Classical Music on the Web

Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


A MANY-SIDED COMPOSER by John Hely-Hutchinson


Full details including publishers

   Search this site                 powered by FreeFind

Victor Hely-Hutchinson was born nearly a century ago. During his short life, he developed from a child prodigy into one of the most versatile musicians of any era. Between the mid 1920s and the mid-1940s he was widely known as a solo pianist, accompanist, orchestrator, academic, reviewer, administrator, conductor and composer, and he achieved these successes during a period when an immense number of professional musicians were active. According to his friends, of whom he had many, his sunny, loyal nature and rock-hard principles of conduct shone like a bright light on a generation shocked, on the one hand, by social disasters in the form of two world wars and the great depression, but inspired, on the other, by individuals such as Einstein, Fleming, Stravinsky, Pavlova, Picasso and Walt Disney.

Victor was the youngest son of Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson, the last Governor of Cape Colony, in South Africa. At the time of his birth, the Boer War was in its closing stages, and Britain had finally realised that it was not in her interest either to crush entirely the spirit of the Boer Republics, or to alienate their close relatives in the Cape. Sir Walter identified closely with an emerging South Africa, and developed a polite and understanding rapport with local population groups. When a serious outbreak of plague threw Cape Town into a panic, Sir Walter and his aides put on their best uniforms and walked in slow time through the fever wards.

Lady Hely-Hutchinson played the piano nicely and could sing a large repertoire of songs prettily to her own accompaniments. Her daughter, Natalie, who was a few years older than Victor, played the violin. So the family background was well suited to raising a musician, and they could exert the social and financial influence needed to obtain the best training. The Governor’s children were educated in England. So, soon after Victor’s birth, in 1901, his mother took him to a house in Kent, to be near her other sons. Victor became a strong, stocky baby, and soon developed a violent temper. His mother found that the only way to quieten him was to play the piano. He sat on her knee, and before he could even speak, could sing the notes she sang immediately after her. He quickly learned the names of the notes and, in the early summer of 1904, aged two, was heard to say thoughtfully "Cuckoo, E and C". Perfect pitch was beyond the comprehension of the family, who decided to hire a professional teacher, Charles Hoby, Director of Music of the Royal Marines at Chatham. Hoby quickly came to the conclusion that Victor had a remarkable general intelligence. At 3-years old his temper had disappeared, and he was playing "the Merry Peasant" with authority, with his feet on a box over the pedals.

Victor returned to South Africa at the age of five, for the last two years of Sir Walter’s term as Governor. He could soon simplify orchestral works for the piano, and transpose at sight into any key. After the Governor heard him, any extra time he and his lady could spare from their official duties was spent on helping him develop his talents, even to the extent of studying musical theory. They were however, particularly careful to prevent listeners from giving Victor a swollen head by showing undue surprise at his performances. Victor’s musical education was taken over by Dr Barrow Dowling, the organist of Cape Town Cathedral, and father of a large family. The first serious shock in Victor’s life was the death of Dowling’s youngest daughter, and he sublimated the pain by writing possibly his first serious composition.

One of the Governor’s closest friends was Sir Abe Bailey, and the two men possessed two of the first automobiles in the Cape. When Sir Walter fell desperately ill, the family was taken to stay at Muizenberg, but it soon became obvious that he would recover only if Victor played the piano to him. After his recovery, Sir Walter was so proud of the compositions which Victor had completed by the age of eight that he had a book of them published.

During 1909, Sir Walter monitored the new constitution of the Union of South Africa, in which, for the first time, the former Boer republics were unified with the former British colonies. Soon after agreement was reached, he retired back to England, in order mainly to supervise Victor’s formal education. Shortly after their arrival, Victor was taken to visit Sir Hubert Parry, who, after hearing Victor’s interpretation of Beethoven, recommended that he study under Donald Tovey. A school (Heatherdown) was chosen near Tovey’s home, and thus began a ten-year association leading to a life-long friendship. Tovey insisted that, even at the age of ten, Victor should obtain a thorough grasp of counterpoint before moving further into composition. He also introduced Victor to the frivolous side of life, by setting advertisements to music. Meanwhile Victor acted as organist at the local church.

