Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Soothing Composer Ketelbey

Albert William Ketèlbey (/kəˈtɛlbi/; born Ketelbey; 9 August 1875 – 26 November 1959), was an English composer, conductor, and pianist, best known for his short pieces of light orchestral music. He was born in Birmingham, and moved to London in 1889 to study at Trinity College of Music. After a brilliant studentship he did not pursue the classical career predicted for him, becoming musical director of the Vaudeville Theatre before gaining fame as a composer of light music and as a conductor of his own works.

For many years Ketèlbey worked for a series of music publishers, including Chappell & Co and the Columbia Graphophone Company, making arrangements for smaller orchestras, a period in which he learned to write fluent and popular music. He also found great success writing music for silent films until the advent of talking films in the late 1920s.

The composer's early works in conventional classical style were well received, but it was for his light orchestral pieces that he became best known. One of his earliest works in the genre, In a Monastery Garden (1915), sold over a million copies and brought him to widespread notice; his later musical depictions of exotic scenes caught the public imagination and established his fortune. Such works as In a Persian Market (1920), In a Chinese Temple Garden (1923), and In the Mystic Land of Egypt (1931) became best-sellers in print and on records; by the late 1920s he was Britain's first millionaire composer. His celebrations of British scenes were equally popular: examples include Cockney Suite (1924) with its scenes of London life, and his ceremonial music for royal events. His works were frequently recorded during his heyday, and a substantial part of his output has been put on CD in more recent years.

In 1912 the composer and cellist Auguste van Biene offered a prize for a new work to complement his popular piece The Broken Melody. Ketèlbey was the winner of the competition with a new composition, The Phantom Melody, which became his first major success. In the following year he won two prizes totalling £200 in a competition held by The Evening News: second place with a song for female voices, and first place with his entry for male voices. The latter song, "My Heart Still Clings to You", is described by Sant as "a typical tragical-love ballad of this time, and its almost Victorian sentimentality comes through in its words". In the early to mid-1910s Ketèlbey began to write music for silent films—a new growth industry in Britain from 1910 onwards—and he had great success in the medium until the advent of talking films in the late 1920s.

In 1914 Ketèlbey wrote the orchestral work In a Monastery Garden, which was published in the following year both as a piano piece and in full orchestral form. It was his first major success, his most famous piece, and became known all over the world; by 1920 over a million copies of the sheet music had been sold. There are two competing stories detailing the inspiration behind the piece: although Ketèlbey later said that he wrote the work for an old friend, he also stated that he composedit after visiting a monastery. The musicologist Peter Dempsey considers that "this piece ... remains to this day a world-renowned staple of the light-music repertoire, while McCanna opines that from the first bar, listeners "... might sooner expect such a device in the impassioned world of a [Gustav] Mahler symphony than in a genteel English salon piece". The success of The Phantom Melody and In a Monastery Garden led to Ketèlbey's engagement by André Charlot as the musical director for the 1916 revue Samples! at the Vaudeville Theatre. The appointment led to similar positions at other London theatres, including the Adelphi, Garrick, Shaftesbury and Drury Lane theatres.

Because of the rise in Ketèlbey's popularity, and in sales of his sheet music, in 1918 he became a member of the Performing Rights Society. Except for a brief interval in 1926 when he resigned over a dispute about the allocation of funds to its members, he remained a lifelong member. In 1919 he composed the romantic work In the Moonlight, which his publisher considered to be "a work of striking beauty". In the following year he wrote Wedgwood Blue—a gavotte—and In a Persian Market; the latter became one of his more popular works. The musicologist Jonathan Bellman, calling In a Persian Market "immortal", describes it as "an 'intermezzo scene' for band or small orchestra; reprehensibly demeaning or delightfully tacky". The work was not without its critics; the composer and conductor Nicolas Slonimsky quotes the view of a Russian journal that "the suite ... had its 'immaculate conception' in imperialistic colonial England. The composer's intention is to convince the listener that all's well in the colonies where beautiful women and exotic fruits mature together, where beggars and rulers are friends, where there are no imperialists, no restive proletarians." In The Musical Times, the pseudonymous reviewer "Ariel" described the work as "naive and inexpensive pseudo-orientalism", which led to heated correspondence in the journal over the following months between the composer and the critic.

