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Theatre Conductor and Composer: ALFRED REYNOLDS (1884-1969)

by Philip L. Scowcroft

Up to a point, light music composers can be categorised. Wilfred Sanderson, for example, dealt in ballads, Eric Coates and Haydn Wood are remembered for their orchestral compositions, Charles Williams and several others were masters of 'mood music', Hubert Bath was a film music man; and so on. There are dangers of over-simplification, of course, because both Wood and Coates wrote well over a hundred ballads and Bath spread himself widely across the light music scene. But, to describe Alfred Charles Reynolds (1884-1969), as a man of the theatre, is not to go too far wrong. Plenty of others, like Arthur Wood, Frederick Norton, G. H. Clutsam, Percy Fletcher and Edward German, conducted or wrote for London theatres, but Reynolds, whose attractive music suffered something of a decline in the twenty or so years after his death, is as wide-ranging in that sphere as any, and his varied output demands reassessment.

He was a Liverpudlian by birth, and enjoyed a happy boyhood; his family ran Reynolds' Exhibition, a waxworks 'plus', a kind of 'Northern Madame Tussaud's'. He was educated at Merchant Taylor's School and later in France; his musical studies had a similarly international flavour, having their beginnings in Liverpool and their ending in Berlin, mainly as the pupil of Engelbert Humperdinck, the composer of Hansel And Gretel. Reynolds' first known composition, a light waltz, Le Désir, was appropriately, in view of his later career, performed in a Liverpool theatre in 1906, as part of a variety bill. While in Berlin, he did, however, compose some religious music for Berlin's Anglican Church, and all manner of classical exercises for the benevolent Humperdinck. At the end of his German sojourn, during the summer of 1910, Reynolds took a German opera company, to play a season at Dorpat (Tartu) in Estonia, where he conducted Die Fledermaus, Lehár's The Count Of Luxembourg and - Der Mikado. (1) This was the only time Reynolds ever conducted G&S, but on returning to England later in 1910, he obtained employment conducting (for Michael Faraday), Oscar Straus' The Chocolate Soldier, which he toured to many places in England, including Liverpool. He was then said to be the youngest operatic conductor in England. Strauss's operetta also provided him with a wife, Barbara Florac, who had been understudying the role of Nadine. After a daughter had been born to them in June 1914 (2), the Reynolds rarely lived together, though they never divorced. Barbara, who was to outlive Alfred by eight years, was a musician of talent, her compositions being mainly songs - curiously in view of her musical comedy background, art songs, rather than ballads, including It Was A Lover And His Lass, frequently sung by the great English tenor Heddle Nash, William Blake's Little Lamb and Duck's Ditty (from 'The Wind in the Willows'), for children's choir. (All have been successfully revived in Doncaster concerts during the 1990s).

But, back to Alfred. After more than three years with Faraday, he visited the United States in 1914, and narrowly missed returning to England in the Lusitania, on her fatal voyage. His military service was cut short by a weak chest, and he was invalided out in 1917. This enabled him to compose and participate in wartime charity concerts. His compositions up to that time, had included a number of songs, and a growing amount of incidental music for the theatre. His first major success in this latter direction, was for The Toy Cart, a play set in 2nd century India, produced at the Abbey Theatre Dublin, in 1918. Reynolds' music, while not attempting any Oriental colour, as some contemporaries noticed, had great charm of melody and skill, and was performed subsequently, in many centres and on the BBC.

In the winter of 1920-21, Reynolds took the so-called Royal Opera Company, which had a mixed portfolio of grand opera and operetta, on a tour of the Far East. This was not a success, due to the slightly old-fashioned repertoire, to the indifferent local orchestras, which he relied on to supply the accompaniments and to bad management. None of these was ascribable to Reynolds, who had to use his savings to make his way home, via Japan and Canada, after the Company's financial collapse came, when it reached Java. Back home, he was busy as composer and conductor, his works at this period including the music for Baroness Orczy's play, Leatherface, which includes a broad, stirring March Of The Spears, worthy of Coates and - one of his few orchestral pieces not, apparently, originally written for the theatre, the Fairy Tale, composed for Harrogate in 1922.

At about this time, Reynolds became involved with refurbishing once-popular stage works, (called, rightly or wrongly, 'ballad operas', or, simply 'operas'), from the 18th Century, and this led, in 1923, to the Musical Directorship of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, which had famously revived The Beggar's Opera in 1920. The Lyric, a small theatre, had a permanent orchestra of only four, expanded to eight or nine, for specifically musical productions. The 18th Century 'operas', refurbished, or revived, by Reynolds at the Lyric, included The Duenna (1924, by Sheridan; music by the Linleys and others), Lionel And Clarissa (1925: music mainly by Dibdin) and Love In A Village (1928: music by Arne and others). Reynolds' facelifts included composing a proportion - somewhere between a quarter and a third - of the music, himself. Excerpts from some of these operas were recorded at the time.

