Classical Music on the Web

Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

by Philip Scowcroft

Born in London on 15 August 1872, Harold Fraser-Simson was educated at Charterhouse School and in France. For a time he worked in a ship-owning firm in the City before turning to music. He died on 19 January 1944, following a fall at his home at Dalcross Castle near Inverness. He was a keen sportsman, indulging in golf, tennis, shooting and fishing.

As a musician he is remembered when he is remembered at all for his work in the theatre primarily as a composer of musical comedies. His career began after he had published a few songs and partsongs (the first of these to be published was My Sweet Sweeting, for SATB, 1907 and McCormack recorded I Sent My Love Two Roses around that time) in the early years of this century with the production of Bonita in 1911. He however had had earlier experience with amateur operatics in Sussex where he then lived. Bonita enjoyed fair success but it was its successor The Maid of the Mountains which made his reputation. This was staged first at the Princes Theatre, Manchester on 23 December 1916 and came to Daly's Theatre for its London run the following February, a run which was not to end until it had clocked up 1352 performances early in 1920 - a run second only to Chu Chin Chow among First War musicals. London revivals of it came in 1921, 1930, 1942 and 1972; it was filmed in 1932. America heard it in 1918 but it proved to be less popular there. Although one thinks of Fraser-Simson as being responsible for the music, it is ironical that of its three big hits: (Love Will Find a Way, A Paradise for Two and A Bachelor Gay) he composed only the first. The other two were by James Tate and were among the numbers interpolated in the score before the London premiere. The Manchester score was entirely by Fraser-Simson.

In a sense The Maid's success was an embarrassment as Fraser-Simson's next musical A Southern Maid first produced in Manchester in 1917 was kept waiting for its London debut which was not until 1920. In its Manchester run a song by the 15 year old Eric Fogg was briefly incorporated in the score. The show enjoyed a modest success, but Our Peg (1919), Missy Jo (1921), Head over Heels (Adelphi, 1923) and Our Nell (1924), made less of an impression. Rather better were the Street Singer (1924) tried out in Birmingham before coming to the Lyric for a run of 360 performances and praised for its charming music, and Betty in Mayfair mounted at the Adelphi in 1925. This had only three solos against seven duets, a quartet and other numbers.

Betty in Mayfair was Fraser-Simson's last "musical" but it was not to be by any means his last work for the stage. A ballet Venetian Wedding was composed in 1926, its music received a concert performance on the BBC five years later. And there was the incidental music for The Nightingale and the Rose (1927) and most notably for the well-loved children's play Toad of Toad Hall by A A Milne and based on Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows which opened in Liverpool in 1929 and had its London run at the Lyric at the New Year 1931. It has often been revived since.

Toad was not Fraser-Simson's only collaboration with Milne. We have already alluded to the former's (non-theatre) songs and titles like I Sent My Love Two Roses, The Raindrop and the Rose, Falmouth Town and The Old Land may be cited as examples. But these were to pale in popularity beside his song settings of Milne's poems for children. There were no fewer than six volumes derived from When We Were Very Young, the first of Milne's four classic children's books. Fraser-Simson's music so suited the poems that it came as no surprise to see these six song books followed by five songs from Now We Are Six and in 1929 no fewer than seventeen Hums of Pooh (from Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner), to make 67 Milne songs in all. The published songs were illustrated with E H Shepard's original drawings for the books. Frederic Austin and Sir Henry Walford Davies had also been interested in setting the poems from When We Were Very Young, Sir Henry in fact publishing four songs in 1939 from that book, set for accompanied 4 part choir.

Further evidence of the composer's gift for setting "children's poems" came with his Teddy Bear and Other Songs, fourteen of them in all and eight songs from Alice in Wonderland which were published in 1932. These "mini-songs" all sold well and many were recorded in the 1930s. (Robert Tear recorded many of the Milne songs as recently as 1981). I can still recall their charm. Fraser-Simson's talent for composition may have been a slender one, but it was a real one - the point is underlined by the fact that the Hums of Pooh were revived and married to newly written music by Julian Slade for a successful stage presentation of Winnie the Pooh at the Phoenix Theatre in 1970, a quarter of a century after the death of the composer who had premiered their musical possibilities.

P L Scowcroft.

rev April 1994

© Philip L Scowcroft.

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