LONDON, England – Ask a man, whose ideas of British music were formed from concert programs, ‘Who is Thomas Dunhill?’ and he would probably reply, ‘a well-known composer who has written a number of fine works himself and has consistently championed his fellow-composers by giving concerts of their works’. That would be a true, but not an exhaustive answer, for though Dunhill is above all things a composer, composition being to him what the keystone is to an arch, his gifts and abilities are of many kinds. He is an accomplished pianist and conductor, is on the teaching staff of the Royal College of Music, is an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and Royal College of Music; has edited several series of pieces by British composers; is an experienced organizer and concert-giver; lectures admirably; is a director of the Royal Philharmonic Society; and is a most successful adjudicator at competitive festivals.
Editor and Contributor
Along with his musical gifts he possesses the literary faculty. His book on chamber music is a model of its kind, and has already become a standard work. He has edited the Royal College of Music magazine for five years with conspicuous ability, and is a frequent contributor to the Monthly Musical Record, and other journals. A man of large endowments, he has used them lavishly and unselfishly in the service of music. Well-known as he is, he might be receiving still wider recognition had he devoted his time to furthering personal interests, but instead he has helped literally hundreds of other people in their careers, and it is no unusual thing to hear his students say quickly, when his name is mentioned, ‘Mr. Dunhill? Oh! He’s splendid.’
Thomas Frederick Dunhill is a Londoner, a member of that nation within a nation, and possesses as by right of heritage the Londoner’s optimism and pluck. Interestingly enough he arrived at music by a detour. As a child he wrote plays to perform with his toy theater, composing the music for them himself; later he did musical plays which he acted with his friends. To this day he retains a keen interest in the drama, though, with the exception of incidental music to The King’s Threshold by W. B. Yeats, the overture in which was rescored for large orchestra, and played at the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts in 1913, he has not included dramatic work in his mature output.
Composition as Vocation
Once started on the path of composition, it was clear that his vocation lay along it. He was sent to school at Hampstead, and in 1893 entered the Royal College of Music, where he remained for seven years, first as a student, then as the holder of an open scholarship, Sir Charles Stanford being his professor for composition, and Franklin Taylor for pianoforte. Here Mr. Dunhill speedily came to the front, and in addition to outstanding excellence in his own subjects, he took a leading part in the general activities of the place. His scholarship came to an end in 1900, and the same year saw him appointed as assistant music master at Eton College. Five years later he was also appointed to the staff of the Royal College of Music, to teach harmony, counterpoint, analysis, and so forth, besides composition and orchestration, and his classes there have grown steadily in size and popularity.
In 1907 he founded the Thomas Dunhill Chamber Concerts, with the object of producing new works by British composers and giving second performances to works already produced elsewhere – a most practical help to native art, for good compositions were often shelved at that time, after one appearance. These concerts were always an artistic success and ran for a number of years, even though in their early days many difficulties had to be encountered.
It must have been somewhere around 1907 that Dunhill resigned his Eton post. He had already been round the world in 1906 on an examining tour for the Associated Board; in 1908 he made the trip again, while in 1912 he went to Canada. Many other shorter journeys have been made before and since on the same errand, and few British composers can possess a wider experience of travel than he has.
In 1914 he married Miss Mary Penrose Arnold, great-grand-daughter of Dr. Thomas Arnold of Rugby, and grandniece of Matthew Arnold, the poet, and their home has become the center of a charming circle of friends, literary and musical. After the war broke out Dunhill joined the volunteer force, and later, on the age limit being raised, he served in the Irish Guards. Most happily for British music, the military authorities kept him in England, and soon after the armistice he was demobilized.
Such, then, is Dunhill’s career up to the present. It remains now to speak of his compositions. His only large choral work is an early affair, Tubal Cain, a ballad for chorus and orchestra, but in the region of orchestral music he has written a good deal. There is the rhapsody in A minor. Composed years ago, containing right good stuff, though perhaps too well controlled to fit the title; a suite for small orchestra called The Pixies, published by Ascherberg; a concertstück; and a Manx fantasia for violin and orchestra; while for ‘cello and orchestra there is the charming set of Capricious Variations, on an old English tune, published also with piano accompaniment.
A song-cycle called The Wind Among the Reeds, written by invitation of the Royal Philharmonic Society for their centenary season of 1911-12, and sung by Gervaise Elwes, is one of Dunhill’s best known works, and deservedly so, while the dance suite for string orchestra, recently produced at a promenade concert, is both delightful, direct and distinctive. But his biggest orchestral works are not yet public property. The new symphony which occupied his thoughts for three years, 1913 to 1915, will be rehearsed this winter by the Patron’s Fund, and he is at present at work upon a set of elegiac variations for full orchestra, designed as a tribute to that noble composer, Sir Hubert Parry, for whom Dunhill had so deep an affection, and who in return held the younger man in such warm regard.
His Chamber Music
From what has been said of Dunhill’s book on chamber music and his series of concerts it will be already clear that he has rendered signal services to chamber music, but the most valuable of all his contributions to this cause are his own compositions. There is the quintet in E flat for violin, violoncello, clarinet, horn and pianoforte, Op. 3, a youthful work, but young only in the best sense; clear, clean music, unclouded by any vacillation, the unusual combination of instruments being treated with happy effect. Then there is a quintet for strings and horn, also a student work, and a quintet in C minor for strings and piano, which has more intensity and breadth of idea than his technique at that time could completely express, though the quintet is excellent. The quartet in B minor for pianoforte, violin, viola and violoncello is wholly delightful, brimming over with melody, and strong also on the intellectual and constructive side, very grateful to play or hear. The fantasia-trio in E flat for pianoforte, violin and viola commissioned by W. W. Cobbett, is full of delicate poetry, a valuable addition to the limited literature for this combination of instruments. It is published in the Cobbett Series No. 6, by Stainer and Bell. A fantasia quartet for strings, not written in connection with any phantasy competition, but just because it came so to the composer, must also be mentioned.
There are several good solos for violin, or violoncello and piano, notably the variations on an original theme, Op. 13, for the latter two instruments, but the violin sonatas stand out above them all, indeed, they occupy a commanding place in his chamber music, for they best represent his mature thoughts. The first violin sonata in D minor is a strong, inspiring work, with unflagging melodic and harmonic charm, but the second sonata in F major is better still, stronger, deeper, more tender, and speaking thoughts which perhaps only music can utter. Altogether a most notable work, and an honor to British art.
Besides the compositions already mentioned, Dunhill has done any number of songs, part songs, piano solos, etc., and has a special gift for writing children’s music. In surveying his work as a whole, one can trace a steady evolution of style most interesting to watch. He is not one of those composers who come to their zenith suddenly in youth, set the world talking with a few brilliant successes, and then decline away from their own best standard. Rather is he one who gathers strength with each passing yea, whose thoughts deepen and broaden, whose powers are enriched by experience. His earlier compositions, though very fresh and delightful, do not move in the same region as his later ones. He has always possessed a conspicuous gift for form in music, a power of lucid and engaging exposition, but in early days this clear-cut music was like a crystal goblet filled with water from the sunlit pools of a river; now it is filled from the main current itself, the swift onward rush of humanity.
Marion M Scott: The Christian Science Monitor Saturday, January 24, 1920
With thanks to Pamela Blevins for permission to publish this article.