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JAMES LYON 1872-1949

by Philip Scowcroft

One operatic composer not mentioned in Stan Meares' British Opera in Retrospect (BMS 1986) is James Lyon, born in Manchester on 24 October 1872 and so far as music was concerned almost entirely self taught (he went however to Oxford and became a Mus Doc of that university in 1905). He himself later taught at Bantock's Birmingham and Midland Institute and also at St Michael's College Tenbury, King Edward's School, Warwick and Trinity College London. He examined and adjudicated widely. He wrote two books for students: A Practical Guide to the Modern Orchestra (Musicians' Library, 1912) and The Elements of Harmony (Banks 1920). He died in Australia on 25 August 1949.

His music was described as "Neo-Romantic" in style and he certainly had a taste for writing dramatic music, his output including four operas (The Palace of Cards, Stormwrack (in one act), Fiametta (3 acts) and La Serena (4 acts) and three "melomimes" (a combination, I suppose, of melodrama and mime) entitled Toinetti, The Necklace and Madame s'Amuse. His works did not stop there as he was quite prolific. Orchestral works for example embraced a Symphony, four suites, the Welsh Poem Gwalia, a Poem on Manx Tunes, the prelude Aucassin and Nicolette, the Ballad for violin and orchestra and the Idyll Opus 20 for strings.

Nor did he ignore chamber and orchestral music; he produced a Fantasy String Quartet Op 46 and other quartets, a Piano Trio in D minor and several published pieces for violin and piano. The organ attracted him particularly and he wrote for it three sonatas, two suites and individual movements with titles like Alla Marcia, Berceuse, Dominus Regnavit, Festival March, a Minuet and Trio and a Prelude in D Flat. Of this repertoire, the first Sonata, in C minor, which Percy Whitlock included in his recitals, is the pick. Its expansiveness and chromatic idiom recalls Elgar; the second subject later combined with the first, is of melting beauty. Lyon was attracted to the piano as well. Some of his output was purely instructional and doubtless the 24 books of genre pieces entitled Opuscula (Op 91) had a teaching purpose.

Anthems and services, also solo songs and partsongs were published in some profusion. The partsong I Love the Jocund Dance was performed I have discovered in Swinton, S Yorks, in 1935. His best known solo vocal item was however the hunting song Joe Bowman. His Four Songs from the Chinese is yet another illustration of how many British composers have been attracted to oriental texts - perhaps a subject worthy of study in depth. But maybe the most remarkable thing about James Lyon is that a person who was self taught later became so identified with teaching.

© Philip L Scowcroft.

Enquiries to Philip at

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Philip's book 'British Light Music Composers' (ISBN 0903413 88 4) is currently out of print.

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