It is rare to read a biography of someone so universally loved. So many of his colleagues and acquaintances express their affection for him in the pages of this delightful book that I am convinced Norman O’Neill belonged to a special breed. Before we reach Chapter 1 we read in ‘Portrait of a Friend’ by George Baker that ‘he was a millionaire in social graces’.
I confess that I was only vaguely familiar with O’Neill's name and the scarcity of recordings of his music is another hindrance to wider appreciation. Born in London, he was the son of an Irish painter. He studied with Sir Arthur Somervell, was a member of the so-called Frankfurt Group (as were Percy Grainger, Balfour Gardiner, Roger Quilter and Cyril Scott), and became musical director of the Haymarket Theatre. He was best-known for his theatre music – 50-plus scores Including music for Maeterlinck’s ‘The Blue Bird’, several Shakespeare plays and two by J.M. Barrie. He also wrote some orchestral and chamber works and songs. The one available CD of chamber works and a few entries on YouTube will further reveal that his personal grace and warmth are equally present in his music, and it is generally agreed that he raised theatre music to a new level in this country.
We learn that from the beginning O’Neill and his pianist-wife Adine were among Delius’s warmest admirers, in a chapter dedicated to the friendship. Eric Fenby observed ‘that unaccustomed friendliness which would creep into Delius’s voice as he said, “Norman is coming”’. The affection which O’Neill inspired from colleagues is reiterated many times throughout the book. On page 69 his skill as an intermediary is mentioned with regard to a difficult situation between Balfour Gardiner and some ‘tough’ orchestral players. The final chapters are two papers by Norman O’Neill (‘Music to Stage Plays’ and ‘Originality in Music’), plus a list of compositions, bibliography, historic recordings, etc. Katherine Hudson has overseen this new edition of the 1945 biography by her father, but EM Publishing deserves credit for reintroducing an important and well written book.
PHILIP BORG-WHEELER | CLASSICAL MUSIC
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