Ivor Novello, master of the musical

Simon Callow, Mark Elder and Gerard McBurney share a love for the music of Ivor Novello, which will be celebrated in a Prom, Glamorous Night

One day over lunch some 15 or more years ago, the trailblazing conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, Mark Elder, the Shostakovich scholar and avant-garde composer Gerard McBurney and I discovered our shared passion for the music of Ivor Novello. The slow-burning result of that encounter is the late-night Prom on 9 August celebrating the work and remarkable life of our hero. All those years ago we pledged that we Must Do Something About Ivor, but exactly what was unclear. Novello was the most successful British musical theatre composer of the 20th century before the meteoric rise of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and one of the great figures of his time. But it would have been hard at that moment in the 1990s to have chosen a less fashionable or more obscure cause to embrace; the idea of a Prom devoted to him would have seemed positively satirical.

When I was a boy, one of the most played, and therefore the most frayed, of all the shellac 78 rpms in my grandmother's precious collection was of the great lyric tenor Richard Tauber singing – with a rather noticeable Austrian accent – Novello's wartime waltz "We'll Gather Lilacs (in the spring again)", written for the troops in the second world war. It was not the first time Novello had hit the jackpot in that way: "Keep the Home Fires Burning", his first big hit, had cheered the troops and indeed the nation in 1914, right at the beginning of the first world war. But it is the later song that is the more characteristic of Novello, his melodic inspiration and his unforced lyricism. This is music without cynical calculation; it springs from an overflowing heart coupled with an informed knowledge of the possibilities of the singing voice. Its lyrics, written, unusually for him, by Novello himself, are far from sophisticated, but in conjunction with the irresistible melody they retain their power to touch, even to move: "We'll gather lilacs in the spring again / And walk together down an English lane / Until our hearts have learned to sing again / When you come home once more / // And in the evening by the firelight's glow / You'll hold me close and never let me go / Your eyes will tell me all I need to know / When you come home once more."

The song soon found its way into his 1945 musical, Perchance to Dream, the plot synopsis of the last act of which reads: "In 1945, Valentine's grandson Bay wins the hand of Melody, the girl who represents the love that he had lost in earlier generations. The romance finally lays the ghosts to rest." That gives a pretty good sense of the general tone of a Novello musical. In this particular show, Novello had certainly won the hand of Melody: other numbers include the perennially affecting "Love Is My Reason for Living", "A Woman's Heart" and the splendid ballet "The Triumph of Spring".

Ivor's shows were lush affairs, but by no means the simple Ruritanian fantasies derided by sophisticates – The Dancing Years (1939) puts the Nazis on stage, with fierce disapproval. Brecht it isn't, but its critical picture of the menace across the water packed a considerable punch in the immediately pre-war period in which it appeared; Ivor's heart was in the right place, as it generally was. His last show – or rather the last show in which he appeared – was King's Rhapsody, which has a now oddly topical storyline concerning the heir to the throne abdicating under pressure from his long-lived mother, Queen Elana, in favour of his infant son. Novello's very last show, which opened during the run of King's Rhapsody, for the first time contained no part for Novello himself. Under the piquant title of Gay's the Word, it was a considerable departure from his other shows. A brisk backstage comedy, its great hit song is the wildly energetic jazz number "Vitality", and it opens with "Ruritania," an outrageous and hilarious send-up of his own shows.

Novello is full of surprises, in fact, not the least of which is that though in each of his musicals he wrote the leading part for himself, he never gave himself anything to sing in them. This in itself is surely unique: almost a formal innovation. He was, moreover, by no means the musical naïf he was generally thought to be. His formidable mother, Clara Novello Davies, was a singing teacher and choral conductor of some distinction. She maintained a base in Cardiff (where, as David Ivor Davies, he was born in 1893), but she taught, very successfully, in London and New York. She was the archetypal stage mother, but her ambitions for Ivor were all musical. She wanted him to be an opera composer, to which end he was sent, as a boy, to study counterpoint and harmony with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester cathedral. He won a scholarship to Magdalen College School in Oxford, and sang as a solo treble in the college choir; back in Wales, he had won prizes at the Eisteddfod. And from an early age, through his daily encounters with his mother's eclectic clientele, he was immersed in the world of singers, both classical, including Dame Clara Butt and the great Adelina Patti, and from the variety stage.

When he first moved to London, he made a living as a piano teacher. But composition, in obedience to the maternal prescription, was always the ambition. He started writing songs very early – one of the first of them, written when he was 15, was published – and he contributed numbers to various West End musicals and revues, writing the entire score for PG Wodehouse's The Golden Moth. He had a big hit with "And her mother came too", written for Jack Buchanan, which is quite as witty as anything by Coward or Porter.

That was in 1921. The year before, his life had taken an entirely unexpected turn when, on the strength of a photograph, he was cast by the Swiss movie director Louis Mercanton in The Call of the Blood and immediately became a major star. Within a short space of time, he appeared in films on both sides of the Atlantic; his two films for Alfred Hitchcock, The Lodger and Downhill, show him capable of dramatic acting of no mean order. He had never acted before The Call of the Blood; in it, his natural flair is obvious. His florid dark looks were striking, almost startling. He was utterly at ease with himself and very happily homosexual, the much-admired bedfellow of a string of famous lovers. Not that he was a snob in any area: his sex life was as democratic as his working life.

