About this Recording
8.223442 - KETELBEY: In a Monastery Garden / Chal Romano

Albert Ketèlbey (1875-1959)

A publisher's announcement in the journal of the British Performing Right Society in October 1929 said it all: "ARTHUR W. KETÈLBEY'S (Britain's Greatest Living Composer) New and Beautiful Inspiration, The Sacred Hour."

Leaving aside the not insignificant fact that men of the creative stature of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Hoist and Bax happened to be living at that time, there is a certain Freudian elegance in the fact that even Mr. Ketèlbey's own publisher couldn't get his name right! He was, in fact, Albert W. Ketèlbey but it was the surname, not the forename, that usually caused the problem. At the very least, people tended to put the stress in the wrong place - it should come on the second syllable: Ke-tèl-bey. On other occasions, the poor gentleman had to endure being addressed as Mr. Kettleboy, Kettlebay and sundry other variations of nomenclature.

And yet, before pity takes over, it should be quickly pointed out that it was all self-inflicted. Although, astonishingly, no-one can be certain, it looks as if he was born plain William Aston, but as he was born in the Aston district of Birmingham, it is possible that his name has become confused with his place of birth! Where, when and how he underwent the change of appellation remains a mystery, except that it seems to have taken place very early on. There has been an attempt to attribute the new name to Danish origins, but with this theory beginning thus: "the ke being a "prefix" cognate with the Ke in the names "ke-nelm", "ke-steven", "k'nut", "Quebec" i.e. Ke-bec, the Que being the French equivalent of Ke", one may be forgiven for taking a couple of paces backwards! It has been assumed that the 'W.' stood for William but, again, there is no undisputed evidence to confirm this.

Anyway, Albert W. Ketèlbey-to-be was born, as has already been mentioned, in Birmingham on August 4, 1875. He seems to have shown an early talent for music with particular aptitude being apparent on the piano. A flair for composition quickly manifested itself and he was only 11 years old when he produced a Piano Sonata that was played in a recital at the Town Hall in Worcester and which later won the admiration of no less a person than Sir Edward Elgar. At Birmingham, his studies were presided over by Alfred Gaul and Dr. Herbert Wareing who prepared him for admission to one of the London music colleges. It was intended initially that he should attend the Royal College of Music but, somehow, he missed the entry date for a scholarship to that institution and so applied for one, the Queen Victoria Scholarship, at Trinity College. He was just thirteen, but easily won first place, obtaining several marks more than his fellow-applicant Gustav Hoist, who was almost a year his senior.

At Trinity, he was a diligent worker, studying composition under Gordon Saunders as well as a bewildering array of instruments, including the piano, organ, clarinet, horn, oboe and cello, the last of these being a particular favourite. He won a number of medals and prizes for both his playing and writing and had the satisfaction of seeing some of his early compositions appear in print, including a Caprice for Piano and Orchestra and a Concertstuck for the same forces, in both of which he performed the solo part. There were also a number of chamber pieces, the most notable being some String Quartets and a Quintet for Piano and Wind, the latter winning him the coveted Sir Michael Costa Prize. He was obviously an extraordinarily gifted scholar because he also managed to find time to become proficient in modern languages!

By sixteen, he was a fully trained musician and obtained his first professional appointment, that of organist at St. John's Church in Wimbledon. At this time, he looked destined for a glittering career in 'serious' music, both as a composer and performer. He continued to write, producing works for both the church and the concert hall, and began to establish himself as a pianist of no mean ability, appearing in a number of towns and cities, including London, Birmingham and Eastbourne. But fate was to turn the brilliant young musician in another direction. At the age of 20, he was offered the opportunity of becoming musical director of a touring musical comedy company, and accepted with apparent eagerness. He seems to have taken to this new way of life, and the different style of music, with great delight and travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles for a couple of years before finally settling down as the Musical Director of London's Vaudeville Theatre, where he worked on several of the André Chariot revues, providing original music for a number of productions. One of his first attempts at a work in theatrical vein was the comic opera A Good Time (subtitled Skipped By The Light Of The Moon), which appeared in 1896, but it was a later essay, The Wonder Worker, first staged at Fulham's Grand Theatre in West London in 1900, that attracted the most favourable attention. Meantime, he found financial, if not artistic, satisfaction, in turning out a steady stream of arrangements of musical comedy selections.

