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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Norman O'Neill: A Life of Music
by Derek Hudson
Second edition. Published 2015
208 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-9572942-1-9
EM Publishing

I have heard only a tiny selection of Norman O'Neill’s music over the years. A long time ago I acquired a secondhand copy of his 'Four Songs without Words' (1918) and the delightful suite 'In the Branches' (1919), both for piano: they are a pleasure to play. I later discovered the sheet music for the 'preludes and interludes' from the incidental music to Barrie's play Mary Rose (1920). In recent years EM Records released an excellent CD of chamber works including the String Quartet in C major (c.1893-1909) (strangely not included in the present book’s ‘List of Compositions’) and the Piano Quintet in E minor (1902-3) (review). There are 'shared' copies of some of O'Neill's music including the Overtures ‘In Springtime’ (1905-6) and ‘In Autumn’ (1901) uploaded to a website specializing in 'forgotten' music. A few historic recordings of extracts from the incidental music to Mary Rose and The Blue Bird (1909) have been issued on CD by Dutton, as well as some long forgotten 78rpm discs featuring 'To Meet the King' (1930) and the 'Punch Bowl' from the ballet Punch and Judy (1924).

When I first heard that a new book about Norman O'Neill was due to be issued by EM Publishing, I was not sure what to expect. I had heard no rumours of any recent scholarly investigation into the life and works of this member of the once famous 'Frankfurt Gang' of British composers. Undoubtedly, there was the abovementioned release of some of his chamber music, however there had been no hint of a major re-evaluation of his achievement. I admit to being (at first) a wee bit disappointed to discover that what was being published was a new edition of Derek Hudson's 'definitive' biography of the composer, first printed in 1945. This is a book that has had a place on my bookshelves for many years. So what was the added value of this revised volume? There are a number of revisions and bonuses, as I will explain.

Norman O'Neill's music has largely disappeared from the concert hall. Time has dealt even more harshly with him than his fellow 'group' members. Percy Grainger has survived best of all: many studies, biographies and articles have been written about him. His music is widely available on CD, including the stunning 'complete works' on Chandos. Roger Quilter is well-represented with recordings of his songs and quite recently his piano music. Valerie Langfield has contributed an impressive study of his life and music (2002). Balfour Gardiner has suffered badly. Many of his compositions have disappeared. There are a few recordings available of his piano music and a couple of orchestral overtures. Stephen Lloyd provided the definitive biographical study in 1984. Cyril Scott has seen something of a revival in recent decades with much of his piano music and a considerable tranche of the orchestral and chamber works is readily available on CD. A recent study of The Aesthetic Life of Cyril Scott was authored by Sarah Collins (2013). This complements the two somewhat wayward autobiographical volumes produced by Scott, My Years of Indiscretion (1924) and Bone of Contention (1969).

A literature search for Norman O' Neill finds little that is immediately helpful. Apart from the original of the present volume, there is Sir Thomas Armstrong's learned appraisal of the ‘Frankfurt Group’ published in the Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association (85th Session 1958-59). Clearly, there are the usual references to O'Neill in the musical dictionaries and encyclopedias. Important sources of information are the two essays written by the composer - 'Music to Stage Plays’ Proceedings of the Musical Association (37th Session 1910-11) and 'Originality in Music' which originated as a paper read to the Incorporated Society of Musicians (1927). Both are helpfully republished in this present volume. Other references to the composer appear in various biographical and musical studies of Delius, Holst and Warlock. There are many reviews of O'Neill's music in contemporary newspapers and journals.

A few biographical notes about the composer may be of interest. Norman O'Neill was born in London on 14 March 1875. After study with Arthur Somervell in London he moved to the Hoch Konservatorium in Frankfurt where he was a member of the ‘Frankfurt Group’ or ‘Gang’ under the auspices of the 'Russianised-German composer' Iwan Knorr.

O'Neill was most prominent in the production of incidental music for the theatre. Hudson's book lists nearly fifty scores of this genre (there are more), the most prestigious being Mary Rose, The Bluebird and The Golden Doom (1912). There were a number of orchestral and chamber works, as well as songs, piano pieces and arrangements. Appointments included conductor at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, and the St James's Theatre. O'Neill was one-time treasurer of the Royal Philharmonic Society, on the teaching staff at the Royal Academy of Music, and an examiner for the Associated Board. This latter organisation included a few examples of his piano music in their annual lists of 'set pieces'.

In July 1899 O'Neill married Adine Ruckert, a concert pianist, who latterly became Head Music Mistress at St Paul's Girls’ School in Hammersmith. Norman O'Neill died in London on 3 March 1934, the same year as Holst, Delius and Elgar.

