Albert Ketèlbey was a phenomenally successful composer in the inter-war years of the twentieth century. Yet nowadays, this Birmingham composer’s music is little known, only rarely getting live performances or broadcast time.

Albert Ketèlbey (1875 – 1959)

Albert Ketelbey
Ketelbey with a quote from ‘In a Persian market’.

Ketèlbey was something of a musical prodigy, joining the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of music (now the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire ) aged eleven. Then he took up a place at London’s Trinity College of Music at the age of thirteen, entering the college at the same time as Gustav Holst. Studying composition and piano, Ketèlbey was a successful student, but on graduation he didn’t take quite the career path we might now expect.

Coming from a working class family in Aston, Birmingham, Ketèlbey must have had little in the way of funds to cushion any life as a full-time composer he may have contemplated. He did have a number of pieces published while he still a student, and perhaps his connections there were a reason why he joined two publishing houses, Chappell, and Hammond.

His work for both firms involved arranging or orchestrating other people’s music. Not the most exciting work, but a great way of learning on the job. Something that showed in his later career when composing his own music.  Ketèlbey was juggling these two jobs with one at the Columbia Record Company as a conductor. Evidently he was no stranger to the modern idea of a portfolio career. He eventually rose to be the musical director at Columbia.

In a Monastery Garden (publ. 1915)

In a monastery garden
In a monastery garden – a more recent re-issue

With this piece, Ketèlbey hit the big time as a composer. By 1920, over a million copies of the sheet music had been sold – either for piano, or for orchestra. That is a stunning quantity of music, and it ushered in Ketèlbey’s period of fame as a composer of light, descriptive pieces. Although In a monastery garden might not be to our taste nowadays, it is nowhere near as problematic as the next piece.

In a Persian Market (publ. 1920)

In a Persian market
In a Persian market

When I was growing up and learning to play the piano, I remember this being in the piano stool. It was fun, and quite easy to play, something people must have appreciated when it first came out. Take a look at the bottom RH corner of the front cover – ten possible editions were available. However, with a more jaundiced, adult eye, I look at the synopsis and wince. Here’s most of it:

The camel-drivers gradually approach the market; the cries of beggars for ‘Back-sheesh’ are heard amid the bustle. The beautiful princess enters, carried by her servants, … she stays to watch the jugglers and snake-charmer. The Caliph now passes through the market and interrupts the entertainment, the beggars are heard again, the princess prepares to depart, and the caravan resumes its journey; … 

Of course, imposing a current point of view on a publication nearly a hundred years old takes no account of the attitudes at the time. However, it is one reason, I think, why  Ketèlbey’s music has been largely ignored in the twenty-first century.

Incidentally, this programmatic music which was easily sliced into small sections, would have been perfect for using with silent films. Ketèlbey also wrote music specifically for use with silent movies, so he had experience of what was needed by cinema musicians. Yet another revenue stream for a composer who was both phenomenally popular and an astute business man. The Wikipedia article reports that in 1924, Lyon’s tea shops spent £150,000 playing his music – the composer had joined the Performing Rights Society in 1918.

In a Chinese Temple Garden (publ. 1923)

In a Chinese temple garden
In a Chinese temple garden

Ketèlbey was well into his groove by this point – it is obvious he knew what worked and he saw no reason to change the formula. Here’s part of the synopsis for this piece:

The incantation of the priests in the Temple; the perfume of incense floats on the air; a melody … represents two lovers; a Manchu wedding-procession passes noisily by; a street disturbance ensues amongst the coolies (founded on an actual Chinese scale); the beating of the gong in the Temple restores quietude … 

Comparing Ketèlbey and Bantock

It is easy to be dismissive of elements of Ketèlbey’s music, but really, how different was his writing from the Orientalism of another Birmingham composer, Granville Bantock? In an earlier post, I looked at several of Bantock’s song cycles. Bantock was roughly contemporaneous with Ketèlbey, but was a more conventional fit for a composer. He wrote ‘highbrow’ classical music (though also hack work like unison songs for schools), and he succeeded Elgar as Peyton Professor of music at Birmingham University.

This difference between the two men also shows in the collections here. The library collected Bantock’s publications as they appeared, though less so as time progressed. After a significant donation from the Bantock family, we have one of the largest collections of printed scores, together with some of his manuscripts. None of Ketèlbey’s works were acquired at the time of publication, instead we’ve had to rely on miscellaneous donations. Although we have a reasonable collection now, there are still a number of gaps.

Ketèlbey as local icon

It may seem strange to talk of the composer in this way, but bear in mind he was Britain’s first millionaire composer. Royalties from publications and recordings made him a rich man. Yes, his star was waning by the late 1930s, but he is still held up today as someone who triumphed through his own endeavours. To those people who now live in the same inner-city area as he did, that is something to remember, and to celebrate.