Victor with Sir Walter Parratt and Donald Tovey 1912

Heatherdown made full use of his talents as a musician, and by now his compositions had become quite sensitive. Two songs: "A Birthday" and "Dreams" to words by Christina Rosetti, were particularly admired. His hands were too small to cope with octaves, but he developed a technique of jumping from top to bottom of a chord so rapidly that the notes sounded simultaneous. When playing the organ, he could not reach the pedals, so he used to leave the seat and run along them. It was also discovered that he could learn and understand his schoolwork much quicker than his contemporaries. He had massive powers of concentration, and could work while his schoolfellows were larking around him. He could, by this time, improvise in the style of many different composers, and his setting of "Old Mother Hubbard" in the style of Handel dates from this period. One afternoon he was asked by the headmaster to play some music to illustrate the personality of a schoolmate. This he did with astonishing skill, and then went on to play pieces which illustrated the personalities of other boys. So accurately did he portray them that all were correctly guessed by the staff.

Victor was entered, in 1914, for a scholarship at Eton, at the age of twelve. He was placed half way up the list of successful candidates, in competition with many boys a year older than himself. Around this time, it was felt by some of the staff at Heatherdown that he was straining himself, for in addition to his schoolwork, he had written, firstly, a symphony, and secondly a mass in memory of his father, whose recent death had made a deep impression on him. To cap it all, Tovey had arranged a concert in the school hall at which Victor played the solo part in a Mozart Concerto, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Boys who had won scholarships to Eton were housed in a separate building, known as College. Even in such rarified company, he seems to have been regarded as out of the ordinary. He remained very approachable, and later his juniors in College were never frightened of him. He made friends easily, yet his contemporaries seemed to feel that they could not know him intimately, since he seemed to understand them better than they understood him. He entered with zest into all activities, including sport. He was a good scholar, even by comparison with his fellows in College, and ended up about fifth in the school. He developed into an amusing debater and held decided views on many subjects, arguing his case pertinaciously, uncompromisingly, always with wit and clarity, never bitter, disgruntled or intolerant. He knew how to say seemingly outrageous things without causing offence, and his candour was disarming because it was never tinged with malice. The Precentor of Eton, Dr Basil Johnson, was always grateful to Victor for his unfailing support during some difficult years, for he never mastered the art of controlling masses of boys. He was however less grateful to Victor for teaching his parrot how to swear.

As a musician, Victor progressed methodically. His first task as an organist was to gain independence between hands and feet, after which he was able to play the most advanced organ works. He also had the advantage of lessons in composition from Sir Charles Stanford in Windsor. These lessons, after the thorough grounding in basic counterpoint by Tovey, would have crowned his facility in theory. His recitals at school concerts included works by Bach, Parry, Schumann, Moskowski, Mozart, Chopin, Rheinberger, Brahms and himself. He was ubiquitous as a musician, playing the harmonium for college prayers, coaxing the old instrument into a new lease of life; accompanying the headmaster’s daughter’s ‘cello; and playing, quite exquisitely, Mendelsohn’s incidental music to a college production of "Midsummer Night’s Dream". He was at his most remarkable accompanying community sing-songs, in which he exploited his skill at improvisation. The accompaniments followed every nuance of the words, and, in the comic songs, they provided an illustrated running commentary, based on every device of piano technique, the whole thing being illuminated by his superb sense of fun.

Victor’s brother, Christopher, fought through the first world war, and Victor regularly attended intercession services. His feelings about the war were later expressed in three serious compositions: "The unknown warrior", "The song of the soldiers" and "I vow to thee my country". During his final year, in 1919, he was prepared for the Nettleship Scholarship at Balliol, which he was awarded. The aim of the Scholarship is to enable budding musicians to broaden the scope of their interests, and Victor elected to study modern history, indicating perhaps that he wanted to try to build on his studies of ancient history at Eton, in order to understand the causes of what to many appeared to be a totally senseless war.

