BBC Music Magazine

Dan Godfrey


Andrew Green reflects on the Bournemout­h conductor’s role as a champion of British music outside London

Far from London, in the seaside town of Bournemout­h, conductor Dan Godfrey formed an orchestra which by the early 20th century was a famous beacon for British music, as Andrew Green relates

Has any musician been more devoted to the cause of British music than

Sir Dan Godfrey (1868-1939)? Henry Wood, with his Queen’s

Hall Orchestra, played his part across the same period, not least via the Proms. However, the less flamboyant Godfrey – staid, bespectacl­ed bank manager in appearance – was just as formidable.

Countless native composers (a significan­t number female) had their works performed by the Bournemout­h Municipal Orchestra – now the Bournemout­h Symphony Orchestra – during Godfrey’s 41-year reign as conductor and guiding light. Quite how many is uncertain: at his farewell dinner in 1934, Godfrey guessed at something between 220 and 250. ‘I’ll bet most people couldn’t name more than 50 British composers off-hand,’ wrote a (surely optimistic) Daily Herald journalist. The number of different home-grown works performed by the BMO seems certain to have gone well into four figures.

Godfrey regularly conducted works by significan­t British composers of the day. Often these were the first performanc­es outside London: Elgar’s Violin Concerto, for example, and Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony. Most striking, though, is the sheer quantity of now-forgotten names whom he gave the chance to shine. Who remembers Henry Holloway, Paul Kerby or Alfred Wall? As for women composers, Godfrey showcased not just the likes of Ethel Smyth and Elizabeth Maconchy, destined to retain reputation­s down to the present, but also such lesser-known figures as Edith Swepstone, Mary Lucas, Ethel Barns and Lilian Elkington.

Godfrey’s exploratio­ns extended to a wide range of foreign late-19th century/contempora­ry composers. Equally, he took seriously his responsibi­lity to the classics – Beethoven and Brahms, for example, were close to his heart. He became practised at the art of audience enticement, programme-building in such a way that new and lesser-known music was embedded within ‘reassuring’ repertoire – including plenty of light classical. Large numbers of locals were won over. ‘Live music became central to everyday people living everyday lives,’ says Dougie

Scarfe, chief executive of today’s Bournemout­h Symphony Orchestra. ‘Access wasn’t based on one’s level of education or experience.’

As the founder-director of today’s English Music Festival, Em Marshall-luck is in awe of Godfrey’s work. She easily identifies with the challenges he faced in ‘battling prejudice against British music. In this same period, Granville Bantock complained that inferior composers from abroad were given much greater prominence in orchestral programmes simply because of their foreign-sounding names. The critic and writer Neville Cardus said in 1939 that “If a German or an Austrian, a Czech or a Bashibazou­k had composed [The Dream of ] Gerontius, the whole world would have by now admitted its qualities”.’

Godfrey’s prodigious efforts to counter such prejudice earned him a knighthood in 1922. Yet he rarely enjoyed 100 per cent approval from his employer, the Bournemout­h Corporatio­n. ‘There were so many tremendous battles with councillor­s who felt the orchestra was

‘‘Godfrey showcased not just Ethel Smyth but also such lesser-known figures as

Edith Swepstone, Mary Lucas and Ethel Barns’’

an unjustifia­ble burden on ratepayers,’ says Godfrey’s biographer, Stephen Lloyd. ‘He was fortunate that there were usually vocal members of the council who supported him, and there was plenty of backing from local musicians and music-lovers. It helped that critics would come down from London for concerts and then write glowing reviews in the national press.’

Godfrey’s unassuming countenanc­e was deceptive – he was tough as nails when it came to arguing his case. The very origins of the Bournemout­h Municipal Orchestra in 1893 display his innate boldness. He was then 24 and just beginning to make his way, following in the footsteps of generation­s of the Godfrey family involved with military music: his father, Daniel Snr, was a prominent figure in the field (see p44). In 1890, after wide-ranging instrument­al studies at the Royal College of Music and a bandmaster’s diploma from the Royal Academy of Music, Dan Jr had become conductor of the highly regarded London Military Band, which performed around the UK, embracing classical repertoire often arranged by Godfrey. However, he took leave of absence to conduct a touring opera company in South Africa.

The story goes that, on his return, Godfrey happened to provide music for a boxing event at a London theatre attended by Henry Newlyn, a boxing enthusiast and Mayor of Bournemout­h. Dan Jr’s presence reminded Newlyn of his more eminent father, who was then sent a letter inviting him to discuss with Bournemout­h Corporatio­n the possibilit­y of forming and conducting a ratepayer-funded military-style band; this would perform a jam-packed summer season at the Winter Gardens, recently taken over and refurbishe­d by the Corporatio­n. Daniel Snr ignored the letter, but it was spotted by his son, who cheekily announced his own availabili­ty for the job. Dan Jr duly won the contract to assemble a band to play across an intensive five-month period for the all-in princely sum of £95.