But this was not to be the area in which his name was to be universally established. He was already in his late thirties when, in 1912, he wrote a piece for cello in response to a competition sponsored by the famous player Auguste Van Biene. This was The Phantom Melody and it won him the handsome sum of £50 (Another contest success later the same year, this time in response to a song competition run by a London paper, the Evening News, netted him £100). The world of light orchestral music was beginning to beckon and, increasingly, Ketèlbey's interest turned in this direction. Charming little miniatures started to emerge from his pen, culminating with In a Monastery Garden which appeared in 1915 and brought the forty year old composer popular acclaim against which his earlier successes paled into comparative insignificance.

A rather bookish, slightly foppish appearance belied a personality which positively seethed with energy and industry. Somebody who, at various times, was musical editor to two major publishing houses, musical director of the Columbia Gramophone Company, an examiner for Trinity College and an active conductor, making appearances not only in Britain, often with his own ensemble, but with several orchestras throughout Europe (including the Amsterdam Concertgebouw) - where his flair for foreign languages undoubtedly proved invaluable - had to be rather special.

Nonetheless, his first love was composing and this he did from his delightful house in Appley Road, Cowes on the Isle of Wight which he purchased with the income from his singularly lucrative light music pieces. To extract the maximum financial benefit from his handiwork, he made many arrangements of the most successful pieces, scoring them for band, salon orchestra and assorted ensembles as well as turning a few of them into songs through the addition of lyrics of his own invention. Like a number of his colleagues working in the same field, he was inclined to hide behind pseudonyms on occasions, the most frequent being the exotic-sounding Anton Vodorinski, which was used mainly for his piano music. He also deployed his skills in the service of the silent film, producing an extraordinary range of pieces for every conceivable mood. In 1937, he returned to his earlier milieu of 'serious' music when he composed A Solemn Processional for the Coronation of George VI. And when he wasn't writing, arranging, conducting or editing, he enjoyed nothing more than a game of billiards, another area in which he manifested noteworthy talent!

Ketèlbey lived to be 84 and, understandably, his pace of life slowed considerably in later years. With an impressive musical achievement behind him, he was content to enjoy the tranquil surroundings of the Isle of Wight with his second wife Maud. He had no family, but this did not appear to worry him. He died on November 26, 1959 by which time he had already become a somewhat unfashionable figure. A depressingly pedestrian Times obituary could find little more favourable to say than "he developed a talent for descriptive writing... where he showed an ability to catch atmospheric tone".

In a Monastery Garden

It was this "Characteristic Intermezzo", published in 1915, which was primarily responsible for launching Ketèlbey into the forefront of light music composers. It is instructive to note that, whereas in its day this delightful miniature inspired tears of emotion, in our own time the music is more likely to induce tears of laughter and hoots of derision at its apparent excessive sentimentality and naive effects, especially the bird calls. Whether this is due to shortcomings on the part of the composer or prevailing cynicism amongst contemporary audiences is a question on which the present writer prefers not to make judgement. Little is left to the imagination as realistic avian impersonations issue forth and male voices (those of the gentlemen of the orchestra, if Ketèlbey's instructions are followed to the letter) enter with a sequence of "Kyrie Eleison" at the point in the score marked "Chant Religioso. Sing in imitation of monks chanting in the distance". The composer himself provided a description of the piece.

"The first theme represents a poet's reverie in the quietude of the monastery garden amidst beautiful surroundings - the calm serene atmosphere - the leafy trees and the singing birds. The second theme in the minor expresses the more 'personal' note of sadness, of appeal and contrition. Presently, the monks are heard chanting the "Kyrie Eleison" with the organ playing and the chapel bell ringing. The first theme is now heard in a quieter manner as if it had become more ethereal and distant; the singing of the monks is again heard - it becomes louder and more insistent, bringing the piece to a conclusion in a glow of exultation". What more could a listener desire!

The Adventurers

A work dating from the very last years of the composer's career, this Overture was published in 1954. In many ways, it is a curious piece in which assorted influences seem to tumble over one another. At various points, one can hear shades of Sullivan, German and César Franck, with even touches of Hollywood here and there. In truth, Ketèlbey's adventurers are comparatively sedate folk, represented mainly by two principal themes, the second one revealing the Franckian presence referred to just now.

Chal Romano (Gipsy Lad)

This "Descriptive Overture", dating from 1924, provides a good demonstration of Ketèlbey's work within what may be perceived as more 'formal' structures than those adopted for his pictorial miniatures. The melodic invention is, in truth, undistinguished but it is handled with undeniable skill and displays all the hallmarks of an artist who knows how to draw the best from an orchestra.

