World War 2 composers

This week the BBC department I work for is broadcasting a programme to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. One of the works being featured is by a composer who died in the Nazi Concentration Camps in World War II, which got me thinking about composers who perished in World War II, about whom very little appears to have been written.

Perhaps the name most often mentioned is Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), a composer of many operas and orchestral music who died at Auschwitz, but Wikipedia has a shockingly long list of composers who were killed by the Nazis; given the millions who died and the proud musical traditions of the countries they were uprooted from, it’s not surprising to find so much talent was lost.

The composer Francesco Lotoro is working to reconstruct and transcribe pieces written by lost composers before or even during the Holocaust and has found hundreds of musical works of all written by people who were persecuted by the Nazis, some written in the direst of circumstances.

The general ban on Jewish or ‘subversive’ music throughout Nazi-occupied territory took a dreadful toll. For example, Leon Jessel (1871-1942), the composer of the well-known piece of light music The Parade of the Tin Soldiers was a victim of Nazi torturers.

There were also composers who fought in WW2 and were killed in action; Jehan Alain (1911-1940) was a French composer and organist best known for his fine organ works (as well as choral and chamber music). He was killed while serving as a motorcycle dispatch rider.

Of British composers serving in WW2, Michael Heming, the son of the baritone Percy Heming, was killed at El Alamein in 1942; compositional sketches found in his papers after his death were arranged by Anthony Collins into a mournful orchestral work Threnody for a Soldier Killed in Action.

Walter Leigh (1905-1942) was a skilled composer of varied works for orchestra, stage, solo instruments and for films. His characterful Concertino for Harpsichord has been recorded several times. He also composed a fun Gilbert & Sullivan-esque operetta called Jolly Roger, or, The Admiral’s Daughter. Both are available on Lyrita re-issues and worth seeking out. He was killed while serving in a tank regiment in Tobruk in 1944.

While not strictly a classical composer, the famous bandleader and composer of countless Big Band standards Glenn Miller volunteered for the military where he put his skills to use in the Army band. The military plane he was travelling on board to entertain troops in France disappeared in December 1944.

Finally, one of the most inspiring stories of music triumphing against the odds is the performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7 in 1942 by starving musicians during the Siege of Leningrad. This was recently the subject of a fine documentary on BBC Two called Leningrad and the Orchestra That Defied Hitler which features an almost unbelievable tale of how music can transcend adversity.

I would be interested to hear of any other composers of World War II.

Geoffrey Toye

I mentioned over a year ago about writing an entry about Geoffrey Toye, the composer of the ballet The Haunted Ballroom. Unfortunately, I seem to be struggling to find very much about his early life or war career for a main site entry, and it seems that his compositional legacy has suffered from neglect and losses. Here are a few details that may eventually make up a full profile

Edward Geoffrey Toye ( 17 February 1889 – 11 June 1942) was another early RCM volunteer for military service in 1914. The son of a housemaster at Winchester College, he was a talented pianist and following school at Winchester went up to the Royal College of Music.

A list in the November 1914 edition of the Musical Times notes that he was a private in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, the same regiment that George Butterworth joined at the outbreak of war – is it possible that they joined together?

Both men were evidently acquainted with each other having both been involved in the reconstruction of Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony (a task which seems to have involved any number of Vaughan Williams’ friends). Toye had conducted the work’s premiere performance on 27 March 1914, while Butterworth was the dedicatee.

Detail on his war service is patchy. At some point in the war [when?] Toye transferred to the Royal Flying Corps to work in reconnaissance and became a specialist in aerial photography. By the end of the war, he held the rank of Major.

