Although he is regularly described as ‘Britain’s first millionaire composer’ and was both popular and prolific in his prime, only a handful of people attended Albert Ketèlbey’s funeral in 1959. Just as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle regarded the Sherlock Holmes stories as much less important than his long-forgotten historical and spiritualist writings, so Albert Ketèlbey really wanted to be known as a composer who would be mentioned in the same breath as his ‘classical’ contemporaries – Edward German, Gustav Holst, and Arthur Sullivan in symphonic mode. There seems to have been nothing wrong with the more serious compositions – including a piano sonata and concerto, a quintet and a concertstück - that he produced in his early years but he made his name and his fortune writing in lighter genres and eventually surrendered his other ambitions.
He was born in 1875 into the musical family of a Birmingham jewellery engraver and the slightly exotic nature of his surname invites curiosity. Like Longbothams who insist on calling themselves Longbohtham, his birth certificate pronounced him ‘Kettleby’. The dropped ‘t’ and the grave accent appeared in his teens, along with several pseudonyms that he attached to his classical endeavours. He was a precocious and talented student, beating Holst into second place for a scholarship to Trinity College of Music and was a competent performer on several instruments.
What probably steered him towards a career in light music was his appointment, in the 1890s, as conductor of a peripatetic light opera company and then of the short-lived Opéra Comique. Soon, in addition to composing, he was transcribing large-scale music for small amateur ensembles and Palm Court orchestras and he also did well out of music for silent movies. In 1914, he hit gold with In a Monastery Garden. After the war, In a Persian Market became the first of a series of ‘orientalist’ pieces that chimed with the tastes and preconceptions of a still-Imperialist Britain – In a Chinese Temple Garden, In the Mystic Land of Egypt and, going even further east in the imagination, By the Blue Hawaiian Waters. On the Continent, his work was compared with Johann (rather than Richard) Strauss and with Franz Lehár.
It is perhaps surprising that he did not receive a knighthood, like German and Sullivan, since he wrote a sixth-birthday piece for the then Princess Elizabeth; and George V so liked his State Procession March – written for a Royal Command Performance – that he asked for it to be played again during the interval. However, the notably philistine George V had a less discerning ear than his father, Edward VII, who recognised some of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches as the winners they turned out to be. Harold Nicholson, George V’s official biographer, confided to his diary that as a young man, George ‘did nothing at all but kill animals and stick in stamps’. However, he was probably more musical than President Ulysses S. Grant of the US, who allegedly said that he only knew two tunes, one of which was Yankee Doodle and the other wasn’t.
The second world war was less productive for Ketèlbey and he composed little of note after it. Even the BBC phased him out but he had a minor resurrection when the last night of the 2009 Proms included In a Monastery Garden to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.
Monday, 29 May, 2017