Comments on the Music of Albert Ketelbey


J. Marshall Bevil, Ph.D.


          Albert Ketelbey (1875-1959), a writer of early twentieth-century English popular music, earned both his reputation and a very comfortable living as a composer for the silent movies. Like many other composers who have applied their talents to the popular sphere, he was a creative artist whose abilities were underestimated by numerous devotees of academic music. In most cases, those persons were unaware of both Ketelbey's early manifestation of impressive talent and his outstanding success as a student at the Royal College of Music. He not only once placed ahead of Gustav Holst in a composition contest but also became proficient on a large number of different instruments and thus prepared himself as an orchestrator through hands-on experience.
          Ketelbey's most enduring works (e.g.: "In the Mystic Land of Egypt," "In a Persian Market," and "In a Chinese Temple Garden") often are marked by exotic sections juxtaposed with richly postromantic Western ones.  A number of his themes were used not only in contemporaneous silent movies but also in later "talking" productions. For example, the secondary theme of "In a Persian Market," which is sung by a male chorus with orchestra in the original, is heard in various non-vocal arrangements, in early westerns, as Native American, or "Red Indian," music.

          Like many, if not most, other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century efforts at exoticism, Ketelbey's labors reflect both a general lack of deep understanding of non-Western music and a highly romanticised view of non-Western culture. Nonetheless, they represent a significant effort to introduce non-Western sounds to the West via popular channels, as opposed to the efforts of the more academic writers whose works often were not as well known to the general public. As in other cases where matters are viewed from historical perspective, it is important that current standards not be applied, at least not too harshly, to Ketelbey's less than fully accurate handling of non-Western musical idioms. In particular, we should remember that ethnomusicology as we now understand and practice it was many decades beyond the pale.

          Ketelbey also wrote a number of exclusively Western works such as "Sanctuary of the Heart," "Bells Across the Meadow," and "Bank Holiday" (also known as "'Appy 'Ampstead"). Like his other pieces, these feature many listenable and memorable melodies. His march "With Honour Crowned" is in a style somewhat like that of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" marches, except that it has denser scoring for brass and percussion than is found in the Elgar works; and it features a particularly lovely trio whose melody (like the theme of Elgar's Enigma Variations, Vaughan Williams's "Sine Nomine," Hubert Parry's "Jerusalem," and others) shows the influence of spoken English on the melodic writing of many early twentieth-century British composers. Ketelbey also composed light, humorous works such as "The Clock and the Dresden Figures," whose woodblock part representing the incessant ticking of the clock anticipated the use of similar techniques in later works such as Leroy Anderson's "The Syncopated Clock" and "The Typewriter."
            While Ketelbey was fortunate to have lived at a time when the entertainment industry provided a market for his style of music, he suffered the misfortune of having the popular as well as the academic musical world turn pointedly from that style well before the end of his life. Also, somewhat paradoxically, the mode of musical expression that he did so much to foster became so overworked due to its great popularity that many of its characteristic idioms acquired the status of cliches. Consequently, both his music and other works in that style came to be viewed as dated and  hackneyed during roughly the last decade of his life and for about two decades after his death. However, his music has gained a new and growing following as a result of the turn back in the direction of warmth, sentiment, and older expressive utterances that have characterized much of the art, architecture, and music of about the last twenty years.

  2003 J. Marshall Bevil