SOME BRITISH CONDUCTOR-COMPOSERS
by Philip L. Scowcroft (16,000 words)
A number of all-time great composers have also been superb all-round conductors; one thinks of Mendelssohn, Mahler and Richard Strauss. Conversely many all-time great conductors earned a considerable, if limited, reputation for composing symphonic music, for example Furtwangler, Klemperer and Leonard Bernstein. How have British composers and conductors fared in these directions? Several major composers have earned a reputation as conductors of their own music: Elgar, who was the first great composer to conduct a substantial part of his output for the gramophone, Holbrooke, John Foulds, Britten, Walton, Eric Coates and, as I remember from a concert in Sheffield in 1955 entirely devoted to his music, Sir Arthur Bliss, particularly so. Elgar, Stanford, Britten, Andrzej Panufnik1, Foulds, Holbrooke, Frank Bridge, Hamish MacCunn, Coleridge Taylor, Edward German (in the theatre) and, in lighter music, though he also conducted some grand opera, Alfred Reynolds, all of whom had varying ability as conductors, also directed a substantial quantity of music by others. So, in earlier times, did Sullivan, conductor of the Leeds Festival from 1880 - 1898 and of other concerts, and William Sterndale-Bennett, Conductor of the (Royal) Philharmonic Society and the Bach Society - which he founded in 1849 - but neither of them really excelled as a conductor. Granville Bantock began his career as a conductor in opera and at New Brighton, where he championed British music notably, and he conducted a great deal thereafter, but his prolific career as a composer and his tireless teaching and adjudication work, which took up such a large proportion of his time, make it perhaps inappropriate to reckon him as a true "composer-conductor".
Many of our greatest conductors have been known as arrangers rather than as composers as such. One recalls Sir Thomas Beechams editions of works by Delius, spicy re-creations of Handel, in for example, a Piano Concerto and in suites like The Gods Go A-Begging, The Great Elopement (re-titled Love in Bath), Amaryllis, The Origin of Design and The Faithful Shepherd, the first two of which were used as ballet music. Sir Henry Wood who composed whilst at college2, and afterwards (a Mass and other church music, three cantatas or oratorios, a few violin pieces, nearly 30 songs, seven stage works and two symphonies: almost all composed before 1895, when Wood was 26), made editions for inflated orchestras of Handel organ concertos and his transcriptions of Bachs Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ - under a pseudonym - and of British Sea Songs were, or are, outstandingly popular. A Fantasia on Scottish Melodies was heard at the Proms under him on 16 September 1918 and a similar Fantasia on Welsh Melodies also achieved popularity. Altogether there were hundreds of Henry Wood arrangements of which we may instance a Purcell Suite, two synthetic Bach suites and Mussorgskys Pictures at an Exhibition (for a hopefully complete list of Woods compositions and arrangements see Arthur Jacobs Henry J Wood maker of the Proms (Methuen, 1994, App 3)). Sir John Barbirolli arranged concertos for clarinet and viola from Handel and for his wife Evelyn Rothwell for oboe from Baxs Oboe Quintet (in 1966) and from Pergolesi and Corelli, which latter two are still most enjoyable and retain their popularity after half a century. Purists may hold up their hands in horror at his Elizabethan Suite for four horns and strings - transcriptions of harpsichord pieces by Byrd, Farnaby and John Bull - but I confess to enjoying it hugely when it opened a Sheffield Philharmonic Society concert in 1951. It would be worth reviving. Barbirollis earlier Purcell Suite for strings sought to preserve some of the best of a slightly later English composer. Himself a cellist, Barbirolli brought out in 1928 Six Airs for cello, arranged from Purcell, Schumann, Rameau, Mozart, Bach and Mendelssohn.
