Albert Ketèlbey was a phenomenally successful, Birmingham-born composer of the inter-war years of the twentieth century. Yet nowadays, his 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 had little income to cushion any hoped-for life as a full-time composer. Most composers at the time had private means or academic appointments to live off. 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.

Work for both firms involved arranging or orchestrating other people’s music. Not exciting, but a great way of learning on the job. This was something that showed in his later career when composing his own music. Ketèlbey juggled these two jobs with another 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 musical director at Columbia.

In a Monastery Garden (publ. 1915)

In a monastery garden
‘In a monastery garden’ – a later reissue

With this piece, Ketèlbey hit the big time as a composer. By 1920, over a million copies of the sheet music had been sold – mostly for piano. That is a stunning quantity of music, and it ushered in Ketèlbey’s period of fame as a composer of light, descriptive pieces.

Here’s a recording with added birdsong.

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

Back when I learnt 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 the music first came out. Take a look at the bottom RH corner of the front cover – ten possible editions were available, a reflection of its popularity. However, with a more informed adult eye, I look at the synopsis and wince. Just how much inaccurate stereotyping can you fit into one paragraph? Here’s most of the text:

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; … 

This crude Orientalism was a carry-over from the preceding century. Movies in the 1920s also didn’t hesitate to continue the trait. Of course, imposing a current viewpoint on a hundred-year-old publication takes no account of the attitudes at the time. However, it is probably one reason why Ketèlbey’s music is largely ignored nowadays.

This programmatic music, easily sliced into small sections, would have been perfect for use with silent films. Ketèlbey had direct 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 to play 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… 

Listening to this recording of Ketèlbey himself conducting, the music comes across as a weird mixture of 1920s popular dance music and pretend Chinese influences.

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, we looked at several of his 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.

These differences also show in the collections here. The library collected Bantock’s publications as they appeared, though less so as time progressed. After a donation from the Bantock family, we have a comprehensive collection 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 Ketèlbey 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 waned by the late 1930s, but he is still held up today as someone who triumphed through his own endeavours. To people who now live in the same inner-city area as he did, that might be something to remember, and to celebrate.