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Percy Turnbull (Composer)

Born: July 14, 1902 - Old Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne, England
Died: 1976


The English composer, Percy Purvis Turnbull, gained as a boy his training as a chorister in the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas in Newcastle and he took lessons from Sigmund Oppenheimer, one of the most prominent piano teachers in the city. He left school at 14, being offered a scholarship to the Armstrong College of Art to study jewellery design, but this was curtailed when his father was conscripted into the army during World War I. On finding employment he worked for the Tyne Improvement Commission, keeping up his musical interests in his spare time. During this period, he gained much stimulation from his friendship with William Gillies Whittaker, almost certainly the most influential musical personality in the north east of England at that time. William Gillies Whittaker was a man of many parts: he was a lecturer at Armstrong College (now Newcastle University), a composer, conductor, folk-song collector, and friend of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. In particular he enjoyed national renown for his choral conducting with the Newcastle Bach Choir (formed by him in 1915) whose dual mission was to perform the works of J.S. Bach and contemporary choral music by British and French composers. William Gillies Whittaker’s modernist zeal made its impression on the young Turnbull who, by the time he gained a Foundation Scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1922, was steeped in the new British and French music of the day. At the RCM he studied composition with Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland, and attended classes with Dunhill, Dyson and R. O. Morris. His student contemporaries - Lesley Woodgate, Michael Tippett, Keith Falkner, Thomas Armstrong, Elizabeth Maconchy, Edward Clark, Michael Mullinar, Kenneth Wright, Edmund Rubbra, David Moule-Evans, Kendall Taylor - were of a high calibre, though it was Turnbull who earned the accolades of his teachers, winning the Mendelssohn Scholarship and, soon after, the Arthur Sullivan Prize. Besides composition, he also gained the reputation as an accomplished pianist, giving recitals not only at the RCM but also at the Wigmore Hall; this enabled him to find work as an accompanist for 2LO (forerunner of the BBC) and the BBC. During his time at the RCM (where he met his first wife, a fellow-student) he lived in Redcliffe Gardens, Earls Court, and was highly active as a composer of songs, piano music, chamber music and orchestral works. After leaving the College in 1927 he lived in an attic in Chelsea and continued composing while coping with the problem of earning a living.

Percy Turnbull’s first job was with the Aeolian Piano Player Company, editing piano rolls under Percy Scholes, but the competition of gramophone records brought abut the demise of the company. Thereafter, Turnbull’s employment appears to have been piecemeal; he was often without work and life was hard. At Christmas time 1930 he married for the first time and moved to Swansea where he obtained work in the Empire Theatre (playing nightly and took piano pupils during the day and doing copying work for Oxford University Press’s newly formed Music Department under Hubert J. Foss; Ralph Vaughan WilliamsFourth Symphony and Job, and William Walton’s Viola Concerto were among the works of which he did the first copies). This period of his life was generally unhappy: he disliked the theatre, its conductor, and the drudgery of his work, though his introduction by Hubert J. Foss to the father of Alan Rowlands (the noted John Ireland executant), and the happy times he spent with the Rowlands family, provided valuable respite. Some time between 1934 and 1935 he moved to Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire close to his friend John Longmire. John Ireland, a long-standing friend of Turnbull’s, often came to Chalfont to see the Longmires, and the three of them spent much time together. The friendship with Ireland and Longmire took place within the growing shadow of war in Europe. In 1938 John Ireland moved to Guernsey accompanied by Longmire. Unaware that the Channel Islands might be vulnerable to enemy occupation, they lived happily amid the island’s beguiling calm and tranquillity. Turnbull visited them in May 1940, hoping for a few weeks’ rest, only for it to be dashed by the Nazi invasion of the Channel Islands in June. To avoid deportation to Germany the three, given less than 24 hours’ notice, were forced to flee, catching the Antwerp to Weymouth packed with refugees. Their escape, at times by no means certain, had been a close one: occupation took place only days afterwards.

In 1941 Percy Turnbull was conscripted into the army, serving throughout the war in the Royal Artillery as part of a mixed anti-aircraft battery along the east Yorkshire coast. On demobilisation in 1946 he left Chalfont St Giles (his wife left home in 1942 - divorce took place in 1955) and moved to Ewell, Surrey where he became principal piano teacher at the Surrey College of Music at Fitznells. This period of his life, which witnessed his second marriage (in 1956), was happy and contented, and during the vacations he took up his second artistic gift - drawing and water-colour painting. Before the closure of the Surrey College he moved to Brook, Surrey, and when all piano work ceased he finally moved to Broomer’s Hill, Pulborough, Sussex from where he continued to visit John Longmire in Guernsey, and frequently travelled across to see John Ireland at his windmill outside Steyning in Sussex. He died in 1976.


