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The Experience of Montague Phillips

by Philip L. Scowcroft

Many of the masters of British light music in the period either side of 1900 had aspirations to be serious composers: Sullivan most notably, Edward German, Haydn Wood, Hubert Bath - and Montague Phillips, born in Tottenham on 13 November 1885. A noted boy soprano, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy where he studied organ and composition and won several more scholarships. He worked as a church organist throughout much of this life, successively at Theydon Bois, Essex, Christ Church Wanstead and Esher Parish Church. A friend of mine who sang under him at the choir at Esher recalls him as a strict disciplinarian but as having a great sense of humour. Phillips remained closely associated with the Royal Academy where he was a Professor of Harmony and Composition. His extended scena for soprano The Song of Rosamund, was written for the RAM's centenary in 1922.

So far Phillips' life sounds like the antithesis of a composer who was to become known for his works in the lighter style. It was his marriage to the light operatic soprano Clara Butterworth, whom he met at the Academy, which helped to change this. It was for her that he wrote many of his more than a hundred songs (I have traced 102 titles). Mostly these were of the ballad type and while not quite as popular as those of Sanderson and Moody or even perhaps those of Easthope Martin or W H Squire, were well enough regarded for H M Higgs to make an orchestral selection of some of them. Birds inspired many of Phillips' songs: The Blackbird's Song to the Buttercup, Sing, Sing Blackbird, So Sang the Thrush, Songs of a Nightingale, Though Soar the Lark and Sing, Joyous Bird (the fourth of Four Songs of Joy, Opus 24, and certainly a joyful little imagination - possibly the one Phillips song, apart from The Fishermen of England in The Rebel Maid, likely to be encountered in performance today). Other cycles were a Calendar of Song (4 songs), Dream Songs (4), From a Lattice Window (5), Old-World Dance Songs (4 - Gavotte, Minuet, Sarabande and Gigue), Sea Echoes (3) and, from 1919, Flowering Trees (4). Apart from birds Phillips found much inspiration in nature: Among the Willows, Blue Bells, Butterfly Wings, Daffodil Days, The First Spring Day, a late effort (1954), Forest Echoes, Harvest Home, A Little Bunch of Snowdrops, My Dreamland Rose, Orchard Daffodils, Pale Yellow Rose, A Song of June, Sun-Flakes, Were I a Moth, When April Laughs, Wild Flowers and Wind on the Wheat. Other songs which, because their accompaniments were orchestrated and are in the BBC Library, must have been particularly popular in their day were The Beat of a Passionate Heart, The Dawn Has a Song, Gentlemen, the Toast is England, (arranged also for male voice choir), In the Deep, Silence of the Night, Lethe, Laburnam, Love the Jester, Nightfall at Sea, O Ship of My Delight, Open Your Window to the Morn (also arranged for chorus, this time for three part women's voices), Song of the Smuggler's Lass, Starry Woods, Waiting for You and Wake Up! Hush'd be My Lute was recorded during the Great War. That Phillips' songs, despite their artistry and melodic interest have survived less well than, say, the ballads of Wilfrid Sanderson and Eric Coates, may be explained by the suggestion that they were perhaps too good as ballads yet not quite good enough to take their place alongside the art songs of Vaughan Williams, Warlock, Gurney and the rest.

Phillips best known work was also one in which his wife had a role - the delightfully scored operetta The Rebel Maid, produced at the London Empire in 1921 and a stirring tale of the sea set in the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. Because of the Coal Strike that year (1921, I mean) which caused few buses or late trains to run, it lasted a mere four months in the West End, but it became popular with amateur operatic societies up and down the country and may still be heard today. Its best known song The Fishermen of England became a favourite concert number and is still so; a suite of dances was extracted from the score. By contrast Phillips only other opera, The Golden Triangle, was unsuccessful and may never have achieved performance.

