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On the works of THOMAS F. DUNHILL
This article by Stephen Matthews was first published in the British Music Society newsletter
around 20 years ago. It has been very slightly edited for inclusion here.
Thomas F Dunhill is probably best remembered as the composer of the once popular light opera Tantivy
Towers (Opus 73). This work, with a libretto by A P Herbert, was first staged at the Lyric, Hammersmith,
and was so acclaimed that it then transferred to the West End where it ran for six months. During the
early 1930s it toured the provinces and was even staged in America and Australia. It was regarded by
some critics as the best comic opera of the inter-wars period, though Eric Blom was a little less generous
in his estimation of the work: “The music . . . was rather wanting in stage effectiveness but as musicianly
as Sullivan and sufficiently, though never startlingly, up-to-date.”
But Dunhill, despite such success, has since faded into obscurity and his music is largely forgotten. He
was however quite a prolific composer with over a hundred opus numbers to his credit.
He was born in London in 1877 and, by the age of four, showed a keen interest in music. Enthralled by
the comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan, which he first saw while at school in Hampstead, he set about
composing his own and often attempted to organise amateur productions of these early works. By the age
of about sixteen he is said to have written at least a dozen of them, though of what standard is unknown.
Obviously Dunhill already possessed considerable talent, and in 1893 he entered the Royal College of
Music. For seven years there he studied composition with Stanford, and piano with Franklin Taylor. After
completing his studies he took a post as Assistant Master at Eton College, where he remained until 1905.
In 1907 he began producing the 'Dunhill Chamber Concerts'. Despite early financial setbacks, they lasted
for a number of years, successfully promoting new and neglected talent. In 1913 [?] he returned to the
RCM as a professor. The same year he published Chamber Music: a Treatise for Students which remained a
standard work until well after his death.
1914 was quite an eventful year for Dunhill. He married Mary Arnold, great-niece of the poet and writer
Matthew Arnold and, at the outbreak of war, enlisted in the army. He served in the Irish Guards and was
lucky enough to avoid the carnage by being posted in England for the duration. After 1918 he devoted
himself to conducting and composition, producing a remarkable variety of works. During the Second
World War he went back to Eton, again as Assistant Master, and in 1942 he re-married. He died in
Scunthorpe in 1946.
Throughout his life Dunhill maintained an avid interest in the theatre. Not surprisingly, his early
enthusiasm for Gilbert & Sullivan prompted him to write a number of comic operas in that vein. Apart
from Tantivy Towers there is Princess Chia [Una?] (Opus 11), an operetta for children, The Frolicsome Hours,
The Enchanted Garden (Opus 77), first performed in Guildford in 1933 and again in 1934, and Something in
the City (Opus 90) which was completed in 1939 and should have been produced that year, but for the
outbreak of war.
Dunhill wrote incidental music for plays including The Fairy Staff (Opus 28) and The King's Threshold (Opus
39) (W B Yeats): the prelude was subsequently re-scored for full orchestra and was first performed under
Sir Henry Wood at a Promenade Concert in 1913. Ballet music included Dick Whittington (Opus 79)
(1934) and Gallimaufry (Opus 86), first performed at the Staatsoper, Hamburg as Die Eiskönigin on
December 11th, 1937.
Dunhill wrote many orchestral works, most of which were published or performed during his lifetime.
The composer considered a good number of these, along with various chamber pieces, to be among his
best compositions - in particular, the Symphony in A minor (Opus 48), of which he conducted the first
performance in Belgrade on December 28th 1922. By all accounts this performance was a notable
success, and in his diary at the end of that exciting day the composer noted how he had been called back
on to the stage six times by a very enthusiastic audience. The Symphony's British premiere took place in
Bournemouth on 19th April 1923 where it was later performed again on 20th January 1927. It was also
played at Guildford the same year. But the work was not well-received, much to the composer's
disappointment, and apart from appearing in the LPO's 1935/6 season, has never been revived.
Among Dunhill's other orchestral compositions are Suite of Valses (Opus 1), Valse Fantasia for flute and
orchestra (Opus 12), Capricious Variations on an Old English Tune for cello and orchestra (Opus 31), Dance
Suite for strings (Opus 41), Elegiac Variations on an Original Theme (Opus 57) in memory of Parry and first
performed at the Gloucester Festival in 1922, Lyrical Phantasy on a Homage Theme (Opus 71), written for the
Schubert Centenary, In Rural England (Opus 72), a suite for string orchestra, Concertino for two violins and
string orchestra (Opus 92), Divertimento for small orchestra (Opus 98) and Triptych (Opus 99), three
impressions for viola and orchestra, written for and dedicated to Lionel Tertis, and first performed by
him under Sir Adrian Boult at a Promenade Concert on August 19th 1942. Dunhill's final orchestral
work, the Overture, Maytime (Opus 100) also received its first performance under Boult at a Promenade
Concert on 10th September 1945, seven months before the composer's death.