Sir Malcolm Sargent earned respect for his choral arrangements of spirituals and Christmas music and of Rule Britannia, heard regularly at the Last Night of the Proms even now, and for his orchestrations of the accompaniments to Brahms Four Serious Songs and - for orchestral strings - the Nocturne from Borodins 2nd String Quartet; but it is often forgotten that his first appearance at the Proms, in 1921, was as a composer, conducting his brilliantly scored orchestral tone poem An Impression of a Windy Day, its first London performance. This re-appeared at the Proms in 1924, Sargent meanwhile having conducted his Nocturne and Scherzo there in 1922. This latter work and his Valsette and part of Ode to a Skylark were all done by Sargent when he was conductor at Llandudno later in the 1920s. His partsong Blow Blow Thou Winter Wind was heard in concert at Doncaster in the 1920s and his solo song My Heart Has a Quiet Sadness was published and enjoyed some success. As late as 1949 he was partly credited with the music to the film Edward My Son. Surprisingly, considering he worked so many years at the BBC, I have found no trace of any arrangement or composition by Sir Adrian Boult in the BBC Catalogue of Orchestral Music, although, as Michael Kennedys biography of him makes clear, he composed songs, piano pieces etc, when he was a student, but, perhaps by way of compensation, that volume has a long list by Stanford Robinson, who died in 1984 and was for so long associated with opera on radio: arrangements of traditional or popular melodies for solo voice or chorus, with or without orchestra, opera and operetta selections for voices and orchestra or just for orchestra, like the Savoy Dances culled from G&S operettas, plus a few original ballads like To You Eternally, A Prairie Lullaby and Love Me Not for Comely Grace, choral works like The Three Crows (for soloist, chorus and orchestra), a Rondo in C for two pianos and some shorter partsongs, the Valse Serenade for orchestra and a few snippets of incidental music for radio. Robinson, born in Leeds, studied at the RCM under Boult and was with the BBC from 1924, notably as conductor of the BBC Theatre Orchestra 1932-46 and its amplification, the BBC Opera Orchestra 1949-52. Sir Charles Groves (1915-92), who was for many years conductor of the BBC Northern3 Orchestra and subsequently of the Bournemouth and Liverpool orchestras, arranged a selection of Drury Lane Memories and the accompaniment of at least one folk song. Sir Charles Mackerras is widely known for his ballet score Pineapple Poll and The Lady and the Fool arranged from Sullivan and Verdi respectively. Alexander Faris (b. 1921), conductor at the Carl Rosa, Sadlers Wells and the Royal Ballet, has a considerable number of compositions to his credit, particularly scores for films (Georgy Girl, The Quare Fellow, Rowlandsons England and He Who Rides a Tiger) and TV (Upstairs, Downstairs, Wings and The Duchess of Duke Street) but also the orchestral Sketches of Regency England and the operetta R Loves J. Raymond Leppard (b. 1927), respected as a conductor in the concert hall and the opera house since the 1950s is well-known for his editions of early 17th century Italian opera and vocal music, but he also produced film scores in the 1960s: Alfred The Great, Lord of the Flies and Laughter in the Dark.
Turning to those who have excelled almost equally at both conducting and original composition it is clear to me and surely to most lovers of British music that perhaps the four greatest "all rounders" have been Sir Frederic Hymen Cowen, Sir Hamilton Harty, Sir Eugene Goossens and Constant Lambert. All of these require more extended treatment than this article can give them and as all of them have to a degree received this in quite recent times4 I can therefore pass on to recall some rather less remembered figures and some who are nowadays virtually forgotten.
Percy Pitt, born in London on 4 January 1869, studied in Leipzig with Reinecke and Jadassohn and at Munich with Rheinberger. Returning to England, he became accompanist to the Queens Hall Orchestra in 1896, playing organ piano and celesta and also writing programme notes for the Proms for many years. He then moved to opera, becoming, in 1902, Adviser to the Grand Opera Syndicate which ran Covent Garden and between 1907 and 1924, Musical Director there. In reality this meant he was no more than coach and assistant conductor, but he helped Hans Richter put on Wagners Ring in English (1908-9) and he himself conducted Poldinis Der Vagabond und Die Prinzessin, Mozarts Don Giovanni, Sullivans Ivanhoe, Mussorgskys Khovanschina and Debussys Pelléas et Mélisande, among other things, at the Garden, either side of the Great War. After a spell (1922-4) as Artistic Director of the British National Opera Company, he became Musical Adviser to the then new BBC, directing a wide variety of music with the Wireless Orchestra and actually conducting the BBCs first public symphony concert at the Central Hall in February 1924. His pioneer work at the BBC undoubtedly laid a firm foundation for Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra to build on after Pitts retirement in 1930. He recorded widely for the gramophone from the time of the Great War onwards. Pitt died in London on 23 November 1932.