After the war, he took a career as a marine underwriter at Lloyds of London, but continued his musical career on the side, concentrating mainly on conducting. His compositions in this period include an operetta The Red Pen (1925/7) for broadcast on the fledgling BBC (described by the composer as a “sort-of opera”) and two ballet scores for Saddler’s Wells; Douanes (1932), a short ballet about customs officials, and The Haunted Ballroom (1934), in which an ancient curse dooms successive generations of a family to dance themselves to death in their family ballroom. Dark as it sounds, the ethereal waltz from the latter is Toye’s most famous work, available on a number of light music CDs, often in re-arranged form as ‘Concert Waltz from The Haunted Ballroom‘.

Philip Scowcroft’s Garland website mentions a work called The Fairy Cup [sic], music for the Alexander Korda film Rembrandt (1936), a masque Day and Night and two short choral items, Henrichye’s Death apparently with orchestral accompaniment and The Keeper, with brass accompaniment.

The Keeper is a folk song arrangement, but I can’t find any mention of Henrichye’s Death and Day and Night anywhere else at all, though.  It looks like the work may have been The Fairy Cap which was apparently not an opera but a ‘mime play in one scene’ presented by students at the RCM on 16 November 1911. The West Australian newspaper of 6th January 1912 says the following about the play:

‘a new mime play in one act, called The Fairy Cap written by E. Geoffrey Toye, a scholar of the college. The story has pretty fantastic basis, dealing with the loss of a fairy cap, and the fairy’s attempts at recovery from a shepherd boy, who demands a kiss in payment. The fairy calls in the assistance of “Sun” and “Wind” and eventually gets back her property. The London Daily Telegraph said “this fancifully conceived trifle Mr. Toye has written music that is always apt, expressive, and refined, and filled in with many happy touches a score that lacks nothing of suitable grace and delicacy”.’

There are also a few published choral songs during the 1920s, mostly for baritone solo and chorus including arrangements of “Auld Lang Syne”, “Can’t you dance the Polka?”, “Lowlands”, “Drunken Sailor” and three other Sea Chanties; i. Amsterdam. ii. Missouri. iii. The Liverpool girls.

Did Toye write a symphony? His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Music appears to imply this, as does his entry in Minor Ballet Composers (page 88), as does this biography by David Stone (as does his Wikipedia entry, which probably comes from one of these sources). I can’t find any other references to performances of it, though. Does it still exist if it ever did?

The Red Pen was first broadcast in 1925 and was performed again on the radio in 1927. Its libretto by A.P. Herbert (1890-1971) is a satire with the premise that a trade union for writers persuades the government to create a ‘Ministry for Verse’.

I note a letter by Raymond J. Walker in Opera in February 2000 that the score of The Red Pen is/was missing but the band parts and libretto survive (although do the vocal parts survive?). It seems that Toye’s music manuscripts are all missing. I wonder if Mr Walker’s enquiry had a response?

As an administrator and director, Toye is perhaps best known for his association with the D’Oyly-Carte Opera Company, where he revived Gilbert & Sullivan’s mock horror operetta Ruddigore, writing a new overture and tweaks to the score. He also produced the first G&S production for the cinema in 1939 with The Mikado.

He later held important positions at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden (where he apparently had a massive falling-out with Sir Thomas Beecham). During World War II he worked for the BBC in a non-musical role. He died in 1943 – perhaps his death during the disorder of London in WW2 is the cause of his compositions being lost? Or maybe they’re just in a private archive somewhere.

Further reading

  • Arthur Jacobs. “Toye, Geoffrey.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online
  • William E Studwell, Bruce R Schueneman, Minor Ballet Composers: Biographical Sketches of Sixty-Six Underappreciated Yet Significant Contributors to the Body of Western Ballet Music (Routledge: 2012)
  • Noel Goodwin, CD notes for ‘Tribute to Madam’ (London: ASV records, 2001) CD WLS 255



Herbert Matheson

Another figure who is occasionally mentioned as a War Composer is Herbert Matheson. He was a songwriter (possibly for the theatre?) who appears to have been killed in action on 24th March 1918.

Unfortunately, as with many lesser-known names on the site, I have been unable to find enough about him to make a main site entry, but his Copac entries feature a number of published songs from the 1910s, mostly novelties with names such as “Maxi, take me in a taxi” and popular songs.

