HELEN PERKIN 1909-1996
By Philip L Scowcroft
2009 is a year of musical anniversaries: Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Avison, Mendelssohn and Albeniz, to say nothing of major 75th celebrations like those of Elgar, Holst and Delius. Not all those have light music connections, but one who has is Helen Perkin, born in London in 1909 and trained at the Royal College of Music. It was while she was still at the College that she was noticed by John Ireland and coached by him in his Piano Concerto which she premiered to great acclaim in a Henry Wood Prom in 1930. He dedicated it to her but withdrew the dedication when the friendship soured; the Concerto remained popular well into the 1950s, as I well remember, with the composer there to acknowledge the applause.
Perkin’s career continued; she broadcast regularly as a pianist. And she composed, and some of her portfolio may be reckoned as light music. Not the two string quartets, Cello Sonata or String Trio, but several of her published piano solos including the Four Preludes and Village Fair, in three movements (The Crystal Gazer, The Puppet Show, The Acrobat) the latter almost a thematic suite in the Eric Coates or Haydn Wood style, though it was not, to my knowledge, orchestrated. She also wrote some film music and scores for two children’s ballets for TV, one of them entitled King’s Cross (Calamity at Court), laid out for violin, clarinet, bassoon and piano. This was not published but the BBC kept the ms at least for a time, though I would not care to guess whether it still has it.
After the Second War Perkin’s composing career took an unusual twist by her writing – like Ireland, ironically – for brass band. A Fandango was recorded on a GUS Footwear Band LP in 1962 and of her three suites for brass (Cordell Suite, Carnival, and Island Heritage) the latter two were adopted as test pieces for the Open Championships at Belle Vue, Manchester, Carnival helping Black Dyke to the victor’s podium in 1957, Island Heritage doing likewise for Fairey in 1962.
Perkin’s music, serious or light, has virtually sunk without trace: a pity. Not the least intriguing fact about her career is that in earlier life she studied (on a travelling scholarship) with Anton Webern. Of how many composers, at least part of whose output was demonstrably light music, could this be said?
This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of ‘Journal Into Melody’.