Proms composer Demuth’s music is overdue an encore

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: A Croydon-born composer whose works have been forgotten deserves a revival, writes DAVID MORGAN

The BBC Proms begins next month. Eighty years ago, in the war-torn summer of 1942, among the varied concerts performed at the Royal Albert Hall was a composition by a musician who had worked as one of the assistant organists of Croydon Parish Church, but who by then was serving as an officer in the Army.

Promenade moment: the Prom programme from August 1942

Norman Demuth was originally due to have one of his pieces played in the Proms two years earlier, but that concert, due to be performed in the Queen’s Hall in September 1940, was cancelled because of the intense nightly air raids on London.

But his “Valses graves and gaies” was chosen to be played for a second Prom, this time on Saturday August 8, 1942. Advertised as a world premiere, the symphonic set which Demuth conducted himself was sandwiched between Beethoven’s Symphony No7 and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition”.

Demuth was a great admirer as well as an expert on French 20th century composers and his piece was inspired by his love of Ravel’s music. Critics were not particularly complimentary about the work, however, and the Valses has had airings only rarely since then.

Prolific: Demuth’s work included the music for this Swedish comedy movie

He was a prolific composer. Between 1930 and 1957 he completed nine symphonies, and between 1947 and 1959 he wrote six operas. In addition, there were orchestral ballets, military band music and a requiem. He even composed a piece for a one-handed piano player, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost an arm during the Second World War.

It is through his incidental music for BBC radio plays and for films that his name is probably best remembered today. Incidental music for radio included The Tempest, Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound, All’s Well That Ends Well and The Queen of Cornwall. His best-known film score was the 1945 film, Pink String and Sealing Wax with Googie Withers. He also wrote the music for the 1948 film The Secret Tunnel, the 1949 film Meet the Duke and a 1950 Swedish comedy Ana Nisse on the Hunting Trail.

Towards the end of his life, by then living down in Chichester, he wrote a fanfare for organ and trumpets to be played in the cathedral there for the enthronement of the new bishop in 1958, Roger Wilson.

Norman Demuth was born in July 1898 in South Croydon. He went to Repton School, and in 1915 he lied about his age in order to enlist as a soldier in the First World War. He served only for a short time, being invalided out of the army in June 1916 as a consequence of an accidental explosion of a grenade in a trench. He then studied music at the Royal College of Music under Thomas Dunhill and Walter Parratt.

His church music career began in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and he then worked as a church organist. He played at Croydon only briefly before going on to work in music elsewhere.

Soundtrack: Demuth was often asked to compose music for films

Demuth was largely self-taught in musical composition but was helped by Dan Godfrey, a leading conductor of the time, usually linked with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra. In 1933 Demuth conducted some of the winter season of concerts given by this orchestra, sharing the baton with Godfrey.

From 1930, he taught at the Royal Academy of Music and later at Durham University. He became an expert in French composers such as Ravel, Franck and Roussel, whom he had long admired. His lifetime of work and study on French composers resulted in him being made a Chevalier of the Legion D’Honneur in 1954.

Demuth had begun to compose while he was still young and his orchestral piece “Selsey Rhapsody” caught the interest of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Sir Adrian Boult.

In the Royal Academy of Music review for 1934, Demuth is listed as having two pieces played for broadcast on the radio. Both were written for two pianos. One was “Habanera”, a Spanish Dance, and the other was “Rhapsody and Bolero”.

Demuth was one of the generation who endured two world wars. In 1940, he joined the Home Guard. Two years later he received a commission as a lieutenant in the Pioneer Corps. He started to write books on military strategy: Harrying the Hun, A Handbook of Scouting, Stalking and Camouflage was published in 1941, in the days when invasion by the Nazis was a real fear, and he followed that with a Manual in Street Fighting. In 1943, he composed a new regimental march for the Pioneer Corps. It was during the war that he met and, in November 1943, married Edna Hardwick, a pianist and teacher.

Radio waves: the Royal Academy of Music’s review notes the broadcasting of Demuth’s works

From 1945 until the 1960s, Demuth immersed himself in music, composing, writing, lecturing and teaching. Some of his books and articles on music have been important for scholars and critics, including his 1952 book Musical Trends in the Twentieth Century. He held the post of Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy, to which he was first appointed in 1930, for many years. He even published four books on composition – at 15 shillings each – which the purchaser could use as the basis for a musical correspondence course.

Demuth died in April 1968, aged 69, since when his works have largely been forgotten. Recordings are hard to find, even in this digital age, although YouTube has flautist James Dutton playing “Three Pastorals after Ronsard.”

Perhaps, as Croydon heads for the Borough of Culture in 2023, someone could dust off one of Demuth’s pieces and bring him some belated recognition. Performing it in Croydon Minster where he played the organ would be rather wonderful. Norman Demuth’s music deserves another hearing.

Previous articles by David Morgan:

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