Albert Ketèlbey was a leading composer of light music – a genre, relying on good tunes in undemanding miniature forms, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in cafés and theatres, on piers and bandstands, and later on 78rpm records and radio, and which is now enjoying a nostalgic revival on CD.
Born in Birmingham, Ketèlbey enjoyed childhood success as a composer, and at the age of 13 won a scholarship to Trinity College of Music in London, where he studied piano, cello and several other instruments. While still at Trinity, he worked as a church organist and a touring pianist, and later he became musical director of a light opera company and a London theatre. He won two composing competitions in 1912, and had his first big success three years later with In a Monastery Garden.
This was followed by numerous other pieces with similarly evocative titles: among the most popular were In a Persian Market, Bells across the Meadows and Wedgwood Blue. He also composed music for military band, mood music for use in the ‘silent’ cinema, and solo piano pieces – some of them, Russian in style, under the pseudonym Anton Vodorinski.
Ketèlbey acted as music editor for London publishers and musical director of the Columbia Gramophone Company, and conducted his own music at home and abroad, notably with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. But in later years he rarely left his home on the Isle of Wight, where he died in 1959.
Profile © Anthony Burton