His compositions were considerable in number and were not only for orchestra. There were choral pieces, short ones like the madrigal Love is a Sickness and the partsongs To Night, Shepherds All and Maidens fair and A Love Symphony - all Opus 30 - and O Nightingale and Laugh at Loving if You Will (from Opus 36) and longer works with orchestra such as Englands Welcome, Opus 48 (1907), song cycles for baritone (1902) an mezzo-soprano (1904) and, for male voices, Hohenlinden Opus 5 (1899), a setting of Thomas Campbells stirring battle poem. Pitts solo songs included many ballads like For Memorys Sake, Her Coming and Love is a Dream, the Three Poesies, Opus 34, to French words, and the Sérénade du Passant, written for Tetrazzini in 1917. For piano he composed much: Aquarelles, Bagatelles, Dance Rhythms Opus 51 (i.e. Sarabande, Valsette, Gavotte and Musette), the five Genre Pieces, Opus 35, Fêtes Galantes (1896), four Harmonies dAutomne, two sets of Silhouettes, two sets of Impressions, Miniatures, the Modern Suite Opus 20 and Pensées Fugitives, Opus 14, apart from transcriptions from his orchestral works. There were similar solos for violin and cello and pieces for piano duet, for instance the Fêtes Galantes, Opus 24, transcribed from an orchestral original inspired by the French poet, Paul Verlaine and also a March for military band. His orchestral music enjoyed considerable exposure in its day. The Suite in Four Movements (1895), the Coronation March Opus 21 (1896), the Concertino in C minor for clarinet (1897), Air de Ballet for strings (1899), the suite Cinderella (1899), Suite de Ballet (1901), Dance Rhythms (1901), Three Old English Dances from Richard II (1903), and English Rhapsody on folk songs, Serenade for small orchestra (1910) and the Aria for strings, not to mention an Andante for wind he arranged from Mozart (both 1913) were all premiered by Sir Henry Wood at the Proms. Pitts Ballade for violin and orchestra, Opus 17 (1900) was written for Ysaye; other major works included the symphonic poem Anactoria for viola and orchestra, Oriental Rhapsody Opus 32A (performed by the Hallé Orchestra prior to 1914), the overture, The Taming of the Shrew, the Sakura ballet, the "Symphonic Prelude" Le Sang des Crepuscules (1900), the overture and suite Paolo and Francesca, Opus 35, a Symphony in G minor for the Birmingham Festival of 1906 and the Sinfonietta which, at 40-45 minutes long, was of symphonic proportions. Havergal Brian admired the orchestration of the latter, though the piece as a whole left him cold, as did other Pitt compositions he reviewed over the years. Paolo and Francesca and Richard II derived from incidental music; other noteworthy incidental music by him was written for Alfred Austins play Flodden Field. No doubt the lack of individuality of Pitts music has outweighed its technical expertise and militated against its survival into the present day. But it was popular in its day and some of it was recorded in acoustic days.
1Panufnik (1914-91) conducted much in his native Poland, but apart from a spell (1957-9) as Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - during which I saw him in Sheffield - he conducted only occasionally over here, composition taking much of this time. His works included ten symphonies, many of them composed in England, and three string quartets. His daughter Roxanna also composes.
2For a hopefully complete list of Wood's compositions and arrangements, see Arthur Jacob's 'Henry J Wood, Maker of the Proms' (Methuen)
3Later styled BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra and now the BBC Philharmonic.
4See Gervase Hughes, "Sidelights on a Century of Music" 1825-1924, pp. 180 et seq, for Cowen; R Shead, "Constant Lambert" (1973 repr. 1987); D Greer (ed) "Hamilton Harty, His Life and Music" (1979); and Anne Goossens, "Sir Eugene Goossens", article in the British Music Society Journal, Vol. 3, pp. 1-10, and Goossens' own memoirs, "Overture and Beginners" (1951).
© P. L. Scowcroft rev February 1990 and February 1994/July 1997.
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