He did not confine himself to this type of work while at the Lyric. His incidental music for a variety of (mainly) old plays, struck a richly, inventive seam. These encompassed Molière (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme), Farquhar (The Beaux Stratagem, a nice mock-Baroque score), Shakespeare (The Taming Of The Shrew and Much Ado, which both had splendid overtures, and The Merchant Of Venice, the 'Mascarade' for which was often later revived in concert), Oliver Goldsmith (She Stoops To Conquer, including an enchanting hit song, Ah Me, When Shall I Marry Me?) and Dryden (Marriage à La Mode), another fine score, including ballet sequences). Two high-class reviews were also written for Nigel Playfair, owner of the Lyric: Riverside Nights, which included Inter Alia, a lively overture, and a 15 minute burlesque operetta, The Policeman's Serenade (3), and Midnight Follies, incorporating songs to words, by A. P. Herbert (later published with other A.P.H. songs as She-Shanties), a syncopated dance, The Sirens Of Southend and a fugue for three saxophones. The Lyric saw the premieres of two Reynolds comic operas, the one-act The Fountain Of Youth and the full-length Derby Day, the latter to Herbert's words, an attempt to revive the G&S tradition, which, despite a decent 'run', many delightful songs and the colour-tipsters, punters, jockeys and a chorus of 'pearly kings' - associated with the Derby, did not quite come off, partly because Herbert, wit though he was, lacked the memorability of Gilbert, and Reynolds' music, for all its positive qualities, did not quite measure up to Sullivan's best.

Reynolds left the Lyric in 1932. The previous decade had been a vintage one for him, but there was still much more to come. An association with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, brought 1066 And All That, a musical based on the famous, historical spoof of that name, at Christmas 1934, and which remains Reynolds' most popular work, not least with schools(!), and also a score, later adopted for orchestra, for The Swiss Family Robinson, whose outstanding numbers were Swiss Lullaby and a Ballet. Post-war, Reynolds wrote some fine music for a 1947 Stratford adaptation of Alice In Wonderland/Through The Looking-Glass, the dances having intriguing titles, like Crawl Of The Caterpillars, Ballet Of The Talking Flowers, and Parade Of The King s Hobby Horses. A two-act comic opera, The Limpet In The Castle, was premiered in 1958, in the heart of the Yorkshire at Wombwell; the cast included an 'A. Scargill', but I have not yet contacted 'King Arthur' to see if it was him! The BBC revived some of the 18th Century operas, previously given the Reynolds 'treatment', and commissioned others; The Bookies' Opera, a burlesque in the manner of The Policeman's Serenade, was composed for television.

To list all Reynolds' incidental music, musical plays and playlets, would be tedious in an article of this length. The 'best bits' of his theatre music, of which there were many, were regularly excerpted in concert hall and on the BBC, and could work well even today (4). Few non-theatre orchestral works figured in his output: the Fairy Tale already mentioned, a lively Overture For A Comedy, (which could however be used in the theatre), settings of Boccherini's Minuet and Drink To Me Only for four-cellos, and a jaunty Hornpipe for double-bass, and piano for the bass virtuoso Victor Watson (5). Reynolds' non-theatre songs, perhaps some 40 in all, and composed throughout his career, ranged from settings of Wordsworth and Ben Jonson, to cabaret numbers, like the She-Shanties. His post-1945 cycle, Five Centuries Of Love, to words by Clifford Bax again, put to good use his gift for writing engaging period pastiches.

Reynolds died, aged 84, at Bognor Regis on 18 October 1969. A very approachable man with a keen sense of humour, he was, by all accounts, a delightful companion and a keen club man. His spare-time interests included motoring, and motor-boating, and he spoke at least eight languages. His music, vocal and instrumental, shows a fresh, tuneful lyricism easy on the ear. His songs, whether for the stage, or the recital room, are grateful to the voice. His orchestral movements - not, it must be admitted, as individual as those of Coates or Haydn Wood were all small in form, and scale, but can often be grouped into viable concert suites. Mostly written for small theatre orchestras, they adapted well for larger ensembles. A latter-day purist for baroque music, would hold up his hands in horror at Reynolds' treatment of English composers like Arne, Linley, Dibdin and Storace, but it helped resurrect and popularise their music, which had been neglected for generations. He was a conductor of ability in theatre and concert room. A Meridian CD (CDE 84308), by the London Salon Ensemble a few years ago, was well received; his cause would benefit, too, from the 'Marco Polo' treatment (6).

© Philip L Scowcroft - May 2001


(1) On this, see my article 'Gilbert & Sullivan. in Estonia', Sir Arthur Sullivan Society magazine No.46 (Spring 1998), pp 1 1-12.

(2) Also Barbara Reynolds, to whom I am indebted for much information about her parents.

(3) I have enjoyed this ever since it was performed at my school in, from memory, 1945.

(4) These need not be orchestral. Reynolds' music for Clifford Bax's play Socrates, (1930), for just flute and harp, rarely heard together, was pleasantly adapted for flute and piano, for concerts in Doncaster in recent years.

(5) I persuaded the peripatetic double-bass tutor attached to the Doncaster Schools Music Service, to take this up,.and play it regularly in concerts in Doncaster schools; youngsters would come up to her and ask, 'Are you going to play that Hornpipe again, Miss?' It was published recently.

(6) A CD of Reynolds' orchestral music, conducted by Gavin Sutherland, is forthcoming from Naxos.

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