Proms composer Demuth’s music is late
SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: A Croydon-born composer whose works have been forgotten deserves a revival, writes DAVID MORGAN
The BBC Proms start next month. Eighty years ago, in the war-torn summer of 1942, among the various concerts given at the Royal Albert Hall was a composition by a musician who had worked as one of the assistant organists of the parish church of Croydon, but who was then serving as an officer in the army.
Norman Demuth was originally to have one of his pieces performed in the Proms two years earlier, but this concert, which was to be performed at Queen’s Hall in September 1940, was canceled due to intense night air raids on London.
But his “Valses graves et gaies” were chosen to be performed for a second ball, this time on Saturday August 8, 1942. Announced as a world premiere, the symphonic ensemble that Demuth himself conducted was sandwiched between the Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures”. During an exhibition.
Demuth was a great admirer as well as an expert of 20th century French composers and his piece was inspired by his love of Ravel’s music. Reviews weren’t particularly rave about the work, however, and Les Valses has had few airplays since then.
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 orchestra music and a requiem. He even composed a piece for a one-handed pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost an arm in World War II.
It is through his incidental music for BBC radio plays and films that his name is probably best known today. Accompaniment music for the radio included The Storm, Prometheus Bound, Prometheus Unbound, All’s Well That Ends Well and The Queen of Cornwall. His best-known film music was the 1945 film, Pink rope and sealing wax with Googie Withers. He also wrote the music for the 1948 film The secret tunnelthe 1949 movie Meet the Duke and a 1950 Swedish comedy Ana Nisse on the hunting trail.
Towards the end of his life, while living in Chichester, he wrote a fanfare for organ and trumpets which was to be played in the cathedral 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 World War I. He served only a short time, being discharged from the army in June 1916 following an accidental grenade explosion in a trench. He then studied music at the Royal College of Music under Thomas Dunhill and Walter Parratt.
His career as a church musician began at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and he later worked as a church organist. He only played in Croydon briefly before working elsewhere in music.
Demuth was largely self-taught in musical composition, but was aided by Dan Godfrey, a leading conductor of the time, usually connected with the Bournemouth Town Orchestra. In 1933 Demuth conducted part 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 then at the University of Durham. He became an expert on French composers such as Ravel, Franck and Roussel, whom he had long admired. His life of work and study of French composers earned him a knighthood of the Legion of Honor in 1954.
Demuth had started composing when he was still young and his orchestral piece ‘Selsey Rhapsody’ attracted the interest of Sir Adrian Boult of the London Symphony Orchestra.
In the 1934 Royal Academy of Music review, Demuth is listed as having two pieces played for radio broadcast. Both were written for two pianos. One was “Habanera”, a Spanish dance, and the other was “Rhapsody and Bolero”.
Demuth was part of the generation that 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 began to write books on military strategy: Harrying the Hun, a manual of reconnaissance, tracking and camouflage was published in 1941, when the Nazi invasion was a real fear, and he followed that up with a Street Fighting Manual. 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, pianist and teacher.
From 1945 to the 1960s, Demuth immersed himself in music, composing, writing, lecturing and teaching. Some of his books and articles on music have been important to scholars and critics, notably his 1952 book Musical trends in the 20th 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 of composition – at 15 shillings each – which the buyer could use as the basis for a music correspondence course.
Demuth died in April 1968, aged 69, since then his works have been largely forgotten. Recordings are hard to come by, even in the digital age, although YouTube has flautist James Dutton playing “Three Pastorals after Ronsard”.
Perhaps, as Croydon heads into the Borough of Culture in 2023, someone could dust off one of Demuth’s pieces and bring him some belated recognition. To play him at Croydon Minster where he played the organ would be quite wonderful. Norman Demuth’s music deserves another listen.
Previous posts by David Morgan:
Become a patron!