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Bantock, Sir Granville (1868-1946)

Sir Granville Bantock

born: 7 August 1868
died: 11 October 1946
country: United Kingdom

Granville Ransome Bantock was the son of a distinguished surgeon and gynaecologist, and thus came from a comfortable Victorian family background. Born in 1868, Bantock’s youthful world was one of privilege, quality, servants—but also of parental control. As with many other young composers from nineteenth-century middle-class families, Bantock was intended for one of the secure professions, and to satisfy his father he started to study for the Indian Civil Service. It did not work out and he later changed to chemical engineering, but music constantly intervened and at the age of twenty-one he became a student at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and was soon awarded the Macfarren scholarship for composition.

Bantock had huge energy and a vivid imagination and his student output was enormous and overwhelmingly ambitious. His energy and persistence resulted in student performances of his orchestral works, his overture The Fire Worshippers being played in an Academy concert in December 1890, later given by August Manns at Crystal Palace. Various other scores were heard at RAM concerts, including a Suite de ballet and Wulstan, a scena for baritone and orchestra. In July 1892 he enjoyed a concert entirely of his own music, ending with his one-act opera Caedmar.

Bantock also achieved publication from an early date, one suspects with parental financial support, as not only piano pieces and songs but extended works such as his Symphonic Overture Saul (published in 1894), The Fire Worshippers (1892), the operas Caedmar (1892) and The Pearl of Iran (1894), and the ballet suite Rameses II (1894) were published by the likes of Breitkopf & Härtel of Leipzig, whose London office had only recently opened.

For all his wealthy family, Bantock faced an uphill task on leaving the Academy, when, not being equipped to make a living as an instrumentalist or a virtuoso, he had to establish a musical career. In his case the solution lay in conducting musical comedies, culminating in the offer of a conducting appointment with one of the celebrated George Edwardes companies on a world tour. Sidney Jones’s celebrated show A Gaiety Girl was the star production. Not only did this provide paid work, for a trip Bantock himself later calculated to have lasted 431 days, but it gave him a wealth of practical music-making and experience, and it also allowed him to see the world at an impressionable age. However, all too soon reality intruded: back in England on 5 December 1895 work was still hard to find. So it was back to conducting light music and theatre shows including a provincial tour of Stanford’s Irish comic opera Shamus O’Brien.

Despairing of ever making an impact with his music, Bantock promoted an orchestral concert at Queen’s Hall on 15 December 1896, including music by five of his contemporaries at the RAM: William Wallace, Arthur Hinton, Stanley Hawley, Reginald Steggall and Erskine Allon. Of these only William Wallace and Arthur Hinton are remembered at all today. The concert included three of Bantock’s recent works and saw the first performance of The Funeral from The Curse of Kehama, the earliest score recorded here (under its later title Processional). Bantock prefaced the programme with a strongly worded manifesto, and while he was not rewarded with a good house, he stimulated a large critical coverage which went a long way towards putting him on the musical map.

Eventually Bantock obtained an appointment as Musical Director of the Tower Orchestra, New Brighton, then a fashionable resort across the Mersey from Liverpool. Like Dan Godfrey at Bournemouth, Bantock soon expanded his modest resort orchestra and its repertoire, and made New Brighton a noted centre for new music and British music in particular.

Bantock was married in 1898 to Helena von Schweizer, and the newly weds had Edward and Alice Elgar (not yet Sir and Lady) to stay in the summer of 1899, for Elgar to conduct a very early performance of the Enigma Variations on 16 July. But in the nineties perhaps Bantock’s principal musical enthusiasm was for Tchaikovsky, as can be seen from his first orchestral tone poem Thalaba the Destroyer (which, in fact, is dated the day after Elgar’s performance, so Elgar may well have been shown the score).

Bantock still did not have a regular source of income. It was as a teacher and educationalist that he was soon to make his living, when his reputation at New Brighton, coupled with Elgar’s recommendation, led to his appointment as Principal of the new Midland Institute School of Music in Birmingham in 1900. Later, in 1907, Bantock succeeded Elgar as Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, going on to hold the appointment for twenty-seven years. Later he became associated with the Trinity College of Music in London, and in the 1930s he undertook several world examination tours, incidentally also conducting his own music along the way.

Bantock evolved his mature style at the turn of the century, and his most successful music was largely written in the first decade of the twentieth century. This included a succession of large-scale orchestral, and vocal and orchestral scores on exotic subjects, such as the song cycle Sappho, six tone poems including The Witch of Atlas, Dante and Beatrice and Fifine at the Fair, all crowned by his enormous setting of the whole of Edward Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyám, which runs for just under three hours. Later there came other big choral works including his two-and-a-half-hour setting of The Song of Songs and orchestral music such as the Hebridean and Pagan symphonies. He wrote to the end, though latterly in an idiom then regarded by commentators as increasingly out of date. Viewed from a perspective of over fifty years this is no longer a bar to the proper appreciation of Bantock’s vivid and colourful art.

from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2007

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