British Composer Profiles: a biographical
dictionary of past British composers 1800-2010
By Gerald Leach, revised and edited by Ian Graham-Jones
3rd Edition, 2012
The British Music Society
£15.00 Soft cover
A major task of the past thirty years has been the rediscovery of many lost or forgotten British composers and their compositions. Readers of these pages do not need to be reminded of the sterling work by Lyrita, Chandos, Hyperion and Dutton Epoch in rehabilitating much music that fell by the wayside. MusicWeb International itself has been instrumental in presenting considerable amounts of information about this genre. A number of well-known soloists and orchestras have taken up a deal of British music. One of the vanguards of this task has been the British Music Society (BMS) which has published this present book. It is a solid and successful attempt at surveying a wide cross-section of British composers. It examines the field in some considerable breadth and depth. It ranges from the brightest to the most obscure stars.
This dictionary will be of great interest to a whole array of people. There will be the British music enthusiast who will treasure this volume as a ‘book of dreams’. The entries about Elgar, RVW and Arnold will be of little interest to this group: they will have all the biographies, catalogues, music studies and letters that are available about their chosen favourites. What will inspire them are the biographies of the obscure/forgotten/neglected. Performers will find this a useful source book – both in the preparation of their programme notes and in background reading before taking up a ‘new’ work. CD reviewers will find it a handy reference tool when required to give a ‘thumbnail’ sketch of an ‘unknown’ composer. I’d like to see radio producers study these pages when devising their programmes. It is essential copy for all music colleges and universities.
There are a number of dictionaries of music available in the bookshops or on-line. I swear by my largely out-of-date Everyman’s Dictionary of Music by Eric Blom (1947, rev 1975). Many will use Wikipedia. Luckier folk will have access to Grove – either in the library or on-line. Some people may still refer to the James Brown’s Musical Biography: A Dictionary of Musical Artists, Authors and Composers but this was compiled in 1897. All these are general works. They cover the entire musical field and reach into every corner of the world. There is currently no other volume available focused solely on composers of British music during the period 1800-2010.
So there is a market for a new, up-to-date dictionary of British composers. The BMS originally published the first edition of this book in 1980. There was a second edition in 1989 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the society. Twenty-three years later it has been extensively re-edited and re-formatted for a new generation.
The book opens with a brief preface which outlines the history of the publication and the methodology of its presentation. Only ‘dead British composers’ are included. Living ones can fend for themselves – on the web or using other media. The editors explain 1800 may seem arbitrary, but reflects the fact that ‘those composers who brought about the English (British?) Musical Renaissance from the last decade [my italics] of the nineteenth century onwards owed much to the previous generation that taught them, a generation who would have been born in the early years of that century’. This opens up the whole argument of the ‘Renaissance’ – did it begin with Parry’s Prometheus Unbound or was it Elgar’s Enigma Variations? Are Stanford’s first three symphonies not a part of this ‘reawakening’? What about Sir Alexander Mackenzie’s opera Columba? Where does Sterndale Bennett fit into this scheme? The point is taken. There follows a warm-hearted ‘Introduction’ by the doyen of British music, Lewis Foreman.
The actual entries need little comment; however three things need to be borne in mind. Firstly the length of the entry does not necessarily reflect the composer’s perceived ‘worth’. The entry for Elgar is of similar length to Panufnik. There are no ‘value judgements’ made about their music. Secondly it is good to see a number of ‘light music’ composers included – such as Stanley Black, Frank Chacksfield and Eric Coates. They made a considerable contribution to the musical heritage of British music even if their input is often not regarded as ‘serious’ or ‘worthy’ by more exacting listeners. Composers from the world of operetta such as Herman Finck and Lionel Monckton are each given a paragraph. However, most of the so-called ‘light’ music composers have been omitted; there are, for example, no entries for Sidney Torch, Trevor Duncan or Archibald Joyce. Perhaps it was felt that this would increase the size of the book to unwieldy proportions? Maybe it is because Philip Scowcroft has already filled this particular niche with his recently re-published book British Light Music and the ‘Garlands’ on MusicWeb International. Thirdly, it is good to see that the number of women composers has been considerably increased since the previous editions. Included for the first time, amongst others, are Ivy Klein, Bluebell Klean whose piano concerto is surely a major desideratum and Marion Scott whose songs and chamber works have considerable potential. It is a pity that space could not have been found for Muriel Herbert, who is one of the most accomplished song-writers from the first half of the twentieth century.