From this book, it appears that he may have changed his name from Herbert Matheson Goldstein and to confuse matters further, it appears he also published some works under the pseudonym Herbert Mackenzie.

Searching for that name we find a few more copyright entries for his songs in the British Library, as well as a mention in the Merchant Taylors’ School register, 1561-1934, Volume 1 of a pupil of that name. From this, it appears he was born on 12 September 1888 and attended that school from 1897 to 1900, after which he went up to the Guildhall School of Music.

He was born in Upper Clapham, London. He gained an ARCO (Associateship Diploma) of the Royal College of Organists and became organist of the church of St Swithin London Stone in 1906. So perhaps the pseudonyms were to separate the comic and sentimental-sounding songs from his role as an organist. The entry notes that he became a 2nd Lieutenant in the 18th London Regiment.

St Swithin London Stone, incidentally, was a Wren church which contained the apparently ancient London Stone in its walls. The church was itself destroyed during WWII and demolished in 1962.

Composers volunteering in 1914

Every now and again I come across a name that’s completely new to me, but the other day while looking into Geoffrey Toye (the composer of the once famous ballet The Haunted Ballroom) I found a whole list of musicians who enlisted in the Army very early on the war in the November 1914 edition of the Musical Times, most of whom are unfamiliar. I reproduce the list below out of interest:

  • George Butterworth (composer), private, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
  • John Coates (singer), corporal, Hampstead Battalion of the London Division of the National Reserve.
  • A. J. Rowan Hamilton (composer), 2nd lieutenant, Irish Guards.
    C. A. Harrison, (Athol Yates) (composer), corporal, Empire Battalion of the 7th Royal Fusiliers.
  • H. V. Jervis-Read (composer), private, Empire Battalion of the 7th Royal Fusiliers.
  • Frank Lambert (composer), private, National Reserve, Class II.
  • Edward Mason (conductor), private, 1st Public School Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers
  • Douglas Sharpington (singer), private, 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters).
  • Geoffrey Toye (conductor), private, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
  • F. B. Wilson, private, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
    Warren Wynne, 2nd lieutenant, 4th Highland Light Infantry (Special Reserve Battalion).

The article goes on to list others apparently mentioned in the Daily Telegraph: “Mr. F. S. Kelly (pianist), Mr. Steuart Wilson (tenor), Mr. Francis Harford (bass), Messrs. Harold Bonarius, Thomas Peatfield, and Frank Thistleton (violinists), Mr. R. O. Morris, Mr. Geoffrey Gwyther, Mr. Coningsby Clarke, Mr. Wilfrid Page. Mr. Norman Wilks and Mr. Vivian Hamilton are at the front as interpreters. Mr. Reginald Herbert is Major Reginald Herbert Joseph, of the Royal Engineers.”

Of the names there, I recognise very few. Butterworth of course is well known, although it’s interesting to note Butterworth is a private in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, his first posting, before he gained his commission in the Durham Light Infantry. F.S. Kelly the Australian composer, pianist and Olympic rower is discussed on the main War Composers site. Steuart Wilson was part of the same Cambridge circle as Kelly and Denis Browne, but wasn’t really a composer.

R.O. (Reginald Owen) Morris (1886 – 1948) survived the war and is familiar as the author of several books on harmony and music theory, and listed Gerald Finzi, Michael Tippett and Constant Lambert amongst his harmony and counterpoint pupils. He also composed and arranged choral music, as well as writing a violin concerto and various chambers works. He may well appear on the site at some point.

A. J. Rowan Hamilton is rather hard to track down. He was the dedicatee of an early Piano Trio by Arnold Bax, Lewis Foreman notes that the two composers visited Dresden in 1906-7 when the dedication is likely to have been made. However, the only published composition I can find for Rowan Hamilton is Meditation. “Lonely Longing.” for solo cello printed in 1917. Rather sadly, as with many composers on the site, this must have been posthumous as he was killed in action on 21st October 1915, and he is commemorated on the war memorial at St Bartholemew the Great’s Church, London.

