26 May

And Then A Violin Began To Play

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by Reg Otter

 What is it with we Brits; in the midst of "wall-to-wall" pop cacophony from talentless artistes who in the 1930’s would have been treated to a few ripe sounding raspberries, and gormless looking youngsters who can just about twang a guitar string and who hold the instrument as a phallic symbol … we still continue to ignore the glamour, sheer enchantment and theatrical magic and musicality of one of the greatest composers of light music since the golden days of Franz Lehar?

A man whose name is still used fifty-three years after his death to promote an award for the most gifted composer of music today. (Erroneously in my humble opinion, in these sadly, noisy, pop infested times!) In fact it disgusted me recently to learn that the prize…. The Ivor Novello Award, had been given to some band which wouldn’t know the difference between Glamorous Night and Mairzy Doats! Even the Robert Farnon Society doesn’t seem to know much about my favourite composer so here is an attempt to recapture the "Dancing Years" of one of the most talented, gifted, popular and esteemed composers who ever graced the stage of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

David Ivor Davies was born in Cardiff on January 15th 1893; Ivor Novello was "born" (by deed poll) on January 15th 1927 and the great and wonderful Ivor succumbed to a heart attack, aged only 58 on March 6th 1951. Everyone who knew and loved his music will be familiar with the title of this article. I have always considered this lovely melody to be descriptive of attending one of Ivor’s musical shows. One would anticipate with pleasure the event, for weeks, no need to worry about critics’ impressions of a first night because if you were a "Novellian" you just knew you were going to hear beautiful music, see splendid sets and oft times experience shipwrecks, train crashes or a Hampstead Heath fairground!

Ivor was at the peak of his career and his life, just prior to and during the Second World War and that is why the words of the beautiful melody which inspired this article are so significant, even though they were written four years after the war finished ...and all my doubts and fears were borne away…. the music carried me to realms far above…… where I knew the meaning of love….. and that was the essence of this composer’s terrific popularity, for he gave us shows which raised our spirits like a Churchillian speech and eliminated, if only for a while, our doubts and fears.

I didn’t know Ivor Novello personally and in 1935 when his first musical show "Glamorous Night" came to Drury Lane, I was a mere 11year old schoolboy on the threshold of life, struggling with j’ai, tu as, il a, nous avon, vous avez, ils ont, but I was a trifle different from my schoolpals in that I enjoyed songs such as Shine Through My Dreams, whereas they were whistling and humming Lullaby of Broadway and Thanks a Million.

The world’s end, Chelsea, was my domain and I never ventured past Sloane Square, let alone Drury Lane Theatre where my idol was appearing; anyway where would I have got five shillings for a seat in the stalls? So it was listening to the concert orchestras of Harry Fryer, Richard Crean and Peter Yorke that I came to appreciate Ivor’s music, for his melodies were often played on the radio as the shows evolved …. "Glamorous Night""Careless Rapture"and " Crest of the Wave".

It was during the war that my dream to actually see an Ivor show was realised and what better way to fulfil my fantasy than to see "The Dancing Years" at the Adelphi in the Strand. As soon as the nightwatchman appeared on stage at the very beginning of this wonderful show, I was lost in a theatrical world of enchantment and musical make believe; and when Ivor appeared to tumultuous applause and Mary Ellis sang Waltz of My Heart, I was hooked for the remainder of my life.

I have adored Ivor Novello’s music for seventy years, but it is really since 1943 when I first saw this show, that I experienced the magic, the wonder and charisma of being part of an Ivor audience. Even during the war, tea and biscuits were served at the intervals and as the trays were being returned, the orchestra would be playing softly the introductory music to the next act and, as in all of Ivor’s musicals I’ve seen since, the whole audience would be humming the lovely song which had flowed from his pen to the orchestra which was now playing it. It was such an uplifting experience to hear the quite obviously appreciative "choir" of people (much like the Humming Chorus in Puccini’s "Madam Butterfly") and many, although they had perhaps seen the show only once or twice, knew the lyrics, so it was nothing unusual to see or hear a matronly, dignified figure mouthing "Call and I shall be all you ask of me, music in spring, flowers for a king, all of these I bring to you."

One of my own personal regrets in life is that I never saw the early Theatre Royal, Drury Lane musicals, but towards the end of the 1940’s I wrote to Ivor at his flat in the Aldwych, Strand, telling him of my overwhelming appreciation and admiration of his life and work and requesting an autographed photo. One was returned promptly which I treasure to this very day; I also have one of Ivor’s first "Maria Ziegler", Mary Ellis, who lived to be 105.

I have often pondered about choosing my favourite Ivor Novello melody and I would have to return to a couple of years before I was born in 1924 to find what to me is one of the most charming and witty. It is of course And Her Mother Came Too! In these awfully tuneless, dreary days of "pop" culture, it is so very refreshing, occasionally, to listen to the silken, attractive voice of Jack Buchanan telling us of his visit to a golf course where his ubiquitous future Mother-in-Law was knocked out by a ball and at last…. he and his love were alone, but not for long – " for her Mother came too." Thinking of the only voices qualified to interpret Ivor’s music in the style he would have preferred, I cannot believe he could have foundanyone to excel Jack in the singing of this cute tune.

I have heard Glamorous Night sung by countless sopranos but none have surpassed the elegance, perfection and musicality of Mary Ellis. I have never heard Someday My Heart Will Awake and the title of my tribute sung more beautifully than by Vanessa Lee and who else could bring chills to the spine during the rendering of Highwayman Love other than Olive Gilbert? Mentioning this superb contralto who was a personal friend of Ivor’s, I can never forget her and Mary Ellis combining to give us the delightful Wings of Sleep in "The Dancing Years" where the applause lasted almost to the beginning of the next act!

However if, as I say, I had to choose one song which Ivor Novello composed which has to be his masterpiece, out of all the tuneful pleasurable melodies which flowed from the pianos at ‘Redroofs’, the country home at Maidenhead and 11 Aldwych (the flat in London) it would have to be Why is There Ever Goodbye? I consider the words (by Christopher Hassall) and the haunting music (by Ivor.who else) to be the lovliest they or anyone else ever wrote:

Brown leaves in the forest are falling again, 
hungry thrushes are calling again…. 
out in the snow.Time flies…. 
And you part from your favourite friend, 
even love seems to end, 
when the winds blow.

Then just fifteen short years before he left us, Ivor posed the question we all ask when those we love die:

Why is There Ever Goodbye? 
All the joy of today,
Though it seemed willing to stay,
Is tomorrow a dream that soon passes away, 
Like the dew on a thorn, 
When the dawn of the sun has begun? 
Far on the crest of a star,
I can show you a light that continues to shine every night, 
Filled with a fire unfading, 
Why, if the stars never die….. 
is there ever goodbye?

On that fateful March 6th in 1951, when Ivor suddenly died, I asked that question. Fifty three years after, I still have no answer.

from Journal Into Melody : September 2004

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.