Sunday, 6 December 2015

Norman O'Neill: A Life of Music, Derek Hudson Part 2

This new edition of Norman O'Neill: A Life of Music, Derek Hudson has been 'overseen' by O’Neill’s granddaughter, Katherine Hudson, with the end matter 'extensively revised and amplified’ by Stephen Lloyd.
It seems unnecessary to give a chapter outline or analysis of this book, however a number of points can be adduced to allow the putative reader an opportunity to get a feel for the author's achievement. Firstly, Hudson presented his material in a largely chronological order, from the 'Family History' of the composer's early days to his death. It was 'fortuitous' that the book was written when it was, 1945. Many of the composer's friends and colleagues were still alive. His wife provided abundant background information and anecdote before her death in 1947. Over and above this, Derek Hudson married the composer's daughter, Yvonne. So there were many private sources available for the author's purpose. In her introduction to this revised edition, Katherine Hudson emphasizes what is an eternal truth applicable to many historical figures: in a few short years all this precious material would have passed away unrecorded.
This sets the scene for the second point. Norman O'Neill was a kind and likeable person who had many friends in the musical and theatrical world. Derek Hudson's narrative provides many details about this wide group of diverse characters that would otherwise be unavailable. The index of persons reads like a 'Who's Who' of the great and good of the Edwardian and Georgian era. An important chapter of his relationship with Delius is a case in point. The letters from Frederick and Jelka cited in Chapter IX of this book have been published elsewhere, but are here provided with a valuable context. This correspondence has been restored to 'its original state independent of house style’ in this present edition.
Thirdly, Hudson included a number of quotes from the composer's personal diary. This sort of reference is always fascinating when it includes detailed description as well as just dates and appointments. I particularly enjoyed the selections made from the composer's visit in 1922 to the United States and Canada aboard the Empress of Britain. His purpose in sailing (a prospect not relished by O'Neill) was to compose and present music to Belasco's production of The Merchant of Venice (1922) in New York. It is a diary that would bear detailed study, and possibly publication.

Much has been added in this present edition. In no particular order of importance, there are a dozen extra fascinating photographs exhumed from the O'Neill family archive. These include images of the composer at various stages of his career, his wife Adine, a contemporary poster for Mary Rose, snaps of the idyllic Loseley Farm, Elmhurst, and the fish-pond at 4 Pembroke Villas. I must point out that the first edition contains images not included in this present book, including two delightful cartoons by Aubrey Beardsley and the “Frankfurt Gang’ Grown Up’- a truly historical picture taken in 1930 at the Harrogate Festival.

The catalogue of works has been left largely untouched (I have glanced at both lists, but not done a complete ‘like for like’ check) I guess that little (if anything) has been published since 1945. Stephen Lloyd has contributed 'additional indices' as well as a bibliography. There is an important outline of primary sources and their locations including the British Library and the Royal College of Music. Lloyd has also contributed a pathetically brief discography (not his lack of industry, I hasten to add, but reflecting the lack of interest shown in O'Neill's music by record companies). The revised index is presented in two parts: ‘People’ and ‘Compositions’ - O'Neill's first then other composer's music. I do wish that a few geographical references had been included too, such as theatres, the composer's residences, both permanent and temporary such as Loseley Farm and Pembroke Villas, places in Canada and the ship the Empress of Britain. The bibliography is short and sweet, concentrating on readily available sources rather than hard-to-find reviews. Karen Hudson has added a sprinkling of footnotes to help the progress of the narrative and to provide a commentary on matters that are no longer common knowledge.

In spite of the fact that many music historians will possess (or have access to) the first edition of this book, I believe that its re-availability will be of considerable interest to a new generation. Firstly, bearing in mind Norman O'Neill's preeminent position as a doyen of 'incidental music,' will be the historians and enthusiasts of British (and American) theatre where so much of his music was first heard. As noted above, there seemed to be few of the great and good that were not a part of the composer's circle of friends. Secondly, readers whose concern is primarily film music will find a lot of interest here to satisfy their search for musical precursors from the age of theatre. Who knows, if Norman O'Neill had lived longer he may well have composed for the silver screen? Thirdly, musical historians will discover a wealth of information and detail about the composers comprising the ‘Frankfurt Group’, fascinating insights about Delius and Holst, as well as half remembered artists and performers of the Edwardian and Georgian age. Finally, those interested in rare, forgotten and obscure music will have their appetites whetted by the references to many of the composer's orchestral, chamber, piano and vocal works that are typically lying dormant. Many of these were published and deserve (based in what little I have heard of O'Neill's music) to be revived. Maybe it would not be too much to hope for some revivals of his Overtures and incidental music at the English Music Festival or from an enterprising CD producer!
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this book review was first published.

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