Albert William Ketèlbey (August 9, 1875–November 26, 1959) was an English composer, conductor, and pianist who became famous for composing popular light music. Ketèlbey was born on August 9, 1875, at Aston Manor in the Lozells area of Birmingham, England, the son of an engraver, George Henry Ketelbey (written with no accent), and Sarah Ann Aston. Piano lessons must have started at an early age, because at the age of eleven he wrote a piano sonata that he played at the piano of Worcester Town Hall. It won praise from Edward Elgar who was in the audience. He was a reluctant pianist, but was inspired to composition by a passion for the daughter of the organist of the church choir in which he sang.
At age thirteen, Ketèlbey gained a scholarship to the Trinity College of Music in London, an institution with which he was associated for many years, first as a pupil, later as an examiner. Although trying his hand at other instruments, including organ, flute, oboe, clarinet and cello, his first instrument remained the piano, with composition taking an ever-increasing role. There he showed his talent for playing various orchestral instruments reflected in the masterfully colorful orchestration, especially of oriental inspiration, that became his trademark. While still at the College, Ketèlbey managed to have many short pieces published. At Trinity he beat Gustav Holst in competition for a musical scholarship.
On leaving the college, Ketèlbey’s work as an examiner enabled him to include some of his own educational pieces on the Trinity College examination syllabus. His main employment was now with two publishing firms. At Chappell’s he made reductions of orchestral music for solo piano, while at Hammond’s he did the reverse, and orchestrated classics of the piano repertoire for the ever-increasing market of the salon orchestra. This experience was invaluable in molding the composer’s fluent writing for both piano and orchestra. Ketèlbey held a number of other positions, including organist at St John’s, Wimbledon, before being appointed musical director of London’s Vaudeville Theatre, where he met his future wife Charlotte (Lottie) Siegenberg (1871–1947), an actress and singer. Whilst at the Vaudeville he continued writing diverse vocal and instrumental music. Later, he became famous for composing popular light music, much of which was used as accompaniments to silent films, and as mood music at tea dances.
Once, while conducting a program of his own music at a Royal Command Performance, Ketèlbey gave a second rendering of the State Procession movement of his Cockney Suite during the interval, at the request of King George V, who had arrived too late to hear it performed at the beginning of the program. Hammond handled most of his early compositions, not only piano pieces, but a large number of songs and even the light opera The Wonder Worker, which had been produced at the Grand Theatre, Fulham, in 1900. While still using Hammond for most of his lighter output, Ketèlbey tried to interest more famous publishers in his more serious works. Odd pieces were published by Novello & Co., Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew, and the American firm Theodore Presser Co. He used the pseudonyms A. William Aston, André de Basque, Dennis Charlton, Raoul Clifford, Geoffrey Kaye, and Anton Vodorinski for some of his works. Some reference books mistakenly give Vodorinski as his true name and Ketèlbey as the pseudonym. His name is frequently misspelt Ketelby.
His success enabled Ketelby to relinquish his London appointments. He was active in several other fields including being music editor to some well-known publishing houses and for more than twenty years from 1906, served Musical Director of the Columbia Graphophone Company, where over 600 recordings were issued with him conducting the Court Symphony Orchestra, the Silver Stars Band, and other ensembles. Over the first couple decades of the twentieth century, Ketèlbey issued a hearty stream of pseudo-programmatic orchestral works, like The Phantom Melody (1912), which were very popular in their day. In a Monastery Garden, written in 1915, was the hit that made his name at age forty. During the First World War, he held the post of musical director in revues promoted by André Charlot, including Ye Gods (1916), Flora (1918) and The Officers’ Mess (1918). Significantly, one of his collections of cinema music was published by Bosworth. After the First World War, this firm became Ketèlbey’s major publisher. The composer duly produced collections of brief mood-setting pieces for the silent cinema. In later years, at the peak of his popularity, he was able to recycle some of these fragments as concert pieces.
By the end of the 1920s, Ketèlbey’s success as a composer was great enough for him to be able to give up his post at Columbia, and devote himself to composition. In 1929 he was proclaimed in the Performing Right Gazette as “Britain’s greatest living composer,” on the basis of the number of performances of his works. Ketèlbey and Lottie Siegenberg had a long and happy marriage. After her death he married Mabel Maud Pritchett. There were no children by either marriage. His work fell out of favor after the Second World War, and his annual tours ceased soon after the War. Of the handful of works published in the post- war years, most were reworkings of old material, although the composer attempted to disguise the origins. Apart from a commission to write The Adventurers Overture for the 1945 National Brass Band Competition, little of interest was produced, and even the Adventurers Overture was refashioned as an orchestral piece.
Best known for “In A Persian Market” and “In A Monastery Garden,” at the time of his death, Ketelbey, who had also written several “serious” concert pieces, including a String Quartet and a Concert-Piece for piano and orchestra, had slipped into obscurity. He died at the age of 84 on Nov. 26, 1959, at his home, Rookstone, Egypt Hill in Cowes on the Isle Of Wight, where he had moved in order to concentrate on writing and his hobby of playing billiards. After Ketelbey’s death, his will was couched in terms to dissuade his widow Mabel from allowing access to his private papers, thus closing the most direct avenue for research into his music. In any case, a flood at his house in the winter of 1947 had probably already destroyed the bulk of his manuscripts.
The following works by Albert Ketelby are contained in my collection:
Algerian Scene/Song (1925); for violin and piano.
Bells Across the Meadows (1921).
By the Blue Hawaiian Waters, Tone Picture (1927).
Chal Romano, A Romany/Gypsy Overture (1924).
The Clock and the Dresden Figures (1928?).
A Dream of Christmas, Fantasy (1926).
Fairy Butterfly (1915).
In a Chinese Temple Garden, An Oriental Fantasy (1923).
In a Fairy Realm, Suite (1927).
In a Monastery Garden, Characteristic Intermezzo (1910).
In a Persian Market, Intermezzo Scene with Vocal Effects (1920).
In the Moonlight, Poetic Intermezzo (1919).
In the Mystic Land of Egypt (1931).
In the Sacred Hour, Reverie (1929).
King Cupid (1915).
The Phantom Melody (1911); for violin and piano.
Sanctuary of the Heart (1924).
Three Fanciful Sketches/Etchings, Suite (1928).
Wedgewood Blue, Gavotte (1920).
Will You Forgive? (setting of verses from Andrew Soutar’s 1923 novelette The Frail Woman)
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources