SOME BRITISH CONDUCTOR-COMPOSERS
by Philip L. Scowcroft
Gideon Fagan (1904-80) was born in South Africa and spent much of his life there, but his study at the RCM under Vaughan Williams and his subsequent conducting experience here, particularly with the BBC Northern Orchestra between 1939 and 1942 (he returned to his native country in 1949) justify us in summarising his considerable output here: a quarter hour long tone poem Ilala, derived from music for the film David Livingstone. (Fagan worked in films, composing and conducting, 1936-9); a 17 minute Suite on Afrikaans Folk Tunes, for small orchestra, commissioned by the BBC; a Suite for piano and orchestra; a Concert Overture in D major; Nocturne for woodwind and strings; several overtures; vocal pieces like The Child Who Has Never Known Peace, which had orchestral accompaniment, and I Had a Dove; piano music, including The Harpies; and a Nonet.
Wales can be proud of two men born in the same year, 1909: Mansel Thomas, who died as recently as January 1986, and Arwel Hughes, who survived a little longer, until September 1988. Thomas studied at the RAM and joined the BBC before war service claimed him. Made conductor of the BBC Welsh Orchestra in 1946 and later Head of BBC Music in Wales, he composed mostly choral music: Psalms 24, 101 and 135, anthems (I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes is one), two full-scale cantatas, fantasies on British or usually specifically Welsh, airs, carols and short partsongs. His operetta The White Rose was broadcast in 1941 and his solo songs include the cycles Welsh Heritage, Raiders Dawn, Four Prayers from the Gaelic, Three Songs for Joanna and a large amount of Welsh folk song arrangements. For orchestra he wrote an Allegro for strings. Two Welsh Dances (intriguingly entitled Dance of the Four Clogs and Dance of the Red Cloak), a Breton Suite, a set of early Variations (1935) and Mini-Variations on a Welsh Theme, for brass (1969). His chamber and instrumental music included two piano trios. a String Quartet in F, a Suite for two clarinets, a Little Suite for cello and piano and a Suite for unaccompanied cello, Three Pieces for cello and piano and Two Variants on an Old Welsh Theme for harp solo.
Thomas, whose music is in a conservative, rather folky, idiom, left the BBC in 1965 to devote more time to composition and handed over his post as Head of BBC Music in Wales to the Wrexham-born Arwel Hughes, who had studied at the RCM under Vaughan Williams and, after a period as a church organist in Oxford, had been with the BBC in Wales since 1935. He had conducted the BBC Welsh Orchestra in Thomas absence and during his life composed much. His opera Menna and Serch Ywn Doctor (Loves The Doctor, after Molière), produced by Welsh National Opera in 1953 and 1960 respectively, show attractive lyricism, while his choral and orchestral works - Gweddi, Dewi Sant (i.e. Saint David: 1950), which was issued in a Chandos recording in 1990 conducted by his son Owain Arwel Hughes, the "masque" Saint Francis, Mab y Dyn (Son of Man: to a Biblical text), Psalm 148 for male voices, Psalm 121, Heaven for three-part womens voices, the Celebration Mass and the oratorio Pontycelyn, built around Welsh hymn tunes - are in the tradition of Parry, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, albeit with a strong Welsh accent. Of his solo songs, Love Lasts Longer also sounds like VW in his most approachable style but The Secret People is bleak and astringent in idiom. For orchestra his output included a Rondo for a Masque in the Style of the 16th Century, for flute and strings, an often performed Vaughan Williams-like Fantasia in A minor for string orchestra, which is a substantial piece (12 minutes long) and arguably his most popular original composition, a Prelude for the Youth Wales (1945) which after an elegiac opening inspired by the then recently concluded war is generally hopeful in mood, a Suite (1947), a Symphony (1971) and the "legend" Owain Glyndwr, a BBC commission of 1979. His three string quartets were distributed evenly throughout his creative life (1932, 1950 and 1976) and, like Mansel Thomas, he made a large number of Welsh folksong and hymn tune arrangements; Tydi a Roddaist (Thou Gavest) is especially popular with male voice choirs. His son Owain has outstripped him in popularity as a conductor but the elder Hughes name will, we hope, live on by his compositions. It was a name adorned in 1969 by an O.B.E. for services to Welsh music, services which included the encouragement of Welsh composers like Grace Williams, David Wynne and Alun Hoddinott.
