Tolkien the opera composer

Peter Gilliver

Peter Gilliver

A guest post by Peter Gilliver

No, not that Tolkien – though he was in fact a fairly close relative. I was intrigued to discover that Frederick Tolkien (1848–1939), first cousin once removed of JRRT, was a composer, with at least three operas to his name … and that one of those operas was premiered in Leeds during the time that JRRT was living and working there. I’d like to think that the name Tolkien was sufficiently unusual that someone seeing it on a poster in 1922 would have drawn the performance to the attention of his namesake in Leeds University’s English department. I have no evidence that this actually happened; but I thought I would write up the small collection of pieces of information that I’ve been able to accumulate about Frederick Tolkien, for the mild interest of fellow Tolkienians – and in case anyone can add to them.

Frederick Tolkien was born in Rugby in 1848, the son of Septimus Tolkien, who was the brother of JRRT’s paternal grandfather John Benjamin Tolkien. He married Margaret Fleming; the marriage produced at least two children; and he died at Eastbourne in 1939. By profession he was an industrial chemist, with at least one patent (for a kind of artificial rubber) to his name; but he also tried his hand at composing music. His output includes choral and orchestral music as well as opera. The compositions I know of are as follows:

  1. A substantial setting of the Te Deum in 1886 for solo voices, choir, and orchestra, written in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee the following year.
  2. Another setting of the Te Deum written for the Diamond Jubilee a decade later.
  3. A three-act opera, Adela (1895).
  4. A one-act opera For Love (1898).
  5. A three-act opera Lola Descartes (1912).
  6. An orchestral tone poem Antony and Cleopatra (1915).

Of these compositions, the only ones which I know (or think I can be fairly sure) to have been performed are the operas Adela and Lola Descartes. The first of these was apparently premiered in Wigan in 1897; the second was staged at the Theatre Royal in Leeds, by the O’Mara Opera Company, on 20 November 1922. It also seems reasonably likely that the orchestral tone poem was the one billed as ‘Cleopatra (Tolkien)’ in a notice about an upcoming concert by the Dulwich Philharmonic Society which appeared in the Musical Times of 1 November 1923.

The Musical Opinion reviews Tolkien’s second Te Deum in September 1897

The Musical Opinion reviews Tolkien’s second Te Deum in September 1897

The publication of his 1886 Te Deum was noticed in several contemporary musical periodicals—in which newly published music was often reviewed irrespective of whether a performance had taken place (or was expected to do so)—and also in the general press. The Graphic of 24 July 1886 described it as ‘a thoroughly musicianly composition, much above the average of pièces de circonstance in general’. The Musical World of 22 May 1886 was rather less favourable, commenting acidly on the piece’s ‘uncertainty of tonality’ and its ‘plentiful crop of consecutive fifths’ (such things being regarded as the mark of an amateur); the reviewer suggested that, while familiar with Handel’s choral writing, the composer had not produced a very satisfactory imitation of his style, in which the ‘chromatic treatment … would have made the illustrious composer’s hair stand on end underneath his wig’.

The Musical Times of 1 August 1886 was not quite so harsh, but the efforts to find something to praise in the work are if anything more damning: ‘The composer has wasted his time and labour. His ideas of tonality are of the vaguest, and his part-writing shows a lamentable ignorance of the capacity of the human voice … although it is impossible to speak of Mr. Tolkien’s Te Deum as a musicianly achievement, it bears unmistakable traces of natural talent. Here and there impressive and beautiful phrases may be discovered, like oases in a desert, and encourage us to hope that with careful study the composer may produce something worthy of a hearing.’

The reception accorded Adela on its publication seems to have been a little more favourable. The Daily News (11 February 1896) described it as ‘a very good specimen’ of English opera, and praised ‘some very pretty songs and duets’ and ‘well written and effective’ choruses; the Stage (22 April 1897) observed that ‘the greater part of the music is, without doubt, excellent, but the libretto [written by Tolkien himself] is feeble and commonplace’. The Musical Standard (23 November 1895) commented more guardedly: ‘The music appears to have fair merit, yet it would be better to hear it performed before speaking definitely.’