It was typical of his respect for others that he initially applied for private rooms at Oxford on the grounds that his playing might disturb any companions. Such, however, was his friendly nature that one of his friends prevailed upon him to share lodgings. He entered into all college activities, such as tennis and swimming, with the same concentration he showed when tackling any subject, and he was soon recognised as one of the leading undergraduate pianists.

Although his lodgings were on the busy Cornmarket Street, nothing could destroy Victor’s concentration, especially when he was composing. He joined the Nonsense Club, at which members were expected to read papers on any subject which made no sense. In social life, he was quiet, and not in the least self-assertive, and he never thrust his musical knowledge into any inappropriate group. Such was his general knowledge that he could hold his own on most subjects.

The end of his stay at Oxford came unexpectedly, in 1921, after only a year, in response to an invitation to teach at the South African College of Music in Cape Town, who were short of staff with theoretical knowledge. So Victor returned to his roots, very near to his birthplace. At the College, he enjoyed discussing music in general with Professor Bell and Leslie Heward. Heward’s tastes were general, Bell’s experimental, while Victor clung to the classical values. Bell felt that the greatest strokes of genius happened by accident, such as chance extraneous sounds or mistakes in playing, while Victor argued that experiments must be constrained within well-established structures. "You cannot tie balance and inspiration down to a set of rules" said Bell. "Yet the greatest art, whether in music, sculpture or painting is always imagination at its highest held within form at its simplest", replied Victor, a phrase which could be said to epitomise much of the music he wrote thereafter. When the three friends turned to performing, Bell would play and sing the parts (one after another) of some opera he had just written, Heward would render on the piano a complicated modern orchestral composition he had just received in the post, while Victor would produce extemporary variations on a theme by, say, Haydn or Mozart with an invention and wit that were cool and entrancing.

At this stage, Victor began to crystallise his ideas on citizenship, denying that the musician and citizen could ever be separated. His/her duties in the home and to the community must always be balanced, not overshadowed, by the demands of his/her art. He was meticulous in keeping accounts. Bell was worried about Victor’s prospects as a teacher, as most of his students were young, frivolous women. However, Victor tackled the task with his usual thoroughness and dedication, and his immense knowledge meant that he could not be floored by the trickiest questions. In line with his feeling that musicians should serve their communities, he and Bell arranged most of the college music for female voices , these being in the majority. At this time Victor’s compositions were fairly modernistic, a good deal more so than in later years. Holst and Vaughan Williams seemed to be his inspirations, and he was less happy with nineteenth century music. Dr Bell tried to foster his interest in modern developments, and felt that Victor would eventually develop a strong personal style. At around this time appeared his setting of "The Owl and the Pussy Cat" and some of Harry Graham’s "Ruthless Rhymes", also his "Three Fugal Fancies". Victor’s friendships with other musicians never influenced his judgement of their compositions, and he could be a severe critic where this was justified.

Simultaneously, his brother Christopher was working on the mines in Johannesburg, and, possibly it was during a visit to his brother that Victor met Hugh Tracey, the musicologist who researched African music. When he was taken to see an African mine dance, and invited to play the instruments, he extemporised some effective music on them, much to the surprise of the dancers, bearing in mind that the instruments were not tuned to the chromatic scale.

At this time, he met and married his life’s companion, Marjorie Hugo, who has been described as one of the two most beautiful contemporary women at the Cape. Marjorie played the violin, was a talented artist and a dedicated ecologist long before the subject became fashionable. She was given to strong enthusiasms, and never wavered from her reverence for Victor, either during their 21 year marriage or her 41 year widowhood. During this period, he was introduced to broadcasting, and was known "Uncle Porps" on Children’s Hour, possibly because of some strange instrument he had invented. As a veteran broadcaster at the age of 24, he wrote a humorous article about radio from the performer’s point of view, saying "To begin with, I went down to the studio in the same sort of spirit as a child swallowing gunpowder, to see what would happen". These experiences made him aware of the broadcasting opportunities opening up in Europe, whither he returned in 1926.