Phillips' orchestral output shows the ambivalence between light and serious which we have previously noted (though his obituarist in The Times had no doubt that he was a composer 'in the salon tradition'). Of course many 'serious' British composers like Elgar and in our own day Malcolm Arnold and Richard Rodney Bennett have shown a gift for writing light music. Phillips produced a Symphony in C minor in 1911, two piano concertos (1907 and 1919), of which the second in E major (Opus 32), was later arranged by the composer and published in 1948 for two pianos, a Fantasy for violin and orchestra, Opus 16 (also published later with piano accompaniment), a later Sinfonietta (1943), broadcast in that year, and even some of his overtures like the sparkling Revelry (1937) and the descriptive Hampton Court (1954) which is a kind of pendant to the delightful Surrey Suite of 1936 and is arranged also for military band, in which version I have heard the first movement. The Suite is an affectionate portrayal of the county in which he lived made up of Richmond Park, The Shadowy Pines and Kingston Market - are equally clearly 'light music'. Though Phillips expressed his horror and contempt for jazz and the other syncopated music so popular here in the 1920s (he was unlike Eric Coates in this as the latter absorbed it most distinctively into his own style) he was on record as saying that there was a place for light music for the 'great majority of people' who lie between the 'ultra highbrows and the irredeemable low brows' and who 'can appreciate music which is melodious and well written but not too advanced.' It was for such people that he wrote his suites The World in the Open Air, In May Time, Village Sketches, Dance Revels (Mazurka, Minuet and Valse) and the Three Country Pictures, and single movements like the Arabesque, A Forest Melody, A Hillside Melody, Harlequin Dance, A Moorland Idyll, Summer Nocturne, Spring Rondo, Sunshine Dance, (for strings only), Violetta: Air de Ballet and - another sparkling number I can remember across the years - the Shakespearean scherzo, Titania and her Elvish Court. His Empire March was performed at a Henry Wood Prom in 1942 and In Praise of My Country in the shortened Prom season of 1944, two of several patriotic war-time effusions. Phillips' instrumental output shows a similar ambivalence between serious and light. A String Quartet and the Piano Concerto No 2 which he arranged for two pianos are 'balanced' by piano arrangements of some of the orchestral suites we have mentioned and the Four Pieces Opus 28, and Four Pieces Opus 29, written originally for piano solo.

That he worked as an organist for much of his life is recalled by pieces for organ like the Prelude and Fugue in G minor and arrangements of orchestral movements like A Forest Melody. Throughout his composing career he wrote for choirs, both cantatas like The Death of Admiral Blake (1913), for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra, and part songs, for women's voices, (A Cornish Cove, Nightfall at Sea, O Ship of My Delight, A Lake and a Fairy Boat and The Solitary Rose), and for mixed voices (Dawn, Daffodils, Morning Song, Sigh No More Ladies, It Was a Lover and His Lass and The Vesper Bell). The Empire Song, for soloists and unison voices, doubtless stirred patriotic hearts in 1942. Phillips died at Esher at the beginning of 1969. His more serious work never caught on; but his light work gave much pleasure and a programme comprising, say, Revelry, the Surrey Suite with Hampton Court added, Titania, a selection from The Rebel Maid, with one or two of the partsongs and a solo song or two - Sing Joyous Bird would be a 'must' - rounded off with The Empire March, would still do so today.

© Philip L Scowcroft.

see also

Montague Phillips (1885-1969) Revelry Overture Op.62 (1937) Moorland Idyll Op. 61 (1936) Four Dances from ‘The Rebel Maid’ (1916-1917) Symphony in C minor (1911 rev. 1924/25) A Surrey Suite Op. 59 (1936) A Shakespearean Scherzo – ‘Titania and her Elvish Court’ (1934) Arabesque Op. 43 No.2 (1927) Sinfonietta in C Op.70 (1943) BBC Concert Orchestra/Gavin Sutherland Recorded at the BBC Studio 1 Maida Vale 19-20th January 2004 DUTTON CDLX 7140 [75.25] [JF]

Recommended to all lovers of English music and all who love music that is tuneful, well composed and thoroughly enjoyable. Sound quality and playing excellent ... see Full Review

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

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