Scotland can make a strong reply to Wales with the names of Ian Whyte (1901-60) and Guy Warrack (1900-86). Whyte studied at the RCM with Stanford and Vaughan Williams, but returned north of the border as soon as he could, becoming the BBCs Musical Director in Scotland in 1931, a position he held until 1945. He founded the BBC Scottish (Symphony) Orchestra, which he took over full-time from Warrack in 1945 and conducted until shortly before his death. His huge list of compositions owed a lot to Scottish traditional elements and included: the operas Comala, The Forge and The Tale of the Shepherds; the ballets Goblin Haa, The Trout and Donald of the Burthens, the latter produced at Covent Garden in 1951 and incorporating, with limited success, the bagpipes in a conventional orchestra; two symphonies, one of them performed at The Edinburgh Festival, and concertos for piano, also aired at that Festival, violin and viola; the symphonic poems Edinburgh, Tam OShanter and The Rose Garden, the overtures The Treadmill, Oragif and Concert Overture; the prelude Dunfermline, the ceremonial march Queen and Country, a Festival March, first performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1945, Dark Lochnagar, The Isle of Skye, Glamis Castle, Scottish Dances, A Prayer, Intermezzo, Fighting for the Empire, The Ghost of the Strath and the very popular Eightsome Reel, all for full orchestra; Airs and Dances from the Scottish Past (two sets), Interlude, Elegy and Melody, all for strings; vocal pieces, notably Wordsworths Sonnet 30, for chorus and strings, Et Incarnatus Est, The Beatitudes, for soprano, chorus and orchestra and a large number of short partsongs and solo songs, also countless arrangements of Scottish traditional songs; three string quartets, a Piano Quintet and a Violin Sonata; pieces for wind instruments and for brass, even a Gavotte for bass tuba; and for piano solo, a Sonata, the Canzonetta, the Pittencrief Suite and the Edinburgh Suite, depicting St Giles, Holyrood and Princes Street. Maybe the size of Whytes output daunts those who might wish to revive his music, but some is surely worth preserving. A start might be made with the Eightsome Reel, an interesting precursor of Malcolm Arnolds Scottish Dances.
Guy Warrack, father of the writer and critic, John Warrack, was educated at Oxford University and the RCM (under, yet again, Vaughan Williams for composition and Adrian Boult for conducting) and was on the Colleges teaching staff from 1925 to 1935, during which time he had conducting experience at home and abroad. Between 1936 and 1945 he was Conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra, founded in 1936 and later of Sadlers Wells Theatre Ballet. He composed, but unlike Whyte, made relatively little use of traditional Scottish materials. His works include a Symphony in C minor (1932), the Variations for orchestra (1924), Fugal Blues, a Lullaby, a ballet on Don Quixote, the Divertimento Pasticciato in three movements entitled Prelude, Fugue and Furiant, some film music (including that for A Queen is Crowned, the official Coronation film of 1953, for the XIV Olympiad in London in 1948 and for a film about Arnhem, Theirs is the Glory) and arrangements, of Fauré for a ballet, La Fête Etranges, of Hamish MacCunns Scottish Dances for orchestra, and of baroque music for modern orchestra. I have also found some music he published for piano duet, a Jota arranged from his Don Quixote ballet, the rondo-waltz Der Mandelbaum and the "Valse Viennoise" Straussmädchen, all of them surely transcriptions from orchestral works. Warrack wrote a history of the Royal College of Music and a slim but fascinating volume on Sherlock Holmes and Music (1947).
The BBCs English regions also produced their conductor-composers. One of the best was Reginald (Rex) Redman (1892-1972), who studied at the Guildhall School and joined the BBC, eventually moving to the Western Region where he formed the West Country Studio Orchestra and the West Country Singers. The former seemed to the writer in the 1940s to be a "poor relation" of the BBCs Northern, Scottish and even Welsh Orchestras, and was confined by its size to lighter music but it nevertheless did valuable and enjoyable work under Redman and later under John Bath (when it was re-titled BBC West of England Light Orchestra but still had no more than 25 players) and Frank Cantell. Redman was a prolific composer, his works including concertos for piano and cello, an opera, a ballet, a cantata, tone poems and chamber music, incidental music, especially for radio broadcasts, songs, partsongs and piano music. Much of his orchestral output was light in style, pieces like the suites, Marston Court and From a Moorish Village, the "Idyll for small orchestra", Pans Garden, the folk-based West Country Suite premiered at the Torquay Festival in October 1935, a Serenade for two violins and orchestra, An Irish Souvenir, the charmingly pastoral Away on the Hills, for strings only (revived in Doncaster as recently as 1989), the tone poems Moods and Nocturne, the Introduction and Folk Tune dedicated to Sir Adrian Boult, a Concert Tango featuring saxophones, the suite The Prickety Bush for strings and piano and a Rhapsody on Somerset Folk Songs. His large output of songs, for solo voice or chorus, reflected to a large degree his West Country domicile, being either arrangements of traditional or popular songs from that area or cycles with titles like The Forest of Dean and Three Kings of Somerset, both for baritone and orchestra, Three West Country Idylls and Songs of the West Country, both for SATB, The Peaceful Lanes of Devon, for SSC, and From The West Countrie in five movements featuring Exmoor, Plymouth Sound and Falmouth among other places, but his output did include two collections