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ClassicsOnline Home » KETELBEY: In a Monastery Garden (Ketelbey) (1924-1932)
"IN A MONASTERY GARDEN"
The Music of Albert W. Ketèlbey Volume One
Eclipsed first by the Swing Era, then further distanced by World War II and rock-n-roll, the music of Ketèlbey has the distinctive, nostalgic ring of a bygone age. It remains, however, incurably addictive to impressionable ears whose fancy roams through oriental cloisters and over mythical meadows where church bells forever chime, and these late-Romantic tone miniatures, which even in their day earned the censure of the musical intelligentsia for their unrestrained sentimentality, are deserving of reappraisal.
Although intended for a ready commercial market, these atmospheric compositions, which became best-sellers throughout the world, were far from mere pot-boilers. Unashamedly lush in melody, they deceive by their apparent simplicity yet are nonetheless finely orchestrated and too well crafted to be easily discarded. Rather, they ought to be understood in the context of their day, a time when a need for a spiritual uplift found its greatest reflection in the escapism of the silent screen (Ketèlbey wrote specifically for the medium between 1915 and 1929).
Born Albert William Ketelbey, without the additional accent, in Aston, Birmingham, the son of a jewellers engraver, on 9th August 1875, our doyen of British salon music showed early musical promise. His family was musical (his brother Harold was to become a noted violinist) and his parents encouraged his talent. In 1889, he won the first of two successive three-year scholarships to the London Trinity College, where he won several prizes for his early, classically-orientated, compositions, and in 1892, already a professional pianist, became organist of St Johns, Wimbledon. Ketèlbey was also a skilled cellist and woodwind player when, in 1895, he forsook Trinity and his aspirations towards classical music to conduct a touring light-opera company. By 1897 he was musical director of the Opera Comique in the Strand and, when this closed, at other London theatres, notably the Vaudeville.
Busily employed from about 1900 as an orchestral arranger by various London music-publishing companies, mainly transcribing the classics for salon orchestras, Ketèlbey also wrote songs and compositions in lighter vein for music-hall and pantomime. From 1907 he was a resident conductor with the Columbia Graphophone Company (he was later appointed its Director of Music and during the next two decades went on to make many recordings as conductor of its Court Symphony, Regal Dance, Silver Stars and other pseudonymous house orchestras). In 1909 he also made two- and four-minute black celluloid cylinder recordings for the Albany (New York)-based Indestructible Record Company at the premises of their London agents, Murdochs Pianos. While they included none of his own compositions, these comprised one piano solo, one for organ and various band numbers (as conductor).
While he continued to write "serious" music, often under various pseudonyms, Ketèlbeys first real breakthrough as a composer of light music came with The Phantom Melody. Here beautifully couched in the soaring Stradivarius tone of Albert Sandler (1906-1948) this piece, first intended for the cello was composed in 1911. Dedicated to Ketèlbeys brother Harold, it was entered into a competition run by Auguste Van Biene (1850-1913), the Dutch cellist-entertainer who reputedly played his own celebrated Broken Melody of 1893 more than six thousand times in European and British music-halls. Selected as the winner from over a thousand entries, it was given its first performance by Van Biene at a London Palladium National Sunday League Concert in February 1912 and subsequently featured by him in concerts.
From 1910 onwards there was a growing need for mood music to accompany the flickering images of the silent screen and Ketèlbey was among the first to exploit that new market. His reputation as a composer of tunes within the grasp of cinema pianists which grew with various bagatelles, issued in popular albums by Hammond, Bosworth and others, was consolidated by the appearance during the same year of In A Monastery Garden, published by Joseph Larway Ltd. Originally scored as a Characteristic Intermezzo for piano and later transcribed both for orchestra and for solo voice, this piece was by far his most famous composition and remains to this day a world-renowned staple of the light-music repertoire. It is sung here by the great Australian bass-baritone Peter Dawson (1882-1961).
In 1918 the commercially-motivated Ketèlbey joined the Performing Right Society and such was his fame as Britains Most Popular Composer that by the late 1920s he had recorded a fair cross-section of his own most significant works. Beginning with the songs Fairy Butterfly and King Cupid, both featured and recorded by the English coloratura soprano Florence Smithson in 1917, there ensued an extensive discographic legacy of tuneful pieces with extravagant and exotic titles. These included In The Moonlight (1919), In A Persian Market and Wedgwood Blue (both 1920), Bells Across The Meadows (1921), In A Chinese Temple Garden (1923), Will You Forgive?, a setting of verses from Andrew Soutars 1923 novelette The Frail Woman, sung here by the tenor Arthur Jordan (1886- ?) of British National Opera fame, Chal Romano, subtitled A Romany Overture (1924), Algerian Scene (1925), A Dream Of Christmas (1926), In A Fairy Realm and By The Blue Hawaiian Waters (both 1927) and The Sacred Hour (Reverie) (1929).
The Suite Three Fanciful Etchings (1928) offers ample evidence of Ketèlbeys skill in extended tone-painting, while the playful Clock And The Dresden Figures displays his deft use of coloration at the keyboard.