Frank Lambert appears to have survived the war. He was a composer of piano minatures and songs, some of which were performed in the early years of The Proms. He died in 1928.

Geoffrey Matheson Gwyther attended Gresham’s School and then New College Oxford. Early in his career he wrote mostly songs, including a cycle of seven settings of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. He fought with the Suffolk Regiment in World War 1, rising to the rank of Captain. After the war he became a theatre composer and actor – according to Philip Scowcroft’s Light Music Garlands his musical, Patricia ran for 160 West End performances in 1924-5. He was appointed director of the Comedy Theatre London in 1934. He later moved to the U.S., one assumes to pursue a Broadway career. He died in New York aged 51 in Ju1y 1944. This posting on YouTube may well be him singing circa 1930.

H.V. (Harold Vincent) Jervis-Read (1883-1945) also published a reasonably large collection of descriptive piano miniatures, a Piano Sonata and various songs, including settings of Rupert Brooke and Oscar Wilde. There is also a “Symphonic Ode for tenor solo, boys voices, mixed voices, orchestra and organ” setting of Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven. Unusually, a collection of 350 of his private letters are currently for sale on Abe Books.

If anybody can shed any light on any of the other names on this list, I would be interested to hear from you at

George Butterworth dances

If you’re a fan of British classical music, there really is something quite special about seeing the EFDSS’s Kinora film transfers of George Butterworth morris dancing.

I remember the first time I found these while writing the first War Composers post about him I was absolutely astonished. I mean, these Kinora films date from 1912, so are over 100 years old; what are the chances of finding a moving picture, essentially a “home video” of a composer from that period?

Rather than just a document of folk dancing techniques that the films were originally created as, I think the reason I find them so utterly compelling is that they remind us that George Butterworth was alive; not just a composer from 100 years ago but a sprightly, athletic young man with a sense of humour.

That might seem an odd, even sentimental thing to say, but sometimes there is a tendency to look at a historic composer and his oeuvre rather dryly without considering the person behind the name or the music. That’s why when writing on the site I chose to refer to them by their first names or even nicknames when discussing biographical details (George rather than as “Butterworth” or Ernest rather than “Farrar”), and use surnames only for discussing their compositions.

It might seem an odd editorial decision, and one that given the rigid etiquette of their time would probably have seemed inappropriate to them. However, by referring to them just by a surname it can turn them into just a name on a page, and if this website achieves anything I want it to remind readers that these were all people not unlike us with real-world concerns and aspirations.

If you read the surviving diary accounts of George Butterworth going around collecting folk music, they’re actually quite funny. A friend of mine read the 1977 Russell Wortley & Michael Dawney article “Butterworth’s Diary of Morris Dance Hunting” and said she couldn’t help feeling it was bit of an excuse to cycle around the countryside visiting pubs, albeit all in a good cause of preserving British heritage.

I think there’s a certain truth there, and his wry portraits of the old people he met in the pubs and their antics recreating dances for him to note down add to this feeling: I can almost imagine them being turned into a little TV play not unlike Alan Bennett’s A Day Out (1972) or even, dare I say, Last of the Summer Wine.

If you do get a chance to read his morris dance diary, or just watch the Kinora films, I highly recommend them, as they turn George Butterworth into a person, as well as the composer of A Shropshire Lad.

George Jerrard Wilkinson

We’re now well into 2014, and as the centenary of WWI looms, I’m slowly adding pages about composers who fought in the conflict.

However, finding information about some of them, especially those that have been largely ignored so far, is quite tricky for obvious reasons – whereas George Butterworth is well known, for example, it’s often while reading articles about these more famous composers that one finds a reference to another much more obscure figure.

A good example is George Jerrard Wilkinson, a composer and folk dancer who was a friend of George Butterworth. Very little has been written about Wilkinson, or at least that I have found at the moment.

