ALBERT WILLIAM KETÈLBEY (1875 - 1959)
Contrary to claims that the name Ketelbey was a pseudonym, the British composer was indeed born Albert William Ketelbey (without the accent) on 9 August 1875 at 41 Alma Street, Aston Manor, Birmingham, son of George, an engraver, and Sarah, whose maiden name was by coincidence also Aston.
Piano lessons must have started at an early age, as the eleven-year-old Ketelbey performed a Piano Sonata of his own composition at the Worcester Town Hall, to an audience that included Edward Elgar. On his own admission, he was a reluctant pianist, but was inspired to composition by a passion for the daughter of the organist of the church choir in which he sang.
Such was his talent, that by the age of thirteen he won a scholarship to Trinity College of Music in London, an institution with which he was associated for many years, first as a pupil, later as an examiner. Although trying his hand at other instruments, including organ, flute, oboe, clarinet and cello, his first instrument remained the piano, with composition taking an ever-increasing role.
While still at the College, Ketlbey managed to have many short pieces published. The more serious of them appeared under his real name, but he also produced a string of salon pieces and mandoline music under the splendid pseudonym of “Raoul Clifford”. There was even a song he wrote with a friend called “A dream of glory” which had the credits “the music by G. Villa, organ part by Raoul Clifford”. Villa Road and Clifford Street are both thoroughfares close to the Alma Street of his birth.
On leaving the college, Ketlbeys work as an examiner enabled him to include some of his own educational pieces on the Trinity College examination syllabus. His main employment was now with two publishing firms. At Chappells he made reductions of orchestral music for solo piano, while at Hammonds he did the reverse, and orchestrated classics of the piano repertoire for the ever-increasing market of the salon orchestra. This hack-work may have been tedious, but the experience was invaluable in moulding the composers fluent writing for both piano and orchestra. Hammond also handled most of his early compositions, not only piano pieces, but a large number of songs and even the light opera The Wonder Worker, which had been produced at the Grand Theatre, Fulham, in 1900.
The breakthrough into the quality market of full colour pictorial covers did not come until 1915, when within a space of weeks, Larway issued In a Monastery Garden and Ascherberg Tangled Tunes. By this time, Ketlbey was obviously well-known in musical circles, for the artist who drew the cover for Tangled Tunes wittily depicts the composer himself as a sorcerer concocting a mixture of tunes in a large cauldron.
In 1906 Ketèlbey had taken a job as “impressario” with the record company Columbia Graphophone. In true showbiz fashion, his conducting career was launched when the regular conductor was indisposed, and over the years he rose to become the companys musical director. During the First World War, he also held the same post in revues promoted by Andr Charlot, including Ye Gods (1916), Flora (1918) and The Officers Mess (1918). In such productions, music needed to be direct, instantly setting a scene. Similar qualities were need in the new market of music for the silent cinema, and the composer duly produced collections of brief mood-setting pieces. In later years, at the peak of his popularity, he was able to recycle some of these fragments as concert pieces.
Significantly, one of his collections of cinema music was published by Bosworth. After the First World War, this firm became Ketlbeys major publisher. The balance of the market had changed, with light music now being recorded almost exclusively in orchestral versions. So for the first time, Ketlbeys music was published simultaneously in two versions, piano and orchestral. The piano version had an eye-catching cover, and was aimed at the amateur music-lover, while the orchestral version was for professional performance.
In the space of ten years, Ketlbey became the most successful composer in the land. With foresight he had joined as early as 1918 the Performing Right Society, the body which gathered revenue from performances of members works. His income suddenly fell in 1926, when the PRS introduced a new policy downgrading the rate paid for cinema music, causing him and several other composers to resign from the Society. The matter was only resolved by a review of the whole policy, and by 1929 he was proclaimed in the “Performing Right Gazette” as “Britains greatest living composer”, on the basis of number of performances of his works. That he could gain so much popularity irked less successful composers, and there were frequent signs of professional jealousy.
By the end of the 1920s, Ketlbeys success as a composer was great enough for him to be able to give up his post at Columbia, and devote himself to composition. Each year he would do a tour of seaside resorts to give special Ketlbey concerts, which would include his latest novelties.
After the Second World War, Ketlbeys income from performing rights dropped from 3,493 in 1940 to 2,906 in 1950, a massive decrease when wartime inflation is taken into consideration. He even found that his works were being neglected by the BBC.
In truth, his music lacked novelty. Of the handful of works published in the post-war years, most were reworkings of old material, although the composer attempted to disguise the origins. Thus a song called Kilmoren was in fact a revision of Kildoran, which had been the tenors lead number in The Wonder Worker fifty years earlier. Even the recent brass band piece Adventurers Overture was refashioned for orchestra.
When the composer died in December 1959, his will was couched in terms to dissuade his widow Mabel from allowing access to his private papers, thus closing the most direct avenue for research into his music. In any case, a flood at his house in Hampstead in the winter of 1947 had probably already destroyed the bulk of his manuscripts.