This new edition of Norman O'Neill: A Life of Music by Derek Hudson has been 'overseen' by O’Neill’s granddaughter, Katherine Hudson, with the end matter 'extensively revised and amplified’ by Stephen Lloyd.

It seems unnecessary to give a chapter outline or analysis of this book, however a number of points can be adduced to allow the putative reader an opportunity to get a feel for the author's achievement. Firstly, Hudson presented his material in a largely chronological order, from the 'Family History' of the composer's early days to his death. It was 'fortuitous' that the book was written when it was, 1945. Many of the composer's friends and colleagues were still alive. His wife provided abundant background information and anecdote before her death in 1947. Over and above this, Hudson married the composer's daughter, Yvonne. So there were many private sources available for the author's purpose. In her introduction to this revised edition, Katherine Hudson emphasizes what is an eternal truth applicable to many historical figures: in a few short years all this precious material would have passed away unrecorded.

This sets the scene for the second point. Norman O'Neill was a kind and likeable person who had many friends in the musical and theatrical world. Hudson's narrative provides many details about this wide group of diverse characters that would otherwise be unavailable. The index of persons reads like a 'Who's Who' of the great and good of the Edwardian and Georgian era. An important chapter dealing with his relationship with Delius is a case in point. The letters from Frederick and Jelka cited in Chapter IX of this book have been published elsewhere, but are here provided with a valuable context. This correspondence has been restored to 'its original state independent of house style’ in this present edition.

Thirdly, Hudson included a number of quotes from the composer's personal diary. This sort of reference is always fascinating when it includes detailed description as well as just dates and appointments. I particularly enjoyed the selections made from the composer's visit in 1922 to the United States and Canada aboard the Empress of Britain. His purpose in sailing — a prospect not relished by O'Neill — was to compose and present music to Belasco's production of The Merchant of Venice (1922) in New York. It is a diary that would bear detailed study and possibly publication.

Much has been added in this present edition. In no particular order of importance, there are a dozen extra fascinating photographs exhumed from the O'Neill family archive. These include images of the composer at various stages of his career, his wife Adine, a contemporary poster for Mary Rose, snaps of the idyllic Loseley Farm, Elmhurst and the fish-pond at 4 Pembroke Villas. I must point out that the first edition contains images not included in this present book, including two delightful cartoons by Aubrey Beardsley and the “Frankfurt Gang’ Grown Up’- a truly historic picture taken in 1930 at the Harrogate Festival.

The catalogue of works has been left largely untouched - I have glanced at both lists, but not done a complete ‘like for like’ check - I guess that little (if anything) has been published since 1945. Stephen Lloyd has contributed 'additional indices' as well as a bibliography. There is an important outline of primary sources and their locations including the British Library and the Royal College of Music. Lloyd has also contributed a pathetically brief discography; not his lack of industry, I hasten to add, but reflecting the absence of interest shown in O'Neill's music by record companies. The revised index is presented in two parts: ‘People’ and ‘Compositions’ - O'Neill's first then other composer's music. I do wish that a few geographical references had been included too, such as theatres, the composer's residences, both permanent and temporary such as Loseley Farm and Pembroke Villas, places in Canada and the ship, The Empress of Britain. The bibliography is short and sweet, concentrating on readily available sources rather than hard-to-find reviews. Karen Hudson has added a sprinkling of footnotes to help the progress of the narrative and to provide a commentary on matters that are no longer common knowledge.

In spite of the fact that many music historians will possess or have access to the first edition of this book, I believe that its re-availability will be of considerable interest to a new generation. Firstly, bearing in mind Norman O'Neill's pre-eminent position as a doyen of 'incidental music,' will be the historians and enthusiasts of British and American theatre where so much of his music was first heard. As noted above, there seemed to be few of the great and good that were not a part of the composer's circle of friends. Secondly, readers whose concern is primarily film music will find a lot of interest here to satisfy their search for musical precursors from the age of theatre. Who knows, if Norman O'Neill had lived longer he may well have composed for the silver screen? Thirdly, musical historians will discover a wealth of information and detail about the composers comprising the ‘Frankfurt Group’, fascinating insights about Delius and Holst, as well as half remembered artists and performers of the Edwardian and Georgian ages. Finally, those interested in rare, forgotten and obscure music will have their appetites whetted by the references to many of the composer's orchestral, chamber, piano and vocal works that typically are lying dormant. Many of these were published and deserve - based on what little I have heard of O'Neill's music - to be revived. Maybe it would not be too much to hope for some revivals of his Overtures and incidental music at the English Music Festival or from an enterprising CD producer.
John France



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