So far, all I know is that he was born in 1885 and, according to Stephen Banfield in his Sensibility and English Song wrote some songs with “Edwardian charm”. He was part of Cecil Sharp’s folk dance demonstration side alongside George Butterworth. He’s the one on the far right of the photo featured on the Butterworth biography page. It’s always nice to put a face to a name.

According to an article by Mrs Helen Wilkinson (one of the dancers in the Kinora film on the Butterworth article), published in the English Folk Dance Society News in May 1924 (available online at the American Morris News website

“Mr. G. J. Wilkinson was killed in the Battle of the Somme, 1916. He was a musician. His arrangements of some of Mr. Sharp’s folk-songs with pianoforte and string accompaniments are probably known to a good many readers. He was able to devote a good deal of his time to teaching folk-dancing, and he inspired people in many places who still keep up the dancing to this day. His dancing was a lesson in perfect finish and accuracy.”

Following the outbreak of the war, he became a sergeant in the 16th Middlesex Regiment which was a signalling battalion tasked with storming Hawthorn Redoubt on the 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He was killed that day and is commemorated on the Thiepval monument. Via a forum post about the Middlesex Regiment, there is a posting of a scrapbook by a member of the regiment which features this rather good pencil sketch of the composer, which comparing it with the morris side photograph is undoubtedly the same man.

It appears that an article “Unsung Hero: George Jerrard Wilkinson – A Beautiful Accurate Dancer” was written about him by Georgina Boyes in the journal English Dance & Song; Autumn 2012, Vol. 74 Issue 3, p20, mention of which is on this website. The abstract states that the composer’s father was vicar of St. John’s Church, Ladywood, Birmingham while his mother was the daughter of the Bishop of Brisbane. It states he studied music at Cambridge and worked with Cecil Sharp on arrangements of country dance tunes aged 19. This gives a useful clue to finding other information about him. For example, the Cambridge University connection yields that he was a student at Gonville & Caius College, as he is listed on their war memorial.

In terms of original compositions works, nothing has been recorded that I can see. Titles of published works listed by the COPAC database of academic and research libraries include the Choric Song from Tennyson’s “Lotos Eaters” (1916) which is presumably his largest work, being scored for baritone solo, male chorus and orchestra, Four Songs about Children for voice and piano (1916), Nine Songs and Duets (1913), which are settings of various Japanese poems which the blurb claims he translated (was he a Japanese speaker, or did he translate the German?), and “Suzette” a song with words by E. B. Piercy [?] (1916).

Most seem to have been published in 1916 which implies a posthumous publication. Did he write any other music that was considered uncommercial to publish? All these songs are only available in the British Library, which itself tells me that they were not widely disseminated; the BL is generally a “last resort” for inter-library loan requests as they are a place that often holds the only surviving copy of certain scores. While this is unlikely to be true for Wilkinson, certainly his works are not really known at all.

Unfortunately, this isn’t really enough information for an article at the moment. I shall keep looking…

UPDATE: I have now posted an article about G J Wilkinson on the main site.

War Composers blog

This is the blog attached to the website, which as the name suggests is a website looking at composers with a connection to the First World War.

Despite the title of the website, I have been trying not to make it a site about the War. Plenty of military and social historians have already done that, and much as WWI is the thing that ultimately binds this collection of young musicians together, the war is almost always a small percentage of their lives, and with a few exceptions the one time when they were not involved in music-making.

Whereas the war seemed to bring out an extraordinary flourish of poetry, one can only imagine how much more difficult it would have been to write music under military conditions. This what makes those rare examples of compositions written at the Front – including pieces by Frederick Kelly, Cecil Coles, Ivor Gurney, Ernest Farrar – even more penetrating.

This blog is intended to feature some of the highways and byways of the research on this project, with mention of things that are perhaps related, interesting facts, updates, and questions that readers may be able to help me with.