I have recently recorded a number of piano works by British light music composers, in the hope that this underappreciated area will come to delight a new audience.
The heyday of the piano as a domestic instrument – the “piano in the parlour” – was probably around a century, from 1860 to 1960. Mass production made the piano accessible to almost anyone who wanted one, and with that availability came a need for piano music that would meet a popular taste. Some composers, such as Walter Carroll, concentrated on music for young pianists, while others wrote for those who, while not virtuosi, nevertheless had a comprehensive command of the instrument and wanted to play music that was both reasonably demanding and satisfying to listen to.
Many of these intended pianists must have been women. There were notable women who made a major concert career in England – Myra Hess, Harriet Cohen and Eileen Joyce among them – but there must have been many more for whom music was not seen as a suitable profession, or indeed who were unable to follow any profession at all. Their environment was less the salon of the nineteenth-century and rather more the domestic music-making that characterized the middle and working-classes before the Second World War; family concerts, the “parlour piece”, and the intimacy of simply playing for one’s own pleasure. In those days, to be an accomplished pianist was seen as an attractive feature in a prospective bride.
Composers of light piano music chose the suite of contrasting pieces above all as their means of expression, typically of around ten minutes, allowing for four or so related impressions. The highly prolific (Alfred) Frederic Mullen (1868-1936) was the master of this form, and his compositions run into the hundreds. Many of them were published under foreign-sounding pseudonyms, probably reflecting the fact that the exotic sold better than the domestic. Mullen was a fine composer of light music, with a seemingly inexhaustible store of melody and (despite a decided harmonic conservatism) just enough pianistic and musical interest to sustain his ideas. The listener may ask whether this music has a notably individual voice, and it is interesting to observe that there are indeed traits that mark out Mullen’s work, which has a certain Englishness and occasionally reminds one of Elgar’s simpler pieces.
Joining Mullen were two more masters of the light piano suite, Percy Elliott (1870-1932) who also wrote under pseudonyms and was responsible for a number of popular songs, and Leonard Butler (1869-1943). Butler was probably the most accomplished pianist of the three, being a professor of piano at the Guildhall School of Music. Elliott’s works typically extend the ternary form of the suite’s movements to treat some more elaborate ideas, though his focus remains on melody.
All three composers are concerned primarily with the evocation of mood and atmosphere. There is much heart-on-sleeve evocation of romance, and colourful dances using forms past and present. There are some delightful works describing the English rural and urban landscape, and some tastes of the exotic, such as works evoking impressions of the Arab world or the British Raj in India. It is common to find movements prefixed by lines of poetry. Butler seems to have been particularly attached to his native Surrey, and his suite From the Surrey Hills places us amid very specific landscapes there that can still be experienced today.
By the end of the 1930s, this was all but a vanished world, of course influenced by the coming of war, but also by the increasing dominance of recorded music and changes in popular taste. If these works survived at all, it was as faded copies in old piano stools, forgotten and unloved. Yet we should return to them now; their warm-hearted emotionalism speaks across the generations, and they stand as proof that there is as much art in writing a memorable melody and presenting it attractively as in many more complex forms of composition. They represent a particular strand in English musical life; one that cared little for showiness, but that spoke a truer and more honest musical language that might have been considered a genuine vernacular.
Playlist: British Light Music for Piano