra of up to 60 or just a piano. Ketèlbey's period of greatest creativity coincided with the great age of live music for the silent cinema, i.e. 1915-29. His compositions do include scores specifically written for silent films - with titles like Dramatic Agitato, Amaryllis ('is suitable for use in dainty, fickle scenes'), Mystery, Agitato Furioso ('for riots, storms, wars, etc') and Bacchanale de Montmartre (for 'cabaret, orgy and riotous continental scenes') - but we may be sure that his more general compositions were also pressed into service by the cinema musicians.

His music was taken up by other ensembles besides cinema orchestras. It was very popular with military bands, His charmingly simple intermezzo-romance Gallantry was a recording hit of the Band of H M Royal Horse Guards while the Coldstream Guards Band later had several successes with Ketèlbey discs. He certainly provided military bands with plenty of martial fodder: at least one Fanfare for a Ceremonial Occasion and marches like Knights of the King, written for the Horse Guards Band, With Honour Crowned, rousing stuff if a little bombastic, Processional March, A Desert Romance, Heroes All and Royal Cavalcade. Light (and other) orchestras took up his work which was heard in tea-shops, seaside pavilions and on the newly emergent BBC. Ketèlbey conducted his own music at Bournemouth, Margate, Harrogate and abroad, notably with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra (he enjoyed foreign travel and spoke several foreign languages). He made several contributions to the well stocked genre of the light suite. His own favourites apparently were Three Fanciful Etchings and Suite Romantique, but there were many others, like In a Fairy Realm, In a Holiday Mood and In a Lover's Garden. I like the Cockney Suite of 1924 whose five movements include State Procession, another stirring march, and a bustling finale, 'Appy 'Ampstead. His descriptive overture Chal Romano (A Gipsy Lad), also from 1924, has been disparagingly spoken of by some observers but I enjoyed its distinctive vigour when I heard it for the first time, played by the light music section of the Torquay Municipal Orchestra, a quarter of a century after its premiere. And so his list goes on: Bow Bells, Dream Idyll, Elephants' Parade, Canzonetta, the waltz, Fairies of the Stream, A Birthday Greeting, Love and the Dancer, The Old Belfry, Recreation Moments, Sweet Louisiana, Flowers All the Way, Sunbeams and Butterflies, Mayfair Cinderella, Devotion, Remembrance, Sunset Glow and the charming gavotte, Wedgwood Blue. Besides Phantom Melody he composed another cello solo, My Lady Brocade, and his Petite Danse pleased the flautists. Marionettes was a suite written for piano. His skill as an arranger was shown by his pot-pourris, as Musical Jig-Saw and Tangled Tunes, though these were less popular than similar efforts by others. Most of his compositions were conceived for orchestra and then arranged and published for piano, in which form they sold vastly, but Petite Caprice was a case of the opposite process and there were others.

We often hear the devotions of In a Monastery Garden and Sanctuary of the Heart, even the exotic rhythms of In a Persian Garden, with vocalists, solo and choral, and an organ added to the orchestra. This was encouraged by Ketèlbey himself who, in addition to being a music editor for Bosworth's (and Chappell's and Hammond's as well, at various times) and a director of the Columbia Graphophone Company, made many recordings of his own works either as organist or conductor, with ensembles like the Court Symphony, the Casino Orchestra or his own Concert Orchestra. A courteous, quiet, kindly, generous, slightly fussy man, he was generally popular, but he never courted the limelight, nor did he travel quite as widely as his compositions suggest. Some of his pieces were originally conceived for large forces as against having them grafted on subsequently. Columbia recorded A Dream of Christmas which called for an organist, a solo vocalist, a narrator and a chorus as well as his own Concert Orchestra. A song for mixed voices, Fighting for Freedom, was written for the war effort in 1943 and his early compositions included church anthems. As far back as 1900 he composed an opera Wonder Worker, produced that year in Fulham - a predecessor, A Good Time, was heard in 1896. His solo songs ranged from ballads like The Heart's Awakening, I Loved You More Than I Knew, My Heart Still Clings To You, Will You Forgive? Believe me True, Mr Heart-a-Dream and A Birthday Song all of which enjoyed a modest popularity, to Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind, written as incidental music for Shakespeare's As You Like It. The song Kilmoren appeared in 1952, only a few years before Ketèlbey's death in 1959 at Cowes in the Isle of Wight, whither he had retired many years before to write music. Another relatively late piece is his contribution to brass band music (although many of his orchestral 'standards' were arranged for brass), the overture The Adventurers, performed and broadcast by the Fairey Aviation Works Band in 1945.

It may be that Ketèlbey's music, over 200 separate pieces in all, emphasises emotionalism and 'effects' which in some performances go 'over the top' rather than structure and harmonic subtlety. It may also be that he was at his peak in the period 1915-30 and that his music declined in originality after the latter date. But his gift for melody and his professionalism as an orchestrator, readily acknowledged by many musicians of today, ensure that he touched the hearts of millions. He still has this capacity, sixty or seventy years on, in the Age of Pop.

© Philip L Scowcroft.

Enquiries to Philip at

8 Rowan Mount



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

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