of humorous songs, Striking a Humorous Note and Toothsome Trifles: Eleven Nonsense Songs, one or two items for religious use, no fewer than four sets of Chinese songs (either arrangements of folk melodies or original settings of Chinese poems), Christmas Carols and anthems like Praise Ye the Lord. Also popular were Silver (solo), All Silent Now and Sweet Solitude (mixed voices) and Our Lady of the Night and Oh, the Ecstasy of Singing (male voices). Redmans piano pieces enjoyed titles like A Cornish Legend, The Lonely Faun, Mist on the Moors and On the Cornish Coast. The "chamber" pieces I have found are mainly arrangements, many of them, for a Grand Hotel type piano trio, of folk melodies though there are one or two other original piano trio movements, Pavan and Slumber Scene, and an Elegie for cello and piano. John Bath, incidentally, was the son of Hubert Bath of Cornish Rhapsody fame; he composed many film scores and also a Spanish Serenade for small orchestra and Fiddlers Fancye, a suite of 18th century dances for string quartet and string orchestra. Illness forced his retirement after only a short time conducting the BBC West of England Light Orchestra.
Gilbert Vinter (1909-69), Lincoln-born and trained at Kneller Hall and the Royal Academy, became conductor of the BBC Midland Light Orchestras late in the 1940s after wartime service subsequently passing on to conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra and his own concert band. Like Redman he was a prolific composer, of a ballet in four scenes, For Love or Money, two other ballets, a Saxophone Concerto, a Clarinet Concertino, Piaculum, for soprano and orchestra, and much other orchestral work, with or without voices. Because the Midland Orchestra was "Light", so is a lot of Vinters orchestral output: many medleys and folk tune arrangements, other pieces weaving in traditional material, such as the English Rhapsody, Latin-American Suite, Rhapsody Ecuador (one of about twenty rhapsodies on folk melodies of different countries), The Chantyman (Seascape for orchestra), Portuguese Party and a Celtic Lilt, light overtures (Mr Know-All and Overture to a New Venture), a Song-Dance Suite and individual novelty pieces like Friday Street for oboe, celeste and strings, The Playful Pachyderm and Reverie, both for bassoon and orchestra (he was himself a bassoon player and taught the instrument at the RAM), The Little Island Rhapsody, for flute, harp and strings, and, most popular of all in my recollection, the technically difficult Hunters Moon for horn and strings. Vinters songs, solo or choral, were mainly arrangements, but he did set Three Poems by W H Davies in 1951, A Stratford Lover and excerpts from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (for soprano, oboe and piano). The two Miniatures for wind quintet (From Norfolk and From Devon) have achieved a certain popularity. It is in fact as writer for wind instruments, whether, as in the suite New Lamps for Old, for military band, for brass quartet or brass band that Vinter achieved most fame. The brass band world used as test pieces - and concert items - such works by him as Salute to Youth, Symphony of Marches, The TUC Centenary March, Variations in a Ninth, Spectrum, James Cook, Circumnavigator and Triumphant Rhapsody, though best of all maybe was The Trumpets, for chorus and brass. These are well constructed and well written, though one may question whether they have the distinctiveness of melodic invention to survive into the 21st Century. Vinters predecessor as conductor of the Midland Orchestra, H.C. Burgess, who also conducted the Weston-Super-Mare Orchestra 1920-38, penned the march To the Clink of the Spur and other orchestral items.
We must now note, rather more briefly, a few more BBC conductors who were responsible for a considerable number of compositions. David Curry, who formed the 16-piece BBC Northern Ireland Light Orchestra about the same time, later published a brief Irish Pastorale (for orchestra, 1959) and two books of Irish Rhythms for piano solo (1955-56). More important than Curry is Havelock Nelson, born in 1917, who died in 1996. He joined the BBC in Belfast in 1947 having been educated at Trinity College Dublin and the Royal Irish Academy of Music. He conducted the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra, also the Studio Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Singers. His compositions were legion and included orchestral works, a ballet, a choral suite and many partsongs, anthems and (particularly) unison songs, song cycles and other solo songs (like Dirty Work and Love is Cruel), piano pieces including the Three Irish Diversions, instrumental works like the Cameos for clarinet solo, incidental music for films and radio and TV plays, and many arrangements of Irish and other folksongs. He made several recordings; on his retirement in 1977 he went to Trinidad to direct a local opera company. Among the more popular of his published miniatures are popular nursery rhymes in the styles of Mendelssohn and Rossini. A later conductor of the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra between 1976 and 1981 was Eric David Wetherell, born in Tynemouth in 1925 and educated at Queens College, Oxford and the RCM. After ten years as a horn player in orchetsras (1949-59) he was successively Repetitieur at the Royal Opera House Covent Graden (196-63) and Assistant Music Director to the Welsh national Opera (1963-69). His compositions include, for full orchestra, the Overture Beau Nash, the suites Welsh Dresser, in five movements, and Airs and Graces, for string orchestra, Bristol Quay, the chorus Your Gift to Man plus various arrangements and transcriptions and music for TV plays and films. He is clearly in the English light music tradition.