In 1921 Ketèlbey moved from his home in St John's Wood, where he had been living for the previous seven years, to Frognal, an area of Hampstead, north west London. He installed a billiards table in the basement, which became his favoured form of relaxation. He produced a series of orchestral pieces in the first half of the 1920s, including Bells Across the Meadows released in 1921, and Suite Romantique (1922), which the music critic Tim McDonald considers "impressive". In the following year Ketèlbey wrote In a Chinese Temple Garden, followed in 1924 by Sanctuary of the Heart and Cockney Suite. The last of these contained the finale " 'Appy 'Ampstead", which the writers Lewis and Susan Foreman describe as "... a kaleidoscope of passing images, mouth organs, a cornet playing, ... a band, ... shouts of a showman ... with his rattle and a steam engine and roundabout".

In 1923 the composer Frederic Austin wrote the opera Polly, closely based on the 1729 work of the same name by John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch; recordings of Austin's work were published by Columbia's main rival, the Gramophone Company. At Columbia's request Ketèlbey produced his own version of Gay's original. Austin considered that it copied elements of his, and sued for copyright infringement. Acting as a court expert witness, the composer Sir Frederick Bridge thought that the case "... is an awful bore. ... These two good men are good musicians, and they have no business to be fighting over the game. It is not worth the trouble. ... It is rubbish. I am sick of 'Polly'." After three weeks the case ended with the judge finding against Columbia.

Such was Ketèlbey's popularity that by 1924 his works could be heard several times a day in restaurants and cinemas, and in that year the Lyons tea shops spent £150,000 on playing his music in their outlets. He continued to build on his success in 1925 with In a Lovers' Garden and In the Camp of the Ancient Britons—inspired by a trip he took to Worlebury Camp, near Weston-super-Mare. He undertook annual tours of Britain, conducting his music with municipal orchestras, and also worked with the BBC Wireless Orchestra. He was invited to conduct several international orchestras, and spent time in Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland and particularly in the Netherlands, where he built a strong relationship with the Concertgebouw and Kursaal Grand Symphony orchestras. His music was popular on the continent and his obituarist in The Times later reported that one Viennese critic considered that Ketèlbey's music was behind only that of Johann Strauss and Franz Lehár. Continental audiences often called him "The English Strauss".

The introduction of talking films in 1927 with The Jazz Singer and the subsequent growth of the medium had a serious impact on composers and music publishers involved in the film industry as it heralded a decline in the sales of sheet music. Although Ketèlbey's income from this source declined, the period was also marked by a rise in the popularity of the radio and gramophones and his new compositions were successful with audiences at home. By the early 1930s over 1,500 broadcasts of his work were made on BBC Radio in a year, and more than 700 on continental radio stations, including a weekly Sunday programme of his music, sponsored by Decca Records on Radio Luxembourg. For this programme he wrote the theme music, "Sunday Afternoon Reverie", with the melody based on the musical notes D E C C A.

Ketèlbey wrote an intermezzo—A Birthday Greeting—in 1932, on the sixth birthday of Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II). His connection to royalty continued in 1934, when his march A State Procession was played to accompany the arrival of King George V at a Royal Command Performance; the king requested that the march should be played again during the interval, and he and the queen stayed in the royal box to listen to the piece. In the following year Ketèlbey wrote the march With Honour Crowned for the King's silver jubilee; the work was played for the royal family at Windsor Castle before Ketèlbey conducted its first public performance at Kingsway Hall. The work was played at that year's Trooping the Colour and at the Jubilee Thanksgiving Service at St Paul's Cathedral.

Ketèlbey continued to conduct on his annual tours during the Second World War, but these were on a smaller scale because of travel restrictions. He also continued with his annual concerts at Kingsway Hall, and introduced a new march, Fighting for Freedom, which he had written in a supportive response to Winston Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech. Apart from composing and conducting, he also acted as a Special Constable during the war.


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