Posted by Admin on 25 July 2011, 12:37 pm

Over half a century ago, long before our ears were assaulted by the now universally disseminated pop noises, the BBC’s weekly broadcasts invariably included several programmes of light music played on cinema organs or on the organ of the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool. Many of those programmes contained pieces by Albert William Ketelbey whom the Dictionary of National Biography has described as ‘the foremost British light composer of his day’, and whose most frequently heard compositions in the ‘Twenties were In a Monastery Garden, Bells Across the Meadow, and In a Persian Market.

For further proof of his popularity I am indebted to that versatile and distinguished musician, Mr Victor Fleming, whose orchestra and sextet made over one hundred broadcasts, and who was the BBC’s musical assistant for the Midland Region. From his Ventnor home, in reply to my enquiry, Mr Fleming sent me a list of twenty-seven compositions by Ketelbey, many of which I had never heard. Between July 1936 and December 1939 these pieces were performed by Mr Fleming in one hundred and six programmes, many being played three times, nearly all more than once. Unfortunately, although Albert Ketelbey lived in Cowes (at Rookstones on Egypt Hill) during his retirement, he and Victor Fleming never met. I was, however, lucky enough to meet Mr Wilfred Dorrington who knew him well, and who was kind enough to invite me to his home and entertain me with interesting and amusing anecdotes relating to conversations between him and the composer – stories with which I shall deal later.

Albert William Ketelbey was born in Aston Manor, Birmingham, on the 9th August in 1875. His parents were George Henry Ketelbey, an engraver, and Sarah Ann Aston. From his obituary in The Times we learn that he was educated at Fitzroy College in Fitzroy Square, and at Trinity College of Music, London, where he won a musical scholarship after competing successfully against the formidable runner-up, Gustav Holst. From Mr Fleming’s letter I learnt also that Ketelbey was a student at the Birmingham School of Music at a time when Sir Granville Bantock was its Principal. Of this I have no corroborative evidence. According to Groves’ New Dictionary of Music and Musicians the scholarship was the Queen Victoria Scholarship for composition won at the age of thirteen. At eleven he had composed a piano sonata which was performed at Worcester.

Another early achievement for the composer came in the form of the Sir Michael Costa Prize for a piano and wind quintet. Here we find conflicting evidence, for his obituary states it was for a string quintet. Michael Agnus Costa, born in Naples in 1866, came to this country when he was twenty-one, and became a famous conductor of operas, oratorios, and orchestral works, for which he set new standards. He was knighted in 1869. In 1912 Ketelbey’s The Phantom Melody captured a prize offered by the Dutch violoncellist, Auguste van Biene.

When only sixteen the young prodigy was the organist of St John’s Church. He then toured with a light opera company, after which, at the age of twenty-two, he was appointed musical director at the Vaudeville Theatre where he conducted for the famous Andre Charlot. Early in his career he wrote and published songs, anthems, and miscellaneous pieces for different instruments. Ketelbey himself was a proficient performer on the organ, cello, clarinet, oboe, and horn. At the Queen’s Hall and in the provinces he appeared as a solo pianist. Other works by him included piano arrangements of music by other composers, and selections from musical comedies. Under the pseudonym Anton Vodorinski he published various piano compositions. Much of his time was occupied in writing descriptive music to be played in cinemas still showing silent films – work which led to the creation of atmospheric pieces, such as In a Monastery Garden, for which he became famous. Although Groves dismisses his ‘narrative’ music as ‘sentimental pieces characterised by broad melody and somewhat garish orchestration’, some of it has had a lasting appeal and requests for it are received by the producers of programmes – for Radio Two’s Your Hundred Best Tunes, for example. In the days when all sizeable cinemas employed an orchestra, writing music to enhance the mood shown on the screen was very rewarding work. When the Loose Leaf Film Play Music Series appeared it included his Dramatic Agitato, Amaryllis (a piece ideal for delicate and fickle scenes), Mystery (suitable for episodes dealing with the uncanny), and Agitato Furioso which was an excellent accompaniment to riots, wars, and storms.

In addition to his composition and instrumental performances, Albert Ketelbey made a name for himself as a conductor, and in this capacity waved his baton, not only in England, but also on the continent where he conducted the Amsterdam Concertebouw and other European orchestras, quite often in concerts devoted to his own music. His music, I learnt, was greatly favoured by King George the Fifth and Queen Mary.

That Ketelbey possessed boundless mental as well as physical energy was exemplified by the number of pursuits in which he engaged during his eighty-four years of life. These comprised being the musical editor for several renowned publishers, the musical director for the Columbia Gramophone Company, the speaker of several foreign languages, and one of the founders of the Performing Rights Society.

Having written at some length about Ketelbey the composer, in the second part of this article I shall deal with Ketelbey the man.

To be continued.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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