In fact the opportunity to hear it performed came soon enough: the premiere took place on 14 April 1897, given by Neilson’s Opera Company. I don’t know how it was received in the local press, but the review in the London Era of 24 April 1897 called it ‘entertaining and meritorious’, singling out Marie Elster for her ‘charming’ performance in the title role, and Somers Grime as ‘excellent’ in the role of her lover Ricardo. (A brief recent assessment of the opera is given by Paul Rodmell in his Opera in the British Isles 1875–1918 (Routledge 2013): ‘Tolkien’s score is ambitious, and its structure influenced by Wagner and late Verdi.… The work lacks direction. Although securely tonal, there are some interesting harmonic devices but also some inept modulations.’ Rodmell comments that ‘virtually nothing is known’ of Tolkien himself.)

The one notice of Frederick Tolkien’s second setting of the Te Deum that I’ve been able to find – in Musical Opinion of September 1897 – suggests that his compositional technique has improved since the first: ‘the present [setting] seems to us to bear evidence of somewhat exceptional power.… It would, we think, be difficult to find finer modern examples of jubilant sacred utterance than the choruses, “Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ,” “Day by day,” and the final chorus.’ The work is ‘well worthy of figuring in the program of a musical festival, and eminently fitted to employ the resources at hand on such an occasion’.

Tantalizingly, however, I have not yet been able to find any contemporary reviews of the Leeds performance of the opera Lola Descartes in 1922. Perhaps someone with access to the Leeds papers can find something? (Rodmell’s 2013 study cited above merely mentions the Leeds premiere, without comment on the music or the performance.)

One might suppose the title character of Lola Descartes to be the wife of a famous French philosopher – leading one to imagine, as John Garth did when I first mentioned the opera, that it really ought to be part of a surreal trilogy with companion works called Desdemona Kant and Kitty Wittgenstein. Alas, Lola is instead an innkeeper’s daughter who falls in love with a king. From such characters are opera plots more usually constructed … more’s the pity.

Finally: as I was putting the finishing touches to this article, I discovered a tweet from British music enthusiast Mark Henegar, dating from 2015, to the effect that he had just finished ‘re-typesetting Frederick Tolkien’s tone poem “Antony and Cleopatra”’. Whether that brings a 21st-century performance of music by JRRT’s obscure cousin closer to reality, who knows?

Peter Gilliver is a senior lexicographer and Associate Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. I recently interviewed him about magnum opus The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. I’ve previously reviewed The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, which he co-wrote with Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner

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3 Responses to Tolkien the opera composer

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for so interesting a post!

    What is known to survive, and where, of the music itself, in print, in manuscript?

    Of course, for those of us who cannot easily hear what we see (my sad experience looking at Robin Milford’s setting of Williams’s late Arthurian poetry in the Bodleian, or Bruce Montgomery’s published memorial music for Williams, which Ian Davie showed us, when he spoke to the Oxford Lewis Soc), some kind of performance is the practical necessity…

    Something the delightful LongfellowChorus channel on YouTube makes possible where Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘The Death of Minnehaha’ is concerned – enabling us to approximate J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1912 experience.

    Those 1886 Musical World comments – “uncertainty of tonality”, “chromatic treatment” – had me wondering, ‘Wagnerian influence?’ before I got to Paul Rodmell’s “structure influenced by Wagner and the late Verdi”.

    What tantalizing glimpses you give of a world “in which newly published music was often reviewed irrespective of whether a performance had taken place (or was expected to do so)”! What might Frederick Tolkien have known of, say, Bruckner, then?

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Reading M.V. Hughes, A London Family Between the Wars (1940), I was struck by her noting that “a school-fellow of [her son] Barnholt’s”, at the Merchant Taylors’ School, “would bicycle over at any time, sit down firmly at the piano, and play Taylor Coleridge [sic] exclusively” (ch. 2, this apparently not long after they moved to Cuffley in September 1920). Some sort of glimpse of his familiarity and popularity seven years after Tolkien’s concert experience.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Incidentally, what do ‘we’ know about the possibility of JRRT getting acquainted with Sibelius’s Kullervo – a very ‘Tolkien-compatible’ work, it seems to me?

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