Thursday, 3 December 2015

Norman O'Neill: A Life of Music, Derek Hudson Part 1

I have only heard a tiny selection of Norman O'Neill’s music over the years. A long time ago I acquired a second hand 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 music 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). 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 above mentioned release of some of his chamber music, however there had been no hint of a major reevaluation 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 the Chandos label. 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 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 Fred. Delius, Gustav Holst and Peter 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 50 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 onetime 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. 
To be continued...


john will said...

These are lovely, like his affecting folksong arrangements on the new Naxos CD of his songs.
Nice to see a lighter side to a serious composer.

John France said...

Think this refers to Hoddinott Songs!

John F