On that note it would be easy to complain that this or that ‘protégé’ was not included. Where is Clifton Parker, Cyril Cork, Gavin Gordon (strange omission), David Morgan, Frank Tapp or Ralph Greaves? Lines have to be drawn somewhere, else the book would become unwieldy. There will always be a need for particular enthusiasms to find their outlet on the web or in the pages of various journals. The bottom line is that the selection made by Gerald Leach and Ian Graham-Jones is both wide ranging and of considerable depth. The actual number count is 720 composers. I do wonder if the two editors did all the historical research themselves - apart from one or two specific acknowledgements - or whether much of the information was gathered from other sources ‘online’ and ‘in-print’. Whatever the case, the entries are succinct and highly readable.
The appendices offer important and helpful information. There is a ‘Chronology of Composers’ listed in the Profiles. Year by year this historical data stacks up – from John Blockley who was born in 1800 to Stephen Oliver who saw light of day in 1950. This is useful for ‘centenaries’. For example, everyone knows that Ben Britten has a centenary this year. Is everyone aware of those for Cedric Thorpe Davie, Stanley Black and George Lloyd? Bi-centenaries include George Aspull, James W. Davison, Samuel S. Greatheed, Edward J. Loder, George A. Macfarren, Philippe Prosper Sainton and Henry Smart. I wonder how many of these gentlemen will be celebrated on Classic FM, Radio 3 or by record releases and concert performances this year? Finally, I am reminded by these listings that William Lloyd Webber’s 100th anniversary is next year.
Also helpful is the listing of ‘British Societies and London Venues’ which are mentioned in the text. Examples include the venerable Three Choirs Festival which commenced in 1719, the Bach Choir in 1876 and Worker’s Musical Association which began in 1936. A chronology of founding dates and founders of British and Foreign Conservatories of Music is useful.
The appendices include a list of ‘some’ foreign teachers mentioned in the text of the book and a brief overview of some British Universities and their Degrees. One of the most useful things in the book is the index of articles about many of these composers that have featured in editions of the BMS Journals and Newsletters. The former publications are typically still available for purchase or may be found in some libraries. Articles from the latter can be photocopied for the price of donation.
British Composer Profiles is well presented. With no slur intended on previous editions of this book, the present version looks and feels professional. It is printed on quality paper and has sturdy card covers. How long the binding will last under constant reference is anyone’s guess, but it seems robust enough. It is good to have a number of photographs of composers included in the text. This is a new feature in this third edition. The above mentioned appendices are important and increase the reference utility of this publication.
This book is excellent value at £15.00 and the fact that I am a member of the BMS has not influenced this opinion. Everyone who is interested in British music will demand to have a copy in their personal libraries. In spite of the ‘dumbed-down’ nature of many public libraries (Ideas Stores?) I would expect to see copies in most ‘reference sections’. I do wonder if an eBook version of this volume would have been a useful complement to the ‘hard copy’: however it may be something for the future.
Finally, although this book will be of considerable use to a wide variety of readers, I reiterate that it is as a ‘Book of Dreams’ that many people will turn these pages. I have never heard of the composer Reginald Redman (1892-1972) – however according to the pages of the British Composer Profiles he wrote a piano concerto, a cello concerto, three operas, two ballets, other orchestral works, incidental music … chamber music songs, part-songs and piano pieces. I wonder what they sound like. Perhaps one day someone will be inspired to find out?
Succinct and highly readable entries for 720 British composers in an attractive and professionally presented volume.