The first Christmas card from the SABC Children's Hour 1924

His first job in the BBC at Savoy Hill was styled officially as musical assistant, and the young organisation was so fluid that he found himself doing all sorts of musical jobs, such as programme building, reviewing, accompanying, conducting and arranging, as well as non-musical jobs such as using his general education to edit and write letters on behalf of other members of staff. He also contributed to Children’s hour as "Uncle Bunny". Outside the BBC, he continued to conduct and play in public, and also composed prolifically, including incidental music for many plays, some of which is missing, because, possibly, it was improvised. In 1927 he produced his "Variation, Intermezzo, Scherzo and Finale", for whichhe was awarded the Carnegie prize. In the same year appeared the "Carol Symphony", which led to correspondence with Mary Levett, who, from that time until his death, collected press announcements dealing with his platform and broadcast performances. According to this collection, between October 1930 and August 1933, he played, on average, once every eleven days and conducted once per week. His arrangements were performed four times per year, his stand-alone compositions once every three weeks and his incidental music three times a year. Over the same period, he attracted 7 biographical notes and 25 reviews, and possibly contributed as many as 73 programme notes and lectures.

Victor and Marjorie set up house in Hampstead, and it was during this period that his two sons were born. He cycled to and from work, tying scores, conductor’s batons and other items onto the frame with string, and conducting imaginary orchestras through the traffic in central London. After cycling through the rain, he would hang his shoes and socks over the radiator in his office and dictate memos in his bare feet. When the BBC moved to Broadcasting House, the music department was housed in offices on the fifth floor, with a fairly broad ledge running under the windows the full length of the building. For a bet, Victor hoisted his bicycle outside his window and rode it up and down the ledge. Shortly afterwards he received a memo stating: "There is no room for bicycles in Broadcasting House".

He was continually in and out of other people’s offices, relaying, in his rather nasal voice, the latest musical joke, such as Sir Henry Wood’s habit of conducting rehearsals in his broad cockney accent:  
                                         "Na then Vi’lins, wot you a doing of, sawin’ away regardless?".

Une belle histoire (BBC copyright)

In 1933, he felt that BBC music needed co-ordinating and suggested that he himself be appointed manager. The BBC acceded to his request, but made him manager of its Birmingham office, a move that developed into a fruitful 13-year association with the city. In Birmingham his new secretary, Joan Forsyth, confirmed his powers of concentration in the midst of noise, his unflappability, the painstaking care with which he treated any contact, and his rapid transition from a scholarly demeanour to almost schoolboy mischievousness. For instance, after dictating a particularly difficult memo on some high policy matter, he would look at her and say "Selah", and with a twinkle "May I go home now?". His main achievement was the founding of the BBC Midland orchestra. In 1934, he was approached to take over the Chair of Music at Birmingham University, in succession to Sir Granville Bantock. As a teacher, he did not drive the students, and tended to let them make their own mistakes, possibly to see if these "mistakes" were in fact new inventions; but any student who approached him could tap an inexhaustible well of knowledge. He seemed to have an instant grasp of each student’s difficulties from the inside. In spite of his encyclopaedic knowledge of classical composers, he peppered his lectures with illustrations from the 20th century, taking care to avoid his own compositions. He made little effort to classify composers into say "baroque", "classical" or "romantic", preferring to analyse their works according to the harmonies, counterpoint and scoring they employed. His composition students felt that their work always remained their own, even after Victor had made helpful, and in some cases radical suggestions. His teaching was intensely practical.

