Classical MusicWeb

Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


We are too much inclined to categorise people and this is certainly the case with composers. Elgar and Vaughan Williams are, it is said, "serious", or "symphonic" composers, or whatever the term is, while Haydn Wood and Montague Phillips are frequently dismissed as light music composers - but in fact the former pair composed much light music and the latter two aspired to write concertos and other more serious repertoire. So we start this Garland by discussing the contributions made to light music by composers we usually reckon as serious.

We begin with two who were successive Masters of the King's (or Queen's) Music. Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953) produced, besides his symphonies and chamber music, many examples of the English comedy overture (Festival Overture, Romantic Overture, Overture to a Picaresque Comedy, Rogue's Comedy Overture and Overture to Adventure. Also for orchestra were Maytime in Sussex for piano and orchestra and the charming Mediterranean, also the Marches London Pageant and, his last piece, Coronation March. He also wrote music for four films, two of which, Malta GC (1942) and Oliver Twist (1948) yielded enjoyable concert suites.

Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) who was more fully dealt with in Garland 101, also wrote film music. Rutland Boughton (1878-1960) did not but The Faery Song from his opera The Immortal Hour was once so popular it virtually acquired ballad status. Benjamin Frankel (1906-73) composed, among other things, eight symphonies, five string quartets, concertos and an opera. But he was a many-sided musical personality. He played jazz on piano and violin in his younger days and he orchestrated and conducted West End musicals. From 1934 he composed film music. Not always was this light and indeed it tough listening; however, scores like those for Trottie True and The Importance of Being Earnest were not and two charming film excerpts were the Romance (with an evocative violin solo) from The Man in the White Suit and, even more famously in its day, Carriage and Pair (taken from the score for So Long At the Fair), a theme to which he returned in his genre piece The Old Carriage Passes By (1950).

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) took herself seriously but it is worth remembering that The Boatswain's Mate is a comic opera, and tuneful at that, and Entente Cordiale, premiered on BBC radio in 1925 is an operetta; the intermezzi, Two Interlinked French Folk Melodies from the latter was once a popular number with light orchestras and it still has power to charm.

Less well known as a classical composer is Patrick Gowers, born in 1936; for those who are familiar with his organ solos and church music, many more have heard his film scores for The Virgin and the Gipsy and Stevie, or his TV music, for Sherlock Holmes, Sorrel and Son and Smiley's People, or other light music including the stage musical Loud Organs (1962).

Constant Lambert (1905-51) was one of the best brains in 20th Century British music; I recall being very stimulated in my teens by reading his book Music Ho! and he was distinguished both as conductor and composer. His death, from drink and overwork, when he was only 46, was a great loss. He was one of the first composers to combine jazz and classical idioms convincingly. His lighter music may reasonably be said to include his ballet scores Prize Fight, Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat, Pomona, Romeo and Juliet, Comus (after Purcell) and, perhaps most famously, Horoscope. He wrote for films too - Anna Karenina and Merchant Seamen (a suite from this has been recorded recently) - and for me, at least, the deliciously scored concert movement Aubade Heroique is light music.

Paul Leslie Patterson was born in Chesterfield in 1947 and studied at the Royal Academy of Music (where he later lectured), then with Richard Rodney Bennett. His compositions include experiments with electronics and serialism but, like Bennett, he is versatile and his light compositions embrace film music; Comedy for Five Winds, for wind quintet and, from 1994, The Royal Eurostar and Eurostar Fanfares for brass (much of his work for brass is however in a serious "contemporary" idiom.

Alan Rawsthorne (1905-71), Lancashire-born, earns a place in the light music pantheon primarily because of his incidental music, either side of the Second World War, for 22 films, including The Cruel Sea, Lease of Life, Saraband for Dead Lovers, The Dancing Fleece, Captive Heart, Uncle Silas, West of Zanzibar and Burma Victory, not to mention four plays and various radio features. But that is not the full story. Street Corner (1944) and Overture For Farnham (1967) are both in the tradition of the British light comedy overture; and the ballet music for Madame Chrysanthème is attractive, as are Light Music for Strings, based on Catalan melodies, Suite for Brass Band (1964), The Creel for piano duet (1950) and his arrangements of popular French songs. He found inspiration in T.S.Eliot's Practical Cats in 1954, decades before Andrew Lloyd Webber; its overture is also in the British tradition.