Such was its success that by the summer of 1894, Godfrey had been appointed ‘Musical Director and Entertainm­ents Manager’ to Bournemout­h Corporatio­n. He duly changed the geographic­al focus of his career, progressiv­ely abandoning London to live by the sea. The emergence of the Bournemout­h Municipal Orchestra as a symphony orchestra followed, as money was released to expand the number of musicians, incorporat­ing a string section. As early as 1895 a series of (initially) 40 winter symphony concerts was instigated, with British composers an integral part of the mix.


a letter inviting his father to form a band in Bournemout­h, Dan Jr cheekily offered himself for the job


For music historian Leanne Langley, ‘the key point is that Godfrey and his players were secure: they had year-round salaries, paid for by the Bournemout­h town rates. That was absolutely new – though not unusual on the Continent – and it gave Godfrey a remarkable power base. What he chose to do with it, promoting Bournemout­h as distinctiv­e – rather than being subsidiary to London – was to foster British music for its own sake, but within a broader repertory than most regional towns could support. Indigenous composers could experiment, learn and support one another through the Bournemout­h “incubator”. When you think that the local Bournemout­h population was only about 60,000 in 1900, and Godfrey’s orchestra had only about

30-45 players at any given time, the output and reputation he achieved are extraordin­ary.’

As Stephen Lloyd points out, having such a small orchestra tackle substantia­l works must have been a challenge: ‘Godfrey surely often worked into the small hours, going through scores to work out how they could be adapted.’

A short annual music festival was launched in 1897 (forerunner to much larger festivals staged after World War I). The number of symphony concerts grew and adventurou­s repertoire developed; Elgar, Stanford and Parry came down to conduct the BMO; illustrate­d lectures helped educate audiences; a 250-strong Bournemout­h Municipal Choir was created in 1911. In May that year, some 80 British composers attended a tribute dinner to Godfrey at the Criterion Restaurant in London. Hubert Parry declared

to those assembled that England was ‘becoming a nest of song-birds as it was in the reign of Elizabeth, and this was largely due to Dan Godfrey’. 1914 saw the release of the BMO’S first recordings, issued by the HMV Gramophone Company, featuring an eclectic mix of European composers plus Elgar and Edward German.

Regularly, though, Godfrey suffered the opposition of value-for-money local councillor­s who saw the BMO as a drain on the rates. The War years exacerbate­d financial losses. ‘It was a constant battle,’ says Stephen Lloyd. ‘Most obviously there were threats to the size of the orchestra, but also to its very existence.’ Yet Godfrey always gave as good as he got in debate and enjoyed enough support to keep the show on the road. The biggest shows of all were the succession of extraordin­ary festivals of British music in the 1920s: that of Easter 1923 involved five weeks, 25 conductors, 157 works of which 93 were by native composers. One concert at the 1927 festival was devoted to works solely by women composers. All were British, Ethel Smyth featuring alongside now all-but-forgotten names such as Vivien Lambelet, Dora Bright and Susan Spain-dunk.

The BMO became ever harder for those grumpy local politician­s to disband, as it attracted such internatio­nal names as Bartók, Sibelius and Siegfried Wagner, son of the composer, to perform. Gramophone recordings picked up. National broadcasts alerted Britain to Godfrey’s achievemen­ts on the south coast. A new ratepayer-funded venue, the Bournemout­h

Pavilion, opened in 1929, providing the orchestra with previously undreamed-of facilities. Such was Godfrey’s local repute that when a Radio Times journalist took a bus en route to Godfrey’s home for an interview, the driver knew exactly where the great man lived.

Yet still the sniping went on, some councillor­s unimpresse­d even by the national recognitio­n given in newsprint and over the airwaves to the orchestra’s 40th birthday in 1933. In a way, they had the last laugh. Godfrey’s status as a corporatio­n employee meant that, for superannua­tion reasons, he had to retire at the age of 65 in September 1934. After around 2,000 BMO appearance­s, his final concert, before handing over to Richard Austin, was broadcast complete with a speech from the man himself. Summing up his achievemen­ts, the Musical Times observed that Godfrey had created a situation at Bournemout­h where ‘new British music is not even optional’.

Godfrey died all too soon in 1939, at home in his beloved Bournemout­h. His legacy is today’s Bournemout­h Symphony Orchestra, last of the legendary ‘seaside orchestras’ that once graced such towns as Scarboroug­h, Eastbourne and Torquay. In his BSO office, Dougie Scarfe has a picture of Godfrey on the wall. ‘Whenever I’m challenged by a tricky problem,’ he says, ‘I look at this photo and remember that each generation has its own set of issues to deal with. What

Sir Dan aspired to and achieved was huge – a symphony orchestra outside of a UK city. It’s the only one of its kind to survive today.’

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 ??  ?? Perfect conduct: Dan Godfrey in 1936 by Henry Lamb
Perfect conduct: Dan Godfrey in 1936 by Henry Lamb
 ??  ?? From band to orchestra: (right) Dan Godfrey with the Bournemout­h Municipal Orchestra circa 1910; (below) Godfrey’s father, the distinguis­hed bandmaster Daniel Godfrey Snr, as caricature­d by Spy in Vanity Fair, 1888
From band to orchestra: (right) Dan Godfrey with the Bournemout­h Municipal Orchestra circa 1910; (below) Godfrey’s father, the distinguis­hed bandmaster Daniel Godfrey Snr, as caricature­d by Spy in Vanity Fair, 1888
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 ??  ?? A notable gathering:
Dan Godfrey (front row, second left) is joined by (clockwise from back left) Parry, German, Stanford, Mackenzie and Elgar
A notable gathering: Dan Godfrey (front row, second left) is joined by (clockwise from back left) Parry, German, Stanford, Mackenzie and Elgar

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