One of his main dicta regarding conducting was: "remember, all orchestral players are frustrated soloists", and in writing out parts: "legislate for idiots". He was always available to accompany sing-songs in the Students’ Union, and seemed to be universally popular. On the rare occasions when he spoke in the senate or the faculty, his grasp of essentials and brevity made a deep impression. There was a strong movement to make him Dean of Arts, a movement which he diverted when it became clear that he might soon be offered the Directorship of Music at the BBC. Outside the university, he was elected President of the Birmingham Brass Bands association, was associated with the Bach Choir, often conducted the City Orchestra, and was chosen to dedicate the Elgar window in Worcester Cathedral. In addition to numerous concert programme notes, he wrote music for a number of plays for radio, and for the new television service, which had started in 1936. He once visited the studios at "Ally Pally" before a circus programme, and was surprised, when using the toilet, at being watched from the bath by a sealion. He wrote several short orchestral interludes for variety programmes, at least one well-received longer work entitled "Serenade", and background music for films. Such were the financial constraints laid on film music that only eighteen musicians could normally be employed, and this meant only eight strings. Victor found that the general tone of the ensemble could be improved by including an unobtrusive piano, and he thus could be said to have re-introduced a form of continuo after 200 years.

He was perhaps at his most relaxed at home, preferring intimate company, where he could discuss any matters of musical, or of local interest. He was not perhaps greatly moved by national issues, since musicians were less affected than many professions by the great depression, for, in addition to music for traditional concerts and recitals, a lot was required by the growing radio, television and film industries, and the deficiencies of recordings meant that much of it had to be played live. Although he was also possibly rather incurious about international events, he was under no delusions about the horrors of war, and foresaw accurately what was likely to happen to civilians. After Munich, he moved his family out of Birmingham to a rural village, where his first job every evening was to pump water from the well up to the cistern. In summer, he would then happily walk a mile over the fields and along the canal to the local, where he was known as "The gen’lman as loiks ‘is point". As a Father, he took care to smooth the paths of his sons through school, and also in the neighbourhoods where they lived.

Victor with his family 1939

On the outbreak of war, he immediately enrolled as an ARP warden in Birmingham, and spent many nights at the post. During one particularly intense air-raid, the wardens heard the terrifying noise of a falling bomb equipped with sirens. "Ah" said Victor, "That’s exactly the sound I need in my next intermezzo". In response to an appeal, he also applied to join the University Cadet Force. In spite of the misgivings of the commandant at appointing a professor of music to help organise the force, Victor very soon proved his worth, putting his vast concentration into a study of military tactics, weaponry and organisation, eventually rising to command a company.

Although he himself was maintained in his University post because of his age and seniority, musicians were often starved of funds. To raise funds for the City of Birmingham Orchestra, Victor gave a series of recitals of all Beethoven’s Sonatas, which he knew off by heart. It was said that he also knew by heart all of Bach’s 48. As usual, he entertained his fellow cadets along with other troops and civilians, often playing on appalling pianos after driving long distances through the blacked out countryside. When the conductor of the City Orchestra died, he offered to take over the conducting and artistic direction. Amid these activities, he felt that his lack of formal qualifications might make progress difficult later on, so he studied for a Doctorate at Oxford, which was conferred on him in 1941. Soon after, he repeated his recitals of the Beethoven Sonatas at Oxford, in support of a memorial to Sir Donald Tovey.

When the call came, in 1944, for him to take over the Directorship of music in the BBC, Victor, in spite of having served his apprenticeship, was, at 42, still young. The job was regarded as the most exacting musical post in Britain, for broadcast music played a massive role in the life of the country. Realising that the administrative duties would soon prevent him from practising the piano, the BBC, which at that time ran the Proms, invited him to play Beethoven’s fourth concerto in the Albert Hall, after which he was recalled to the platform five times. Eight editorials were written about his contribution to music in Birmingham, and his presentation book was signed by 344 individuals and institutions. At the invitation of his successor at BBC midland, Hubert Foster Clark, he took his family on an extended holiday to the lake district, where he demonstrated his physical fitness by scaling Great Gable.

