Classical Music on the Web

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by Philip L. Scowcroft

In his centenary year (1986), and since, Eric Coates' music has had a certain amount of welcome exposure; but how many of his English contemporaries in the light music field are remembered other than perfunctorily? Take, for example, Percy Eastman Fletcher, who was born in Derby on 12 December 1879 and died on 10 December 1932 at the early age of 52. He took lessons on violin, piano and organ, the former being his most important instrument. Like a number of his composer contemporaries, notably Arthur Wood and Alfred Reynolds, he made his living as a Musical Director in the London theatre world, fulfilling this position successively at the Prince of Wales, Savoy, Daly's, Drury Lane and from, 1915 until his death, His Majesty's Theatre. Soon after going to the latter he directed the very long running Chu Chin Chow and was in fact responsible for much of the orchestration of Frederick Norton's score. Fletcher then composed its successor Cairo, originally entitled Mecca and described as a 'mosaic in music and mime' which ran for 216 performances in 1921, and in 1925, brought out another musical comedy The Good Old Days.

His creative activity was however by no means confined to the theatre. There were ballads like The Bells of Youth, Kitty, What a Pity, Secret of My Heart, The Captain's Eye, The Smile of Spring, The Great Adventure and Galloping Dick; his Four Tennyson Lyrics were more serious effusions among his song output. He wrote a considerable amount for chorus: a The Shafts of Cupid, The Enchanted Island, Choral Rhapsody on Scottish Airs, with orchestra (1915), The Walrus and the Carpenter (1910), the humorous ballad The Deacon's Masterpiece, or the Wonderful One-hoss Shay, also with orchestra (1911), the later (1931) Cupid's Garland, for male chorus, soli and orchestra, and most popular down the years, The Passion of Christ (1922), one of the best of those sacred cantatas for small church choirs in the style and tradition of Stainer's The Crucifixion; Stainer's work owes something to Mendelssohn, Fletcher's something to Elgar, though it is of course no Gerontius. Shorter partsongs included many for female voices only, like The Cloud, Bees, Haste Thee Nymph, the lullaby Softly Sink in Slumbers Golden, O, May Thou Art a Merry Time, and The Valley of Dreams, and also carols like Now Once Again and Ring Out, Wild Bells, and many setting of British folk and other melodies. mixed voice partsongs like Dream Love (1921), Lullaby of Love, Haste Thee Nymph (again) Folly's Song (1921) and for male voices Song of the Apple Trees (1924), The Vision of Belshazzar, A Dirge of Kisses and The Sailor's Return were in demand for festivals.

Fletcher wrote a large number of suites for light orchestras, probably even more than Eric Coates, whose composing career was longer. There are, for example, Six Cameos for a Costume Comedy (1926), Rustic Revels (1918), Sylvan Scenes, Woodland Pictures (1920) (the latter two different despite their similar titles), Famous Beauties (respectively entitled Aphrodite, Versailles Palace and Cleopatra)!, The Three Light Pieces (Lubly Lulu, Fifinette and the March Folies Bergères), Nautical Scenes, Salon Suite (Suite in Olden Style), At Gretna Green, Three Frivolities (i.e. dance Parade, Mam'selle Mannequin, Tango-Valse, Thé Dansant, Galopade, Café Chantant), the two bagatelles, Valsette and Pizzicato, the Parisian Sketches of 1914 (Demoiselle Chic and Bal Masqué, of which the latter remained popular for many years), Ballade and Bergomask, the sprightly overture Vanity Fair and many individual movements variously described as Intermezzi, Romances, Morceaux Charactéristiques, Lyrical Melodies, Serenades, and Waltzes. I have heard his marches The Crown of Chivalry and Spirit of Pageantry, which have an Elgarian feel even if they display more pomp than circumstance; other published marches were the V.C. March, apparently based on Frank Bridge's song Michael O'Leary V.C., a toy soldiers' march, The Toy Review, and a Sultan's March extracted from Cairo. Like Coates and Alfred Reynolds among others, he experimented in writing pastiche early music, as in the Salon Suite in the Old Style, comprising Prelude, Sarabande, Minuet and Gavotte. Although the splendidly written Folk Tune and Fiddle Dance was for strings only, most of the others are for full orchestra many scores having a written out part for euphonium as well as the usual orchestral woodwind and brass instruments. In addition Fletcher arranged suites from other composers' music. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor died in 1912 leaving his Hiawatha Suite and Minnehaha Suite, intended probably as ballet scores and having no musical connection with the choral Hiawatha, almost finished. Fletcher completed these and had them performed as orchestral works. He also made a purely orchestral arrangement of Amy Woodforde-Finden's once enormously popular Indian Love Lyrics and made versions of her suites A Lover in Damascus and The Pagoda of Flowers. His fantasia for chorus and orchestra on themes from Wagner's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg was popular at one time; I have traced several performances in the Doncaster area either side of 1914.

Most of Fletcher's piano music was arranged from orchestral scores (examples are Nautical Scenes, Sylvan Scenes, At Gretna Green and Bal Masqué) and a selection from Cairo appeared in piano form, But the Five Lyrical Pieces subtitled Idylesques, Six Compositions, Four Confessions and the early Dreamer of Dreams seem to be piano originals. He also put piano accompaniments to a set of French Nursery Songs published by Curwen. He also composed quite widely for organ. An Interlude of 1901 is his earliest dated publication I have found, yet it is numbered as Op. 27 No 2. Later essays for organ included two from 1915, Festival Toccata and Fountain Reverie and a Festal Offertorium of 1926. The Festival Toccata, a triumphal movement dedicated to Edwin Lemare, was recorded by Jonathan Bielby of Wakefield Cathedral on Priory PR139. I have heard a number of his short simple and undeniably attractive preludes on well known hymn tunes.

In one respect at least he was a pioneer. Before 1913 brass band festival pieces were invariably operatic selections but in that year Irwell Springs Band won the National Championships at the Crystal Palace with Fletcher's specially commissioned tone poem Labour and Love - other classics specially commissioned as test pieces for the brass band medium were to follow in later years written by major composers like Holst, Elgar, John Ireland, Bantock, Howells, Holbrooke, Bliss, Vaughan Williams, Rubbra and Gordon Jacob. Fletcher himself was asked again for the National Championships of 1926 and obliged with An Epic Symphony. Revived as a test piece for the National Championships of 1938 and 1951 and as recently as 1976 in the Open Championship at Belle Vue, Manchester, this is a richly expansive piece in three movements strongly redolent of Elgar and interestingly may well be Fletcher's most serious work in any medium.

Sadly Fletcher's music, (he wrote also for military band and at least one string quartet) has now all but sunk without trace. One may still occasionally hear Bal Masqué played by a light orchestra. Brass bands which are mostly bastions of conservatism (and why should they not be?), revive and indeed have recorded Labour and Love and the Epic Symphony from time to time and in so doing please heir audiences. And a few church choirs put on the Passion at Easter when they want a change from The Crucifixion and (the much inferior) Olivet to Calvary. But we seem to have lost all that tuneful, excellently scored light orchestral music, not only Fletcher's but that of most of his contemporaries. Surely the best of it is worth preserving?

© Philip L Scowcroft.

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

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