A detailed synopsis prefaces the score as follows: "This Overture opens with a broad theme in the style of a Gipsy Folk-Song of strongly marked character. A plaintive melody which follows (given to clarinet and oboe) suggests the sadness of the rejected lover; the key changes to the Tonic major and the melody develops into a passionate Love-theme. The Gipsy Folk-Song, suggesting Fate, interrupts the conclusion of the Love-theme and leads into a dance tune first played by violin solo and then developed at some length, descriptive of the light-hearted nature of the Gipsy Girl; the Love-theme is now heard again (in a quicker tempo than originally) with scraps from the girl's dance tune interwoven with it. A kind of recitative for cellos suggests the lover pleading with the girl, but the Gipsy Folk-Song heard immediately after, expresses the hopelessness of his appeal, and she dances away to join the Gipsy Revels which (with a final ff reference to the Gipsy Folk-Song just before the end) brings the Overture to a conclusion".

Suite Romantique:    1. Romance (Réveil d'Amour)

2. Scherzo (Pensées Troublées)

3. Valse Dramatique (Querelle et Réconciliation)

This impressive orchestral suite appeared, like the previous piece, in 1924, carrying a dedication to Sir Dan Godfrey (1868-1939), that tireless champion of British composers whose sterling work with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra did much to raise the standard of concerts, not just locally but at national level as well. Each of the three movements has a characteristically romantic title (in French, naturally!). The first - the Awakening of Love - is the longest and opens with a dreamy cor anglais solo. The strings eventually take the lead, extending the main theme and gradually injecting a little passion into proceedings. Horns and cellos introduce a secondary idea which is not all that dissimilar in nature to the subject that preceded it. But it manages to work itself into a suitably heartfelt climax, after which there is a slow winding down in preparation for a recapitulation of the first part of the movement, melodically identical but with a much richer, sumptuous scoring which aspires to new heights of ardour.

The second movement is marked "fantastically and delicately". Precisely what constitutes the cause of the "Troubled Thoughts" is not made clear but it could be due to a surfeit of influences which seem to pervade practically every bar of this mercurial, will o' the wisp movement. A host of French composers, including Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Dukas and Debussy seem to peer out of the shadows and there are even occasional non-Gallic echoes of Mendelssohn. The swirling chromaticisms and prominent deployment of the tritone are kept politely under control by an admirable English restraint. Ketèlbey's handling of the orchestra is masterly, muted strings throughout ensuring that everything has an appropriately light touch. A final, quite unexpected splash of tam-tam provides a most effective finish to this intriguing scherzo.

The Valse Dramatique, subtitled "Quarrel and Reconciliation" - grazioso e delicato - is the most immediately appealing of the three movements, with a charming, unassuming little theme presented by flutes and oboe with the celeste tinkling prettily in the background. Later on, a slightly more stolid waltz establishes itself and it is not a little unnerving to detect some distinctly Richard Rodgers-like resonances in its melodic and harmonic contours! But as the argument begins to develop, it is surely César Franck who puts in an appearance as the contretemps reaches towards its climax. The tiff is a short-lived affair and requires nothing more than a flurry of woodwind thirds for it to be resolved. Sweetness and light prevail and the final surge of emotion is quite definitely of the 'happy-ever-after' variety rather than a renewal of hostilities.

Caprice pianistique

One of a number of pieces written for his own use, this entertaining item serves to remind us of Ketèlbey's prowess as a virtuoso pianist. Described as a "Piano Novelty", it is a relatively late work, not appearing until after the Second World War, in 1947. The accent is very much on 'caprice' in this fundamentally light-hearted work whose attempted flirtation with apparently more serious elements at one point fails to disturb the prevailing mood of playfulness.

The Clock and the Dresden Figures

Published in 1930, this enchanting piece of fantasy was dedicated to one of the composer's friends, Lieut. W.J. Dunn, M.C., P.S.M. and, accordingly, if perhaps a touch incongruously, exists in a version for piano and military band as well as the more conventional piano / orchestra edition recorded here. The scenario is simple and splendidly improbable: Two Dresden-China figures standing on each side of a clock come to life and dance to the ticking of the clock; after a while the clock goes wrong, the spring breaks suddenly and the two figures rush back to their former positions. This is Ketèlbeyat his most charming and the work rightly enjoys a high level of popularity.

