Why leading composers took the

train to Rickmansworth

Butler House is a handsome, late Victorian villa that sits at the junction of The Drive and Nightingale Road in Rickmansworth. Just over 10 years ago it was converted into three flats, its stables became a bijou house, and two detached properties suddenly sprouted at the bottom of its garden.

The development was not well-received locally. However, the protest might have been louder if it had been more widely known that Butler House was a meeting place for some of the country’s most distinguished musicians and composers in the 1930s.

In those pre-war years Nightingale Corner, as it was then called, was home to Hubert Foss, the pianist and composer who founded the Oxford University Press music department, and his wife, Dora, a professional singer.

As the authors of London: A Musical Gazetteer (2005) recount, Arnold Bax, Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams, Constant Lambert and Ernest John Moeran (sometimes described as ‘Britain’s greatest lost composer’) all came to dine with the Fosses. The then youthful William Walton was also a regular visitor.

“We loved Willie’s visits,” Dora Foss later said. “We spent hours listening to his playing of whatever the current composition was … and Hubert discussed, advised and encouraged him.

“We sat long over meals while Willie regaled us with current gossip and comments on friends and foes alike. How we laughed!”

One day Walton indicated that he was keen to get to know Arnold Bax better. “We invited them to dine with us quietly without any other guests,” Dora Foss recalled. “Arnold left by the last train and Willie stayed on with us for a day or two.”

There appears to be no photographic record of the composers’ meeting. The book, however, includes a touchingly happy photograph of the then 29-year-old Walton with other dinner guests in the back garden of Butler House in 1931, the year that saw the first performance of his still popular cantata, Belshazzar’s Feast.

London: A Musical Gazetteer, by Lewis and Susan Foreman, Yale University Press, paperback, £18.99

Contribution by - David Budge

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Musicians’ chapel

The ‘By the By’ article on Sir Henry Wood’s association with Chorleywood (September 1) may have caused some readers to wonder where the Father of the Proms lies buried.

In fact, his ashes were interred in 1945 in what is now known as the Musicians’ Chapel at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in Holborn.

Wood’s father sang in the St Sepulchre’s choir and young Henry was allowed to practise on the church’s organ from the age of 10. “The magnificent Renatus Harris organ … with its wonderful diapasons and ten stops on the pedals, filled me with wonder and admiration,” he later recalled.

Henry received lessons from Edwin Lott, the church organist. However, Lott reputedly had a habit of disappearing down the nave “to listen”, only to be found later in the nearby tavern.

Above Henry Wood’s tomb is the St Cecilia window, which depicts Wood as a boy organist and Proms conductor. Other windows commemorate the lives of two composers, John Ireland and Walter Carroll, and the great Australian singer, Nellie Melba.

St Sepulchre’s, which is recognised as the National Musicians’ Church, also contains a book of remembrance, containing the names of more than 2,000 professional musicians.

Younger visitors are, however, more likely to be drawn to the sinister “Executioners’ Bell” in a glass case at the southern end of the nave. It used to be rung on the eve of executions as the old Newgate prison stood directly opposite St Sepulchre’s.

Further information from the Friends of the Musicians’ Chapel

Contribution by - David Budge

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Sir Henry Wood

Although TRMS is, quite rightly, focusing on the immediate future, it can also be interesting to look back occasionally.

Exactly 100 years ago today (September 1), while the carnage on the Somme was continuing unabated, Three Rivers’ most illustrious musician, Sir Henry Wood, was providing some much-needed distraction for a Proms audience in the Queen’s Hall, London.

The programme that Wood conducted that evening in 1916 opened with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and included works by Bach, Mozart and Lalo, as well as the lesser-known Montague Phillips, who is now best remembered for his operetta, The Rebel Maid.

Henry Wood had bought Appletree Farm, on the edge of Chorleywood Common, the previous year. The Wood family also had a London residence, but his wife and daughters preferred to live in Chorleywood from Easter until at least the end of the Proms season. During the family’s early years in Chorleywood, Sir Henry also made Appletree Farm his summer home, returning nightly to Hertfordshire after conducting at the Proms.

Sir Henry lived on until 1944, dying at the age of 75. The Queen’s Hall in Langham Place ‘predeceased’ him by three years, being destroyed by an incendiary bomb during the Blitz.

Contribution by - David Budge

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