Harry Rabinowitz, born in Johannesburg in 1916 and educated at the Witwatersrand University and the Guildhall School, came to the BBC in 1953 after experience in West End theatres. He remained with the Corporation, in radio (1953-60) or television (1960-8) for fifteen years before moving to Independent Television (1968-77) and then going freelance. He was musical coordinator for the famous film Chariots of Fire. Rabinowitz is remembered particularly for directing the BBCs lighter orchestras, but he did also conduct the LSO, LPO, RPO, Philharmonia and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestras not to mention the Boston Pops and the LAPO. He composed film, TV and radio scores of which Love for Lydia and Thomas and Sarah are examples. A good pianist, his Strolling Player was published for piano, as was his arrangement of the Romance from Shostakovichs The Gadfly, used as theme music for Thames TVs Reilly, Ace of Spies. Paul Fenoulhet was another one active with the BBCs lighter orchestras in the 1950s and 1960s; in addition to the usual copious arrangements he produced novelty pieces like The Grand Corniche and Top Gear and the attractive Suffolk Sketches, from which I heard the Flatford Mill movement only quite recently. Sidney Torch, M.B.E. (1908-90) may properly be considered here as he conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra regularly in Friday Night is Music Night from 1953 to 1972 and for which he penned countless arrangements. An exponent of the theatre organ in his younger days Torch conducted the RAF Concert Orchestra during the Second War and thereafter devoted himself primarily to conducting, arranging and composing. His compositions, almost all of them for orchestra, were light in character and, apart from signature tunes for radio programmes like Much Binding in the Marsh, included Barbecue (1952), Duel for Drummers, Shooting Star, On a Spring Note (1952), Cornflakes, Going for a Ride, Bicycle Belles, Meandering (1952), Shortcake Walk (1952), Romany Rhapsody, All Strings and Fancy Free, Petite Valse, Samba Seed, Cresta Run, with a scintillating xylophone solo Concerto Incognito for piano and orchestra, a tribute to the Warsaw Concerto, Trapeze Waltz (1963, arguably the best known of all Torchs short compositions) and, written for the 1958 BBC Light Music Festival, the London Transport Suite. Torch also strung together many sparkling selections. Three other figures who conducted light orchestras "on the air" may be mentioned briefly, Stanley Black (born 1913) for his attractive Overture for a Costume Comedy and his film music of which older readers will recall particularly the Pathé News Fanfare, and Charles Shadwell (1898-1979) for his piano piece Lulworth Cove. Then Frank Chacksfield (1914-1995), conductor of the Tunesmiths and the Frank Chacksfield Orchestra after the Second War and a prolific broadcaster and recording artist, was a pianist and organist in early life. He was a fine arranger, gaining a hit with his transcription of the film music from Limelight and among original compositions, mood pieces like Old Lisbon, Ebb Tide and Donkey Cart (1956) achieved much success.
Anthony Bernard (1891-1963) was never a BBC staff conductor but he wrote so much incidental music for radio productions late in life that we may appropriately deal with him at this point. His scores included Iphigenia in Aulis (1951, later re-used with additions of his own by Rae Jenkins, himself sometime conductor of the BBC Welsh and BBC Variety Orchestras), The Tempest (also 1951), A Midsummer Nights Dream and the Ion and Bacchae of Euripides. In 1956 Bernard made a version for the BBC of The Beggars Opera, scoring it for flute, oboe, bassoon, harpsichord and strings. He is best remembered for his conductorship of the London Chamber Orchestra, which for upwards of thirty years explored unfamiliar repertoire; but he also directed the BNOC (1924-5) and at Stratford-on-Avon (1932-42). He studied composition with Bantock and Ireland and was an organist and a piano accompanist. His earlier works include an organ prelude, Rorate Coeli (1916), Variations on a Hill Tune, for piano (1920) and songs like The Cherry Tree Song.
© P. L. Scowcroft rev February 1990 and February 1994/July 1997.
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