Cockney Suite:   No. 5: Bank Holiday ('Appy' Ampstead)

     No. 3: At the Palais de Danse (Anywhere)

The five-movement Cockney Suite (a Cockney, incidentally, being defined as someone born within the sound of Bow Bells in East London, but often applied to an East Londoner in general) was another product of that industrious year 1924 and, in many ways, it served as a tribute to the city which had been Ketèlbey's home for many years and had helped to make his fame and fortune (in much the same way that Eric Coates paid acknowledgement to the capital in his London Suite). The locations he chose for his inspirations covered the complete spectrum of London society. The first movement starts at the very top with A State Procession, representing the King and Queen on their way to formally open Parliament, while the second movement, The Cockney Lover, subtitled Lambeth Walk, takes the listener into an East End pub with a main theme based on the Cockney whistle "Arf a pint of mild and bitter". The fourth movement is a more generalised portrait, prompted by London's distinctive memorial to the nation's war dead, the Cenotaph, which stands proudly and solemnly in Whitehall. For the finale, in which Ketèlbey reveals an unusual but quite definite kinship with Edward German, the composer pays a visit to North London's Hampstead Heath and its Bank Holiday (public holiday) Fair. Subtitled 'Appy' Ampstead (for the non-initiated, the Cockney tends to ignore the letter 'h' at the beginning of a word), it depicts a festive scene as follows:

"Hampstead Heath on a Bank Holiday is here represented by a lively dance tune of a country-like character, then the mouth-organs are heard as a preliminary introduction to a one-step tune to which 'Arry and 'Arriet dance. While it is proceeding, a cornet in the vicinity plays snatches of various other tunes, roysterers bawl a few bars of Tell Me the Old, Old Story; another band plays a bit of Semiramide Overture, shouts of the showman (with a rattle) and a noisy steam-organ playing the old waltz Over the Waves are all heard while the dance is still in progress. A return to the opening dance-tune brings this [movement] to a lively conclusion".

Ketèlbey must have thought himself terribly daring in the third movement, entitled At the Palais de Danse. In a preface, with italics and quotation marks to emphasise the points he is no doubt earnestly making, the composer tells us: "A feature of the Jazz bands in any "Palais de Danse" is the way in which the key of the music is suddenly changed. This waltz has been treated in this manner (in the 2nd part), and other "Jazz" effects are introduced. The changes of orchestration must be emphatically marked". Suffice it to say that Ketèlbey's experience of jazz at this time must have been somewhat limited: what we have here is the most correct of waltzes, perfectly suited to potted palms and the munching of cucumber sandwiches (minus crusts, of course) and toasted tea cakes.

In the Moonlight

This miniature is described as a "Poetic Intermezzo" and subtitled in French Sous la Lune, to give it a suitably romantic aura. Very much a period piece, it has the ability to charm while remaining melodically undistinguished. It is cast in the form of ABACA plus coda, with C being a close (and impassioned) relative of B. It made its debut fairly early on in the composer's light music career, in 1919.

Wedgwood Blue

Little did Josiah Wedgwood imagine, when he founded his now famous ceramics company in 1759 that, 161 years later, his achievement would be celebrated in a dance by Albert W. Ketèlbey. The dance in question is a gavotte, with a contrasting middle section which is entrusted, in turn, to a solo cello and a solo violin. Totally unassuming, this little piece captivates by its evocation of an age long since vanished.

Bells Across the Meadows

One of Ketèlbey's most popular compositions, this unashamedly sentimental morceau appeared in 1921. To modern-day audiences, this work offers an aural equivalent of a Myles Birket Foster painting of by-gone scenes - rose-entwined thatched cottages standing amidst gardens full of hollyhocks with a gentle brook bubbling on its rustic way and cows grazing peacefully in the pastures beyond. Did such idyllic images ever really exist? It's nice to think that they did and Bells Across the Meadows certainly helps to sustain this belief.

The Phantom Melody

As mentioned earlier, this is the work that won Ketèlbey a £50 prize in a competition organised by Auguste Van Biene and turned his interest in the direction of light orchestral music. In this version, the violins have been given the tune originally sung by the solo cello. Biene himself had won fame in 1893 with a piece called The Broken Melody and it is just possible that Ketèlbey chose a similar kind of title in homage to the competition sponsor. Later, a song was fashioned out of this work called I Loved You More Than I Knew.

In a Persian Market

This is one of those pieces which, on hearing it, people say "so that's what it's called"! It's a tune so many folk have known for years. Designated an "Intermezzo-Scene" by its composer, and published in 1920, it portrays the following scenario: "The camel-drivers gradually approach the market; the cries of beggars for "Back-sheesh" are heard amid the bustle. (The full cry is "Back-sheesh, Allah, empshi", 'empshi', we are told, meaning "get away"!). The beautiful princess enters carried by her servants, (she is represented by a languorous theme), given at first to clarinet and cello, then repeated by full orchestra - she stays to watch the jugglers and snake-charmer. The Caliph now passes through the market and interrupts the entertainment, the beggars are heard again, the princess prepares to depart and the caravan resumes its journey; the themes of the princess and the camel-drivers are heard faintly in the distance and the market-place becomes deserted".

© 1993 Tim McDonald

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