PERCY FLETCHER (1879-1932): LIGHT MUSIC ALL-ROUNDER
By Philip L Scowcroft
As a British light music figure Fletcher lies, in chronological terms, between Edward German (1862-1936) on the one hand and Eric Coates (1886-1957) and Haydn Wood (1882-1959) on the other. Were we to reckon light music as light orchestral music simply and look at the surviving examples Fletcher composed less than Coates, Wood or some other figures like Ketèlbey. The writer regards such a view as too limiting and prefers light music as that in which "the tune is more important than what you do with it". Such a view expands Fletcher's light music output (and this article) quite dramatically. He may indeed be seen as more of an all-rounder than many other British light music men, even though relatively few of us recall more than a handful of his compositional output, especially at the present time.
Percy Eastman Fletcher was born in Derby on 12 December 1879 and was only 52 when he died of a stroke on 10 December 1932. He studied piano, organ and, most importantly, violin. Like several of his light music contemporaries, especially Arthur Wood and Alfred Reynolds, he made his living primarily as a musical director in London's theatre land, fulfilling that position at various theatres in turn: Prince of Wales, Savoy, Daly's, Drury Lane and, from 1915 to 1932, His Majesty's, where he directed the long-running "Chu Chin Chow", for which he did most of the orchestral scoring. He was later to write musicals of his own for His Majesty's - "Cairo" - a mosaic in music and mime originally titled "Mecca" (1921, 216 performances) and "The Good Old Days" (1925).
His creative activity did not of course stop at the theatre. Like Coates and Haydn Wood he brought out several drawing-room ballads (My Love To You, Secret of My Heart, The Smile of Spring and Galloping Dick are just four) and a few more serious art songs (Four Tennyson Lyrics). He was attracted to choral music and produced many short partsongs, mostly for female voices, such as The Cloud, Bees, Softly Sink in Slumbers Golden, How Beautiful the Night and The Valley of Dreams and carols and settings of folk tunes - though he did not ignore mixed voice and male voice settings. Among Percy's choral output were Empire Song and For Empire and For King for the 1924 Pageant of Empire at Wembley. The Passion of Christ was a cantata for less experienced church choirs. If Stainer's The Crucifixion might unkindly be categorised as Mendelsohn on an off day, Percy's Passion (which has been recorded on CD during the last decade) might similarly be dubbed as Elgar on an off day. Choirs still do both, though. Other rather longer Fletcher choral works include The Shafts of Cupid, The Enchanted Island, A Choral Rhapsody on Scottish Airs (1915), Ring Out Wild Bells, revived in Huddersfield as recently as 2008, The Walrus and the Carpenter (1910) and Cupid's Garland.
We have noticed that Fletcher learnt piano and organ. Many of his published piano compositions derived from his light orchestral music, of which more shortly, or from "Cairo"; Four Lyrical Pieces(Idylesques), Six Compositions, Four Confessions and Dreamer of Dreams seem to be piano originals and he supplied piano accompaniments to French Nursery Songs published by Curwen. He also published widely for organ. Interlude (1901), Andante con Moto (1927), Grand Choeur Triomphale(1910), Prelude, Interlude and Postlude (1926), Fountain Reverie (1915), Festival Offertorium (1926) and, much the most popular (it has been recorded on CD at least three times during the last generation) Festival Toccata (1915), dedicated to the concert organist and composer Edwin Lemare ofMoonlight and Roses fame. Also for organ were books of short, simple and attractive Preludes on well known hymn tunes.
Fletcher's prolific output included arrangements of music by others which he had performed as concert items. They included Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha and Minnehaha suites, intended by the composer as part of a ballet score left almost complete when he died in 1912, orchestral transcriptions of Amy Woodforde-Finden's once popular Indian Love Lyrics and other similar vocal sequences by her, and a Fantasia for chorus and orchestra on themes from Wagner's "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" which was popular at one time with smaller choral societies not least in my home town of Doncaster.
In one respect Fletcher was a pioneer. Before 1913 brass band championship test pieces were almost invariably operatic selections but in that year he was commissioned by the National Championships at the Crystal Palace to compose a tone poem Labour and Love. There followed many specially commissioned pieces for, usually, the Nationals by major composers, Holst, Elgar, Ireland, Bantock, Bliss and others. In 1926 the National turned again to Percy, who obliged with An Epic Symphony in three movements richly redolent of Elgar and arguably Fletcher's most substantial work in any medium and revived several times in the ensuing half century at both National and Open Championships.
Percy also wrote for military band and a string quartet, but it is now time to review his light orchestral works only a few of which (and this is a pity) have survived to the present day. Marches, first of all.The Crown of Chivalry and Spirit of Pageantry, Elgarian in spirit, unsurprisingly having regard to their period of composition, though I find they display more pomp than circumstance; the VC Marchapparently based on Frank Bridge's song Michael O'Leary VC; The Toy Review; and the Sultan's March, extracted from Fletcher's musical "Cairo". Despite his shorter composing life he composed at least as many light orchestral suites as Eric Coates. Six Cameos For a Costume Comedy (1926),Rustic Revels (1918), Sylvan Scenes, again for the 1924 Pageant of Empire, Woodland Pictures (1920 - different from the foregoing despite the similar title), Famous Beauties (Aphrodite, Versailles Palace, Cleopatra), Three Light Pieces (Lubly Lulu, Fifinette and a march Folies Bergères), Nautical Scenes, At Gretna Green, Three Frivolities (Dance Parade, Mam'selle Mannequin; Tango Valse, The Dansant; Galopade, Cafe Chantant), two bagatelles, Valsette and Pizzicato, Ballade and Bergomask for strings, a sprightly overture Vanity Fair - a title later hijacked by Anthony Collins - and easily the best remembered and most enduring, the two Parisian Sketches, Demoiselle Chic and the glorious Bal Masqué.
It would be tedious to list the many Intermezzi, Romances, Morceaux Caracteristiques, Lyrical Melodies, Serenades and Waltzes, which flowed from Percy's pen, but many were popular in their day, like Pearl o' Mine and, recorded by Charles Williams, Dancing on the Green and At the Court of Cleopatra; Percy was therefore a "library" composer. Folk Tune and Fiddle Dance, another piece for strings only - the former reminiscent of Greensleeves, the latter of Edward German's more folky theatre music, can occasionally be encountered today. Like Coates, Alfred Reynolds and other light music men, Percy enjoyed writing "pastiche" early music; his Salon Suite comprised Prelude, Sarabande, Minuet and Gavotte.
I hope the foregoing has served to show the amazing variety of Fletcher's prolific output, only a fraction of which I (and I suspect most other current light music lovers) have actually heard. A life of barely 53 years seems scarcely long enough for this composing and arranging portfolio, not to mention his conducting work for the London stage. He died just as films were beginning to acquire their own soundtracks and dedicated incidental music. Had he survived a few years longer we may surmise with confidence that he would have contributed not inconsiderably to that repertoire as well. Surely the best of his music, in whatever genre, is worth revival.
This article first appeared in Journal Into Melody, issue 194 December 2012