With typical conscientiousness, before his contract with the University expired, he spent many weekends at the BBC in London, learning the minutiae of the job. His first action on taking up his post was to send each of his assistants on leave in turn and take over their jobs. There was no musical specialisation which he could not fulfil. The Director General found him a resourceful administrator, but his predecessor, Sir Adrian Boult, found fault with him for always leaving his office door open, and remaining accessible to all comers. He was delighted that Joan Forsyth was willing to become his secretary again. Victor bought a house in St John’s Wood, within walking distance of his offices in St Marylebone High Street, and, in spite his £2000 p.a. salary, gave up his car. Once again, he regaled his colleagues with the latest stories, including one of the most poignant, about a broadcaster to an occupied East European country who could not speak English. In order to survive, he was taught phonetically how to order meals at the canteen, saying: "Steak and kidney, apple pie". After a month he became tired of this diet and was taught to say "Piece of fish, cup of tea". A tough looking waitress, perhaps resembling a Gestapo interrogator, asked him in a loud voice "Do you want mayonnaise?", which he did not understand, and to which he replied in a scared whisper "Steak and kidney, apple pie".

Following the end of the war, his work doubled, for numerous musicians who had served their country in various capacities needed employment. Victor tried to give foreign (including Axis) musicians opportunities in England. He was particularly supportive of Sibelius, because Finland, since the Russian attack, had fought on the side of the Axis.

The many-sided musician 1946 (BBC copyright)

It was typical of his careful approach to life that, when he was given L 10 000 (a fortune in those days) by his brother, who had manufactured sandbags, and told to go and enjoy himself, he saved it for a rainy day, and still did not purchase a car, which might have saved his life. Although he did not compose so vigorously during this period, he did finish, publish and record the full set of Ruthless Rhymes, and combine some of the music he had written for films into a symphony. He was revising the symphony when, at the beginning of 1947, temperatures in England plummeted to below freezing point for weeks on end, and such was the financial exhaustion of Britain that fuel had to be saved. Victor refused to switch on the radiators in his office, and eventually developed a cold. After returning to his office before he was well, he developed pneumonia, from which not even his iron constitution could protect him, and from which he died in March. A memorial service was held, at which Astra Desmond sang, and those who attended felt they had lost a many-talented, unassuming and constant friend.

Now that most of his contemporaries have passed on, he is remembered mainly in terms of the few of his compositions which are still performed. His settings of the three nonsense songs of Edward Lear remain popular, as does his setting of "Old Mother Hubbard" in the style of Handel, and particularly his Carol Symphony. Other songs, such as the serious "Song of the Soldiers", are occasionally heard, as are his two children’s operettas: "Hearts are Trumps" and "The Charcoal Burner’s Son". His original output was however large, possibly 150 works having been performed, of which more than 50 were published.

His critics mainly agreed that he was a delightful, charming miniaturist and a superb technician. Some of his larger designs also attracted a lot of interest, but reviewers tended to retain two reservations about his style: firstly that he never developed a personal idiom, and secondly that he seemed unable to create themes striking enough to energise a substantial work. With regard to the first reservation, however, it might be argued that virtually all the musical techniques which could be appreciated by intelligent listeners had, by the thirties, already been tried out, the last major successful innovator being Stravinsky. Nevertheless, the works of several mid-to-late 20th composers are very popular. With regard to the second, the impact of themes is, to a certain extent, subject to fashion, which normally changes during each generation, three of which have passed since the thirties. If his neglected works were revived, therefore, many of them might again catch the public fancy.

The writer expresses his heartfelt thanks to his Brother Christopher and to Dr Barry Smith and Mrs Leslie Hart of the University of Cape Town, for help with the data and comments on the material.

© John Hely-Hutchinson

John Hely-Hutchinson
217 Voortrek St
Swellendam 6740
Republic of South Africa


Since November 1998 you are visitor number

Return to:    British Composers

These pages are maintained by Dr Len Mullenger.
Mail me.