Among his works for solo voice and orchestra are Comrades (Opus 19) for baritone, premiered at the
Worcester Festival in September 1905 with Frederick Austin as soloist, Night (Opus 2) after a poem by
Shelley, for contralto, and The Wind Among The Reeds (Opus 30), four sonnets for tenor comprising To
Dectora; The Host of the Air; The Cloths of Heaven; The Fiddler of Dooney, first performed at the Queen's Hall in
1911 with Gervase Elwes. There is one major choral work with orchestra, the ballad Tubal Cain (Opus
Of his unaccompanied choral works the most notable are the cantatas - John Gilpin, for treble voices in
unison or two parts (Opus 29), Sea Fairies (Opus 35) (words by Antonia R Williams), refrain for treble
voices, The Masque of The Shoe (Opus 49), The Christmas Rose - a Cantata of the Nativity for unison and twopart treble (words by Irene Goss).
Dunhill wrote some songs, once described as 'perfect specimens of fine craftsmanship', among which are
Two Songs (Opus 9) to poetry by Blake, Sleep, Sweet Babe and Infant Joy; Songs to Rhymes (Opus 78) (words by
Rose Fyleman), published in 1933, and others without opus numbers, including Beauty and Beauty. Of this
work the composer said, “It was written for John Coates and sung by him at one of his Chelsea recitals;
but beyond this I do not know of its being sung by anyone else anywhere, and yet I feel it is one of my
best songs.”
Thomas Dunhill devoted much time to writing chamber and instrumental music, some of it still
occasionally heard today. He considered his two violin sonatas (No 1 in D minor (Opus 27) and No 2 in F
major (Opus 80) to be amongst his best chamber works. Other pieces include Variations for flute and piano
(Opus 2), Quintet in E flat (Opus 3) for piano, violin, cello, clarinet and horn, Quintet in F minor (Opus 6)
for two violins, viola, cello and horn, Piano Quartet in B minor (Opus 16), winner of the Lesley Alexander
Prize, Three Pieces (Opus 17) for violin and piano, Variations on an Original Theme (Opus 18) for cello and
piano, Piano Quintet in C minor (Opus 20), Phantasie in F minor for piano trio, Phantasy in E flat (Opus 36) for
piano, violin and viola, Phantasy in F major (Opus 47) for string quartet, Trio (Opus 63) for two violins and
viola, Sextet (Opus 64) for six violins, Trio in B flat (Opus 89) for oboe, horn and bassoon, Phantasy Suite
(Opus 91) in six short movements for clarinet and piano, and Lyric Suite (Opus 96) for bassoon and piano.
Dunhill composed very many pieces for piano, a large number written for children or students. amongst
these are Four Easy Pieces (Opus 13), Phantasies (Opus 24) - a suite of eight pieces, A Child's Garden of
Melodies (Opus 31), Seven Easy Pieces, Recreation (Opus 37), Four Salon Pieces (Opus 41), Fancies (Opus 53b),
Lyric Thoughts (Opus 57) - five easy pieces, Three Woodland Dances (Opus 56b), Pastime and Good Company
(Opus 70) - a suite of six pieces for four hands, Four Hand Fancies (Opus 87a) - six pieces, and many
others without opus numbers such as Dances, Souvenirs, Path Ways, Twilight Scenes, and English Folk-Song
Tunes. More serious compositions for the piano include Sixteen Variations on an Original Theme (Opus 5),
Scherzo in F (Opus 8), and Concert Study in A flat Opus 14).
Dunhill's music remains practically unknown, which is a pity as many fine works exist among his output.
Almost nothing has been recorded with the exception of a few songs and the Romance for oboe and piano.
This short but charming work is from Three Easy Pieces (Opus 81), written for the late Leon Goossens, and
recorded by him in 1978. It contains some rich melodic invention which, if we are to believe
contemporary accounts, colours much of Dunhill's writing for chamber and instrumental combinations. I
should imagine that can also be heard in his orchestral work, since Dunhill was primarily concerned - as
was Delius - with the quality of sheer beauty, expressible through the medium of music. Dunhill once said
“I suppose it is right that music should depict the present-day restlessness, but surely it should also provide some sort of relief
or escape from it? Personally, I have no desire to express anything in music but that which is beautiful, and which will lift
people out of their troubles.”
Perhaps one day we will have occasion to decide for ourselves whether these words ring true. At least one
large-scale orchestral work deserves performance, for a re-assessment of Thomas F. Dunhill is long
The works listed here are taken from Dunhill's notebook. Included in this document are numerous other
pieces not detailed in this survey. Apart from the absent works with opus numbers, there are pieces for
piano, songs, works for strings and a few chamber compositions, all un-numbered. It should also be
noted that many of his orchestral compositions were transcribed for piano and some piano pieces
orchestrated, such as the Waltz Suite (Opus 75) in 1943, first performed at a Promenade concert under
Dunhill in the same year. Other arrangements by the composer were made of a good many works but
lack of space prevents their listing here. Thanks are due to Barbara Vincent, the composer's daughter,
who kindly sent me the recently prepared full list of her father's compositions.
© Stephen Matthews