Albert Ketèlbey: A Dream Picture. Rosemary Tuck, piano. © 2021 Naxos Rights US Inc

CD Spotlight

Fluent and Popular Music

Ketèlbey piano works, commended by GERALD FENECH

'Rosemary Tuck despatches these pieces with vigour and gusto ...'


Albert W Ketèlbey was born on 9 August 1875 in Birmingham. In 1889 he moved to London to study at Trinity College of Music. After a brilliant studentship he did not pursue the classical career predicted for him. Instead he became musical director of the Vaudeville Theatre, before gaining fame as a composer of light music and as a conductor of his own works. For many years Ketèlbey worked for a series of music publishers, including Chappell & Co and the Columbia Gramophone Company, making arrangements for smaller orchestras, a period in which he learned to write fluent and popular music. He also found great success writing music for silent films until the advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s.

The composer's early works in conventional classical style were well received, but it was for his light orchestral pieces that he became best known. One of his earliest hits was In a Monastery Garden (1915), a piece that sold over a million copies, and brought him widespread recognition.

Listen — Ketèlbey: In a Monastery Garden
(track 25, 0:00-0:58) ℗ 1995 Naxos Rights US Inc :

His later musical depictions of exotic scenes caught the public imagination and cemented his fortune. Such works as In a Persian Market (1920), In a Chinese Temple Garden (1923) and In the Mystic Land of Egypt (1931) became best-sellers in print and on records. Bells across the Meadows (1921) was also a huge success.

By the late 1920s Ketèlbey was Britain's first millionaire composer. Other popular examples were his celebrations of British scenes and ceremonial music for royal events. During the Second World War however, Ketèlbey's popularity began to wane, and his originality also declined. His disappointment reached its lowest point when the BBC started to ignore his music. In 1949 Ketèlbey moved to the Isle of Wight, where he partially retired. The composer died in his Cowes home of heart and renal failure on 26 November 1959. Only a handful of mourners attended his funeral, and soon after his demise his name slipped into obscurity.

Thankfully, in these last three decades, his music is making a deserved resurgence, most fitting for a composer who has written hundreds of pieces, about 150 of them, for the orchestra. Indeed, his gifts for melody and sensitive colourful scoring ensured continuing popularity with light orchestras and bands until after 1945, and it is totally mystifying how there was a time when his music was cast aside.

The major part of his output is undoubtedly made up of orchestral music, whether serious or light, but Ketèlbey also wrote instrumental music and organ and piano pieces plus a number of songs. The piano works include early classical pieces such as the 1888 Sonata, and shorter items in a more popular style such as Reverie (1894), Les Pelerins (1925), A Romantic Melody (1898), Pensees Joyeuses (1888), In the Woodlands (1921), A Song of Summer (1922) and Legende Triste (1923).

Listen — Ketèlbey: In the Woodlands
(track 1, 0:01-0:35) ℗ 1995 Naxos Rights US Inc :

The musical influences on his piano works were, in the most part, conservative, and many of the published pieces were aimed for a domestic audience. Indeed, they only require a modest technical proficiency to play, and their structure is simple with deft harmonies. Nonetheless, there are moments when distinctive rhythms and unexpected phrases do take us by surprise.

Listen — Ketèlbey: Mirror Dance
(track 7, 2:19-3:10) ℗ 1995 Naxos Rights US Inc :

Rosemary Tuck despatches these pieces with vigour and gusto, and in her capable hands the music is made to sound more weighty than it really is. Still, there is much to enjoy in this over generous programme, filled with soft sounding sounds that soothe the mind. The 1993 sonics are clear and balanced; another plus of this commendable reissue.

Copyright © 13 August 2021 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta






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