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Norman O’Neill — “Soliloquy” for Double Bass & Piano

Norman O'Neill

The leading theatrical composer of his day, and one of the outstanding musical figures of this century. Those who have long known Norman O’Neill’s music for ‘The Blue Bird’, ‘Mary Rose’, ‘A Kiss for Cinderella’, ‘Kismet’, and so many other plays, can now see that the man himself was as charming and distinctive as everything he wrote. No one has ever been more popular in the world of music or the theatre than O’Neill — and whether as musical director of the Haymarket Theatre for over twenty years, treasurer of the Royal Philharmonic Society, composer and conductor for the BBC, teacher at the R.A.M., or genial companion at the Savage Club, his influence was most widely felt.

—Derek Hudson, 1945

The text is taken from the back cover of Norman O’Neill — A Life in Music, the biography of the composer published in 1945. O’Neill had the misfortune to die in the same year as Elgar, Holst and Delius — he was a friend of all three — and although he was much respected and loved during his lifetime his reputation and music have not fared so well over the past 80 years.

Norman O’Neill (1875 – 1934) was the leading British theatrical composer of the 1920s and 30s and was possibly destined for Hollywood at the time of his death. He composed music for more than 50 plays, notably by J.M. Barrie, Shakespeare, A.A. Milne, Ibsen, Walter Scott and Ashley Dukes, showing a remarkable aptitude for devising music which enhanced a situation and reflected the stage characters. He studied composition with Arthur Somervell and subsequently with Iwan Knorr in Frankfurt, alongside fellow students Balfour Gardiner, Percy Grainger, Cyril Scott and Roger Quilter — subsequently nicknamed the ‘Frankfurt Gang’. O’Neill was Musical Director of the Haymarket Theatre (London) from 1908 to 1919 and returned there in 1920 for the production of J.M. Barrie‘s Mary Rose — one of his most successful scores. He was a prolific composer, writing in many genres, and at the time of his untimely death was at the very height of his musical powers.

Norman O'Neill
The ‘Frankfurt Gang’ in later life. All four composers had studied in Frankfurt at the same time and this photograph was taken at the Harrogate Festival in 1930. Left to right: Cyril Scott (1879 – 1970), Roger Quilter (1877 – 1953), Percy Grainger (1882 – 1961), Norman O’Neill (1875 – 1934).

Soliloquy for double bass and piano is Norman O’Neill‘s only work for double bass and was composed in 1926 for the English double bassist Victor Watson (1886 – 1963). There is no mention of the piece in Derek Hudson‘s book and it was unknown and forgotten until I discovered the manuscript in 2005, 79 years after its premiere. Watson, alongside Eugene Cruft, was one of the most pre-eminent London orchestral bassists of the day, and often performed as a soloist. His recital at London’s Wigmore Hall on Thursday 15 April 1926 was the first double bass recital ever to be heard at the hall and included a wonderfully rich mixture of solo repertoire, where he was joined by Steuart Wilson (tenor), Frank Howard (viola), Herbert Lodge (double bass) and Sidney Crooke (piano).

Norman O'Neill
An amazing concert at London’s Wigmore Hall by Victor Watson on 15 April 1926 which included many first performances. The Dragonetti/Nanny Concerto was only published the year before so it is likely this was the first UK performance but could have been a world premiere. The pieces by Charles Woodhouse and Julius Harrison have not been found yet so may be lost. Bottesini’s Duet for 2 double basses is believed to be the Passione amorosa but with a new piano accompaniment by the British film composer, Ernest Irving.

At the time of the concert, Soliloquy was simply described as New Work and this was its first performance — the concert included five further premieres (Bernard Van Dieren, Charles Woodhouse, Bottesini, Dragonetti/Nanny, Herbert Hughes). The three-page manuscript score of Soliloquy is written in O’Neill’s hand and the work is dedicated to Victor Watson. It is likely that the bassist had known and worked with the composer in London and had simply asked a number of friends to write new works for his Wigmore Hall recital, O’Neill one of them.

Norman O'Neill
Part of the manuscript of Soliloquy for double bass and piano by Norman O’Neill. It is dedicated to Victor Watson who gave the premiere at London’s Wigmore Hall in April 1926, and the solo line is written at pitch and is for double bass in solo tuning.

Soliloquy is a short lyrical solo, originally in solo tuning, and was composed for a 3-stringed bass, or certainly only uses three strings. Utilising the full solo range of the instrument, it employs long, expansive and lyrical phrases demonstrating the sonorous and cantabile qualities of the solo double bass. A wistful quality, and Delius-like harmonies, produce a work of great quality and beauty and give an indication of the solo performance skills of Victor Watson whose recital was an amazing programme for the day.

Norman O'Neill
A caricature of Norman O’Neill at Frankfurt Conservatoire by Aubrey Beardsley.

Early 20th-century British works for solo double bass are as rare as hen’s teeth this is a work of great quality which deserves a place in the solo repertoire. It is a wonderfully rhapsodic and brief miniature from a composer who was one of the most popular composers of the day, although largely forgotten today. The accompaniment is effective and supportive, full of wonderful and original music which contrasts and enhances the lyrical solo line as the bassist ascends into the higher registers. It had lain unknown and forgotten for many years and I was pleased to give the ‘modern premiere’ on 2 October 2005, and it is now published by Recital Music and with piano accompaniments for both solo and orchestral tuning.

Norman O'Neill
New edition of Soliloquy by Norman O’Neill (solo tuning).

Norman O’Neill’s name is not one generally known today, but he was a composer of high repute during his lifetime, writing music of great quality and musical worth. Why has he been forgotten and overlooked? I have no idea, but there does seem to be a little more interest in his music over the past few years, and I am pleased to have brought this beautiful and exquisite mini-masterpiece back to life.

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