Edward German (February 17, 1862 –November 11, 1936) was an English musician and composer of Welsh descent who is, best remembered for his extensive output of incidental music for the stage and as a successor to Arthur Sullivan in the field of English comic opera, and some of whose light operas, especially Merrie England, are still performed. German was born German Edward Jones on February 17, 1862, in Whitchurch, Shropshire, England, the second of five children and older of two sons. His father was John David Jones, a liquor merchant, brewer, church organist and lay preacher at the local Congregational chapel. His mother was Elizabeth (Betsy) Cox (died 1901), a teacher of Bible classes for young women. His first name was an anglicised form of the Welsh name “Garmon.” His parents called him Jim. He began to study piano and organ with his father at the age of five. At the age of six, he formed a boys’ concert band to perform locally, teaching himself the violin, composition, and music arrangement in the process. He later sang alto in the church choir and participated in family entertainments above his uncle’s grocery shop, often playing piano duets and performing comic sketches with his elder sister, Ruth, who died when he was 15. He also wrote comic poems. His younger sisters were named Mabel and Rachel.
In his mid-teens, German’s parents attempted to apprentice him to a shipbuilding firm, as they believed their son had an aptitude for engineering. His studies at a boarding-school in Chester had been delayed by a serious illness, however, and so he was turned away as too old to begin an apprenticeship. In his teens he formed a second band, a quintette, including himself on the violin, his sister on the pianoforte or the bass, and three friends of the family. He prepared the orchestrations for this band. He also led the town orchestra of Whitchurch, did some amateur acting, and sang comic songs in local village halls. He also began to compose music.
At the age of 18, Edward studied privately with Walter Cecil Hay, the conductor of the Whitchurch choral society and director of music at St. Chad’s of Shrewsbury. German entered the Royal Academy of Music, where he eventually changed his name to J. E. German (and later simply Edward German) to avoid confusion with another student named Edward Jones. He continued his studies of violin and organ, also beginning a more formal study of composition under Ebenezer Prout. While performing and later teaching violin at the Royal Academy of Music, German began to build a career as a composer in the mid-1880s, writing serious music as well as light opera. Many of German’s student works were played at Academy concerts.
In 1884, the Academy appointed German a sub-professor of the violin. During his time as an instructor, he was well regarded and won several medals and prizes, such as the Tubbs Bow for his skill with the violin. In 1885, he won the Charles Lucas Medal for his Te Deum for soloists, choir, and organ, leading him to change his focus from violin to composition. He soon wrote a light opera, The Two Poets (for four soloists and piano), in 1886, which was produced at the Academy and then performed at St. George’s Hall. He visited Germany in 1886 and again in 1888–89 and was impressed by its opera, particularly at Bayreuth In 1887, his first symphony, in E Minor, was also performed at the Academy.
During his time at the Royal Academy, German taught at Wimbledon School and played the violin in theatre orchestras, including the Savoy Theatre. His circle of close friends at the Academy included Dora Bright and Ethel Mary Boyce (1863–1936) from Chertsey, Surrey. He and Boyce became engaged. She was also a promising composition student and won the Lady Goldsmid scholarship in 1885, the Sterndale Bennett Prize in 1886 and the Charles Lucas Medal in 1889. Although the engagement was broken off, they remained friends. German never married. After leaving the Academy, German continued to teach at Wimbledon School and to play the violin in orchestras at various London theatres, including the Savoy. German lived, from 1886, in Hall Road, Maida Vale, near Lord’s Cricket Ground, where he was an avid enthusiast of that game.
In 1888, an introduction by conductor Alberto Randegger to theatre manager Richard Mansfield led to German’s appointment as conductor and musical director at the Globe Theatre in London. There he improved the orchestra and began providing popular incidental music for many of the theatre’s lavish productions and those of other London theatres, starting with Richard III in 1889. This music was well received. The Times called for a concert suite to be arranged. and the overture soon became popular in concert halls. In 1890 he conducted a revised version of his first symphony at the Crystal Palace, while The Two Poets toured successfully in England. This eventually led to other incidental music commissions that gained success. In 1892, German composed music for a production of Henry Irving’s version of Henry VIII at the Lyceum Theatre, London, where he incorporated elements of traditional old English dance. Within a year, sheet music of the dance numbers from the play’s score had sold 30,000 copies.
German was by then in great demand to write music for plays. His commissions included Henry Arthur Jones’s The Tempter in 1893, Johnston Forbes-Robertson’s Romeo and Juliet at the Lyceum in 1895, Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s productions of As You Like It (1896) and Much Ado about Nothing (1898), and Anthony Hope’s English Nell (later known as Nell Gwynn) in 1900, starring Marie Tempest. At the same time, German was writing music for the concert hall, sometimes adapting music from his theatrical scores. His Gypsy Suite met with success similar to that of his overture to Richard III and his popular Henry VIII and Nell Gwynn dances. All were written in “a distinctive, if limited, ‘olde English’ manner, a species of musical mock Tudor with which German came to be particularly associated.” He also wrote a number of successful drawing-room songs and solo piano pieces during this time.
The success of German’s theatrical and concert hall music led to his receiving commissions from orchestral music festivals, including his second symphony for the Norwich Festival in 1893. The young critic George Bernard Shaw complained that German’s symphonies were limited by the composer’s indulgence in a theatricality out of place in symphonic writing. German was thin-skinned, and after receiving this criticism, he wrote no more symphonies. German tried to avoid this charge in the future by characterizing his large-scale four-movement works as “symphonic suites”. Successful orchestral works included suites for the Leeds Festival in 1895 and The Seasons for Norwich in 1899, and a symphonic poem, Hamlet, at Birmingham in 1897, conducted by Hans Richter. He had planned a violin concerto for the 1901 Leeds Festival, but this was never completed, as German instead turned to light opera. In 1902, he produced a Rhapsody on March Themes for the Brighton Festival.