Nor was he at all narcissistic. In the early 1920s Noël Coward, seven years his junior and obsessed with stardom (and his own then lack of it), met him for the first time in the street. "The eager Galahad expression which distinguished every photograph of him was missing. His face was yellow, and he had omitted to shave owing to a morning rehearsal. He was wearing an odd overcoat with an Astrakhan collar." Minutes later, before Coward's eyes, he sat at his dressing room table and became Ivor Novello, Galahad expression and all. Coward felt both admiration and exasperation towards him, abhorring what he thought of as Novello's vacuousness, but envying the love he inspired in audiences. In the theatre Novello acted in Coward's resounding flop Sirocco, under the author's direction, and on film in the part that had made Coward's name, Nicky in The Vortex; this was a great success, to Coward's considerable chagrin. By the mid-1930s, Novello was a major figure in the theatre, both as actor and as writer. Symphony in Two Flats was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic and led to a contract with MGM (unproductive of anything, as it happened). In 1933, he had no fewer than three plays on in the West End.

But despite all this versatility and acclaim in so many media, it was Novello's 1935 musical Glamorous Night and its successors that finally defined his position in the theatrical firmament. He wrote the show at high speed, at the invitation of the producer Harry Tennant, who was desperate for something to fill the enormous Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which had failed to find a hit to follow Coward's historical blockbuster, Cavalcade of 1931; its affectionate revival of operetta immediately appealed to a public eager for escape from the anxieties of the gathering storm in Europe. Coward had already been there before Novello, as early as 1929, with Bitter Sweet. But Coward's nostalgia is aggressive, a critique of the present; Novello's is softer, more affectionate. The innocence of his enjoyment of the past, and his belief in the transporting power of love (he and his lifelong partner Bobbie Andrews were happily, if not quite monogamously, together to the day Ivor died) make an unexpectedly touching impact.

When, a few years ago, in Manchester under Mark Elder's baton, we finally did an evening of Novello's music with a linking narration by Paul Ibell, the audience's response was remarkable: they were genuinely moved – rather tearful, in fact. The music produces a real catch in the throat of the sort that only the greatest composers of so-called light music can achieve: Strauss, Lehár, Chabrier, Kern, Bernstein. And it was this quality, rather than the sumptuous settings, flamboyant costumes and escapism that brought Novello such adulation (mostly, it has to be conceded, from the women in his audience).

Adulation, however, it certainly was. During the second world war Novello was briefly imprisoned, as an exemplary case, for culpable ignorance of the petrol rationing regulations, a traumatic experience for a man who had known nothing but approval and comfort his whole life. After his release, an audience that might have been expected to take a very dim view of his misdemeanour greeted him, on his return to The Dancing Years, with rapturous approval. He died, just as he would surely have wished, in harness, at the early age of 58, a couple of hours after completing his 841st performance in King's Rhapsody. His funeral at Golders Green crematorium drew thousands of people, many of them in a state of extreme emotion. His form of theatre has disappeared without trace, and it is all but impossible to contemplate reviving any of his shows: apart from anything else, they make very considerable musical demands for which it might be hard to find the performers. The music is the heart of them, and it richly deserves to be heard.


Simon Callow

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ivor Novello and Noël Coward's flirtation with fascism
Can we excuse these flighty young men their fling with the far right? By Philip Hoare

Philip Hoare

04, Jul, 2014 @6:29 PM

Article image
The Leonard Bernstein Letters edited by Nigel Simeone – review

This cleverly edited collection of letters reveals an attractive and energetic man. But Bernstein now has a mixed musical reputation – even if West Side Story will live forever. Philip Hensher

Philip Hensher

28, Nov, 2013 @10:00 AM

Proms 35 & 36: BBC Philharmonic/Storgårds; Glamorous Night – review
Effortful performances of Sibelius's most elusive symphonies preceded a late-night concert devoted to Ivor Novello, which eventually revealed his prodigious talent, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

10, Aug, 2012 @11:11 AM

Article image
Prom 59: The Broadway Sound – review
It was a pleasure to hear songs from neglected shows in this starry reconstruction of Broadway at its best, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

28, Aug, 2012 @11:27 AM

Prom 37: Hallé/Elder – review
If you're going to have a second-rate choral extravaganza by Elgar – and why not? – then these are the people to do it, writes Guy Dammann

Guy Dammann

12, Aug, 2012 @10:57 AM

Article image
'He was high-brow, low-brow, every-brow!' – the genius of Leonard Bernstein
Composer, conductor, inspiration, FBI suspect … Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago this August, and this summer’s Proms will celebrate his work. Musicians, critics and his own family remember an astounding talent

Interviews by Imogen Tilden, Fiona Maddocks

12, Jul, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
What makes a musical leading lady?
Imelda Marcos, Anna Nicole Smith and Eva Perón are all the subjects of musicals or operas this autumn. Mark Lawson considers what makes a life to sing about

Mark Lawson

12, Sep, 2014 @11:00 AM

Article image
The Rest is Noise festival: what's your favourite piece of 20th-century music?

In anticipation of the Southbank Centre's year-long The Rest is Noise festival, conductors, musicians and artists share their favourite classical works from a century of musical turbulence

Imogen Tilden

29, Nov, 2012 @8:00 PM

Article image
Prom 2: My Fair Lady/John Wilson Orchestra – review

This one-night-only version of the timeless musical was as good as anything you'd see at the West End, writes John Lewis

John Lewis

15, Jul, 2012 @1:25 PM

Article image
That old noir magic: why City of Angels is the musical for me – by Josie Rourke
Even as a child, Josie Rourke was obsessed with Hollywood femmes fatales, so she knew that City of Angels, with its sassy women and witty songs, was the perfect choice for her first musical

Josie Rourke

06, Dec, 2014 @8:30 AM