Cyril Meir Scott (1879-1970) acquired a reputation for his operas, concertos and chamber music; but what are his piano miniatures - Lotus Land, Water Wagtail, Valse Sentimentale, Little Russian Suite, Blackbird Song, Lullaby, Rainbow Trout, Moods, Dance of the Elephants, Butterfly Waltz, Two Pierrot Pieces, Soiree Japonaise and Danse Nègre but light music? Their often slightly exotic colours may be compared with Ketèlbey. Scott's orchestral music included a Petite Suite.

I conclude this Garland with a number of compositional figures who were at least as well known as conductors. Julius Allan Greenway Harrison (1855-1963) was born in Worcestershire and he became one of the more important of the resort conductors, primarily at Hastings and Harrogate in the 1930s, when the Hastings orchestra was reckoned second only to Bournemouth. Harrison's output includes much large-scale work - chamber music, a Cello Concerto, two Masses and a Requiem, but on the lighter side and no doubt suitable for the resort orchestras he conducted so much were his orchestral suites, Cornish Holiday Sketches, Severn County, Troubadour Suite, Town and Country, Wayside Fancies and, perhaps most popular, the Worcestershire Suite. Some of his songs were lighthearted and he also penned an operetta, A Fantasy of Flowers.

Elgar Howarth, born in 1935 and educated at Manchester University and the RMCM, initially had a primarily brass band background. Although he has long since diversified from this, this was also true of his compositions. Not a little of his music for band is "serious" but lighter works are there too, the early Parade and, from 1956 and composed for a BBC Light Music Festival, Mosaic. Definitely on the light side are the many amusing novelty numbers he has produced under the anagrammatical pseudonym W. Hogarth Lear.

Havelock Nelson (1917-96) was educated at Trinity College Dublin and the Royal Irish Academy. He joined the BBC in Belfast in 1943 and conducted the BBC Northern Ireland Light Orchestra and other ensembles before being forced to retire in 1977 on reaching the BBC's ridiculously early retiring age of sixty. He was a prolific composer of orchestral music (including a Concertino for piano), a ballet, a choral suite, many songs and partsongs, the Three Irish Diversions for piano, Cameos for clarinet, incidental music for radio, TV and films and many, many arrangements.

Norrie Paramor (1914-79) conducted dance bands and various light orchestras, including the BBC Midland Radio Orchestra from 1972. He also arranged prolifically and composed film scores (including that for the Richard Gordon film Doctor in Distress) and mood music, of which one example is Wedding Day. His best known score is his arrangement of the theme music for Z Cars.

Finally there is Harry Rabinowitz, MBE, born in 1916 in Johannesburg and educated at the Witwatersrand University and the Guildhall School. After experience in West End theatres he went to the BBC in 1953 as conductor of its Revue Orchestra. Seven years in radio were followed by eight years in BBC Television and nine with ITV before going freelance. Apart from the BBC's lighter orchestras he had experience with the LSO, LPO, RPO, Philharmonia, RLPO, the Boston Pops and LAPO. His compositions (he also produced many arrangements) included music for film, TV and radio (eg Love for Lydia, Thomas and Sarah) and genre movements like Ocean Pride, Teleclips No 3, Table Bay, March of the Swagmen, Men and Everest, Light and Easy and Charm School.

Philip L Scowcroft

Enquiries to Philip at

8 Rowan Mount



Philip's book 'British Light Music Composers' (ISBN 0903413 88 4) is currently out of print.

E-mail enquiries (but NOT orders) can be directed to Rob Barnett at

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