Though German had little experience with opera or choral music, Richard D’Oyly Carte invited him to finish Arthur Sullivan’s The Emerald Isle for the Savoy Theatre after Sullivan’s death in 1900. He accepted, giving up his violin concerto commission for the Leeds Festival to meet the deadlines. The success of his score for the opera (which was performed into the 1920s) opened up a new career for him and led to more comic operas. His next comic opera, in 1902, was Merrie England, with Basil Hood, the librettist for The Emerald Isle. This was perhaps German’s greatest success, and its dance music was popular separately. It was revived frequently, becoming a light-opera standard in Britain, while several of its songs, including “The English Rose”, “O Peaceful England” and “The Yeomen of England”, remained popular until the middle of the 20th century. Merrie England has been so frequently chosen by amateur groups in England that it probably has been performed more often than any other British opera or operetta written in the 20th century.
After this, German and Hood collaborated again in 1903 to write A Princess of Kensington. This opera was unsuccessful, although it toured briefly and had a New York production. German turned to other endeavors, composing music to Rudyard Kipling texts, including the twelve songs in the Just So Song Book in 1903 but continued to write orchestral music. He received a steady flow of commissions, leading to works such as his Welsh Rhapsody for the Cardiff Festival in 1904, featuring as its climax “Men of Harlech.” German returned to writing comic operas, achieving another success with Tom Jones for the Apollo Theatre in 1907, produced by Robert Courtneidge for the Fielding bicentenary. The score is one of German’s finest works. It received a production in New York, with German conducting, and was performed for decades, spawning separate performances of its dance music.
German next collaborated with W. S. Gilbert on his final (and unsuccessful) opera, Fallen Fairies, at the Savoy in 1909. With German’s agreement, Gilbert cast his protege, Nancy McIntosh, as the Fairy Queen, Selene. Critics found her performance weak. Shortly after the opening, the producer C. H. Workman, acting at the request of the syndicate he had gathered, replaced McIntosh with Amy Evans and asked for restoration of a song that Gilbert had cut during rehearsals. Gilbert was outraged and threatened to sue, demanding that German join him. This placed German in a distressing position, and the composer, who habitually preferred to avoid legal battles, declined. In maintaining the Savoy tradition of comic opera, German was composing a style of piece for which public taste had dwindled as fashions in musical theatre had changed with the new century.
In the wake of the failure of Fallen Fairies and his unhappy experience with it, German effectively ended his career as a composer of new works, only returning to composition on a few rare occasions. Among his works in his later years was a march and hymn for the coronation of King George V in 1911, his Theme and Six Diversions in 1919, and his final major work, the Othello-inspired tone poem The Willow Song in 1922. He also, on occasion, wrote new part-songs and vocal solos, and in 1911 became the first composer to write music for a British film, as he was commissioned for 50 guineas to write 16 bars of music for the coronation scene in the film Henry VIII of England. In 1912, actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree proposed another collaboration between Hood and German to provide a musical production based on the life of Sir Francis Drake, but German declined the commission, saying that its Elizabethan setting would merely result in his covering ground already explored in Merrie England.
After that, German ceased composing new works regularly and wrote little new music of his own past 1912. He was injured in a road accident during World War I. Correspondence shows that he felt uncomfortable with the changing musical styles, such as jazz and modernist classical music. Like Sullivan before him, he regretted that his popularity stemmed mostly from his comic operas. However, German was a perfectionist and continually revised his works and produced new arrangements for publication. He also recorded some of them and encouraged their production and broadcast on the radio. Beginning in 1916, he was one of the first composers to conduct his own music for recording, producing full renderings of Merrie England and Theme and Six Diversions.
German lived a quiet life, enjoying walking, cycling and fishing, though he often attended the theatre. He developed a strong friendship with Sir Edward Elgar., but continued to be a highly sought-after conductor, accepting many conducting engagements. He was the first British conductor invited by Dan Godfrey to conduct his own music at Bournemouth. German continued to conduct until 1928, the year in which he was knighted, when he suffered an eye condition that left him blind in his right eye. When he was knighted in 1928, the respect in which he was held by fellow musicians was shown by the number of eminent musicians who attended the celebratory dinner, including Elgar, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Sir Hugh Allen, Sir Landon Ronald, and Lord Berners.
In 1934 German received the Royal Philharmonic Society’s highest honor, its gold medal, presented by Sir Thomas Beecham at an RPS concert. He was elected an Honorary Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians in 1936, and he was a leader of the Performing Rights Society, which fought for composers’ rights to fair compensation for the performances of their works. German lived long enough to witness the beginning of a decline in the popularity of his orchestral works. He died of prostate cancer at his home in Maida Vale, London, at the age of 74. His body was cremated at Golders Green, and his ashes are interred in the Whitchurch cemetery. A note found after his death bears this poignant message: “I die a disappointed man because my serious orchestral works have not been recognized.”
However, German composed symphonies, orchestral suites, symphonic poems and other works and also wrote a considerable body of songs, piano music, symphonic suites, and other concert music, of which his Welsh Rhapsody is perhaps best known, and his best-known orchestral pieces are still occasionally performed, while his light operas Merrie England and Tom Jones continue to receive productions.
The following works by Edward German are contained in my collection:
Symphony No. 2 in am, “Norwich” (1893).
Welsh Rhapsody (1904).