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Thomas Dunhill

born: 1 February 1877
died: 13 March 1946
country: United Kingdom

Thomas Dunhill was a student at the Royal College of Music from 1893, and won an open scholarship to study with Stanford from 1897—an award shared with John Ireland, who became a lifelong friend. Dunhill’s early output was largely chamber music and included a quintet in E flat major with clarinet and horn (1898), heard at the RCM in March 1899. Another quintet followed, this time in F minor and written for horn, strings and piano (completed in 1900), then a piano quartet in B minor (1903), and the present Piano Quintet in C minor (1904). Coming under the influence of W W Cobbett, Dunhill embraced the one-movement fantasy form with a ‘Phantasie’ String Quartet (1906), and a Phantasy Trio for piano, viola and cello (1911). There are two violin sonatas, the second of which, completed in 1917, achieved some celebrity, though it was soon eclipsed by his friend John Ireland’s similar sonata which appeared at much the same time.

In the early years of the twentieth century, particularly before World War I, Dunhill was associated with chamber music, running his own series of pioneering chamber-music concerts at the Queen’s Small Hall, later at Steinway Hall, and subsequently at the Bechstein Hall. These he promoted in London for some dozen years from 1907 with the objective of giving new music by British composers a second hearing. He also published a book on chamber music (1913) and another on Mozart string quartets (1927). Dunhill was appointed assistant music master at Eton College in 1899, joined the staff of the RCM in 1905, and was an overseas examiner for the Associated Board, spending half of 1906 on an examining tour of Australia and New Zealand, repeated in 1908.

Over the course of his lifetime, Dunhill wrote a variety of orchestral works which have since been forgotten, and remain largely unpublished. This includes a number that were really contributions to the light-music repertoire and were certainly played in the 1930s, though unaccountably are all but forgotten today; collected together they would make an attractive programme. A useful measure of Dunhill’s reputation as an orchestral composer in his lifetime is the extent to which his music was played in the major centres, and like so many others of this generation, Dan Godfrey’s Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra provides us with an example. A total of ten works were altogether given fourteen performances between 1903 and 1934, conducted by Dunhill himself. The first of these was the Rhapsody in A minor, which the orchestra gave in January 1903. Later came a distinctly light-music suite, The Pixies, in 1908, repeated at Bournemouth three years later. The cellist May Mukle gave the first performance of Dunhill’s Capricious variations on an old English tune for cello and orchestra in November 1910, and in November 1913 came an orchestral prelude, The King’s Threshold, written for W B Yeats’s play. Almost any of these are works worth revisiting, but perhaps none is strong enough to be the basis of a revaluation of the composer’s reputation when taken alone.

In the post-World War I period, Dunhill was seen at Bournemouth as a serious mainstream composer, his symphony—which otherwise failed to establish itself—performed twice, his Elegiac variations also heard twice, as was one of his popular works of the time, the Chiddingfold Suite for strings. In contrast, Dunhill’s Symphony in A minor is an extended score, running for forty minutes, and probably his most substantial non-operatic score. In the mid-1930s, his light opera Tantivy Towers, setting words by A P Herbert, enjoyed a six-month run which in its day spawned a minor industry of extracts and arrangements, now long forgotten.

A pupil of Stanford, and at a time of radical musical developments, Dunhill made no bones about his championship of tradition and the established order (later he reported hating—yes, hating!—Vaughan Williams’s fourth symphony), and in his own programme notes for the Piano Quintet in C minor he championed chamber music as the orthodox music of his day.

from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2020


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