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Two Great British Composers

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Charles Ancliffe (1880-1952) and Charles Williams (1893-1978)

As a Palm Court Music composer par excellence, it is rare for an Aspidistra Concert not to feature at least one work by Charles Ancliffe. Although his compositions are usually scored for full symphonic forces, they actually seem to gain in elegance when performed in smaller ensemble.

In Ancliffe’s day, the publishing houses demanded full symphonic orchestration for commercial reasons but these works were in fact mostly conceived with smaller ensembles in mind. The conditions in which musicians worked were often cramped: a theatre pit or the small stage of a ballroom or music hall. Both the composers and the performers were very versatile and ready to fill in any gaps left by absent colleagues.

The important notes of any instrumentalist not likely to be present would appear as optional infill in the parts of other players. With Ancliffe it is usually possible to reduce the number of musicians to just three.

The essential melodic structure is generally covered by the classic Palm Court trio: a violinist, a cellist and a busy pianist. Additional instruments add colour, decoration and depth of sound and Aspidistra’s combination of string quartet, piano flute and oboe is ideally suited to bring across what Ancliffe had in mind.

We have played a lot of Ancliffe’s works with great satisfaction and without any need for rearrangement. We recorded El Saludo, Fragance, Valley of Poppies and his best-remembered work Nights of Gladness.

This waltz composed on New Years Eve in 1912 became so popular all over the world that the BBC named a long-running light music programme after it, using it as the signature tune. Aspidistra also performed many of Ancliffe's less well known works such as: ‘Penelope's Garden’, ‘Irish Whispers’, ‘Smiles then Kisses’, ‘Secrets’, ‘Castles in Spain’, ‘Burma Maid’ and ‘Down in Zanzibar’ which is on the programme today.

Charles Williams is an equally eminent composer of British light music He overlaps with Charles Ancliffe in dates but is clearly a composer of the next generation. He made a living much like Ancliffe as a conductor and composer. He was a salaried composer employed by the British film industry and his earlier work has remained unaccredited.

After world War two he found himself in front of the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra. There were no restrictions of space and he wrote his music for big orchestras making full use of the brass section. He continued to write film music but flourished writing for radio and television.

Many of his recordings survive but in some cases, like Girls in Grey, the sheet music did not. The opposite is true of Ancliffe, which clearly demonstrates how the ability to record music changed attitudes.

Charles Williams’ name might be forgotten by the general public but many people (of a certain age) remember his music because so many of his compositions were used as theme tunes for radio shows.

The Devil’s Gallop was the signature tune of Dick Barton , High Adventure opened Friday Night is Music Night and Majestic Fanfare has been used by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for many years and I believe continues to open there programmes till this day.

When Aspidistra performs Charles Williams, it inevitably involves rearranging the original material. We did this for Rhythm on Rails and found it translated well to the Palm Court idiom.

We thought to do the same for Girl in Grey only to discover that the orchestral music for this piece had disappeared without trace. We even contacted the Girls Venture Corps Air Cadets (the modern equivalent of the Women’s Junior Air Corps’, the for whom the piece was originally written) but without succes.

Fortunately Charles Williams original recording has been preserved as the signature tune for BBC’s News Reel and we managed to make an arrangement from this radio material.