Percy Turnbull’s musical style is an interesting diffusion of many influences. Under Oppenheimer he acquired a broad knowledge of the standard canon of piano repertoire - W.A. Mozart, L.v. Beethoven, Schubert, Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin and Johannes Brahms - which he played with technical mastery and which, as a piano teacher, he taught with thoroughness not only in terms of technique but also (as the Pasticcio testify) in terms of style and syntax. Classicism remained close to Turnbull’s heart. In general he preferred traditional dance style-forms, or the abstract schemata of sonata, rondo and prelude, though from time to time he indulged in freer fantasy structures. Of contemporary styles that he came by, he was captivated by the late Russian romantics (Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninov, Medtner) who provided object lessons in texture and voice-leading, and he loved the music of Delius for its harmonic resourcefulness. Yet the thicker fabric of romanticism was tempered by a predilection for classical simplicity, which drew him to Gabriel Fauré and Ravel. Indeed Turnbull’s Francophile tendencies lent his music a refinement and fragility which seems to have at its heart a world of sophisticated, delicate images that have much in common with the tinctures and pigments of subtle water-colour shades. At times this fragility is given a leaner edge as one senses an experimental journey into the more acerbic, chromatic world of Roussel and Ibert; conversely, Turnbull also shows a propensityon occasion to emulate the bitter-sweet harmonic world of John Ireland, though even here, John Ireland’s denser, iridescent parlance is tempered by Turnbull’s predisposition for clarity and lightness of touch. Furthermore, much in keeping with the composer’s own love of mimicry and badinage, there is much scope in his music for jest, humour and satire, attributes which add a distinctly neo-classical nuance to his style.

Collected Works

The Turnbull Memorial has, since its foundation, published all of Turnbull’s most significant works with Thames Publishing. These publications are distributed by William Elkin.

Piano Music:
Turnbull’s piano music has been published by the Trust in 11 volumes. Each piece below is listed in chronological order with the volume number in which it appears.
Seven Character Sketches (1923-1927) Vol. 3
Allegro Risoluto in F (1923-1927) Vol. 5
An Epigram (1923-1927) Vol. 5
Prelude in F# major (1923-1927) Vol. 5
Variations on an Original Theme for Piano (1923-1927) Vol. 6
Prelude (1923-1927) Vol. 10
Minuet (in A) (1923-1927) Vol. 10
Scarf Dance (1923-1927) Vol. 10
Piano Suite (1925) Vol. 2
Rondel (1926) Vol. 11
Eight Short Pieces by Peter Thrale [pseudonym] (1931) Vol. 7
Six Preludes (1934-1941) Vol. 5
Intermezzo (1934-1941) Vol. 7
Endymion Suite (1934-1941)1 Vol. 7
Gigue (1934-1946) Vol. 10
Valse (1934-1946) Vol. 10
Minuet (in C) (1934-1946) Vol. 10
Sonnet (1934-1946) Vol. 11
Rondoletto (1934-1946) Vol. 11
Country Days (1938) Vol. 7
Six Pastoral Miniatures (1938) Vol. 7
Fantasy Suite (Minuetto, Marionettes, Toccatina) (1938) Vol..8
Invention (1946-1956) Vol. 11
Sonatina for Piano (1948) Vol. 1
Two Studies in Allemande Style (1948-1954) Vol. 10
Musette (1954-1976) Vol. 10
Three Winter Pieces (Carolondo, Air, Ballatella) (1956) Vol. 9
Pastoral (1956-1976) Vol. 11
Con Moto (1956-1976) Vol. 11
Canzonet (1956-1976) Vol. 11
Pasticcio (on a theme of Mozart) (1957) Vol. 4

Chamber Music:
Variations on a theme of Purcell for Cello and Piano (1924)
Sonata in E minor for Violin and Piano (1925)
Romance for Violin and Piano (1935?)

Turnbull’s songs have been published in two volumes . Each song below is listed in chronological order with the volume number in which it appears.
Chloris in the snow (Strode) (1920-1921) Vol. 1
The rainy day (Longfellow) (1922) Vol..2
To Julia (Herrick) (1922) Vol. 2
Ejaculation to God (Herrick) (1924) Vol. 1
To God (Herrick) (1924) Vol. 1
A boy’s song (Hogg) (1924) Vol. 1
Guess, guess (Thomas Moore) (1924) Vol. 2
My Mopsa is little (Thomas Moore) (1924) Vol. 2
The moon (version 1) (Stevenson) (1924) Vol. 2
Piping down the valleys wild (Blake) (1925) Vol. 1
Cavalier (Masefield) (1927) Vol. 1
If doughty deeds (attributed Scott) (1927) Vol. 2
When daffodils begin to peer (Shakespeare) (1927) Vol. 2
In Fountain Court (Symons) (1927-1928) Vol. 1
My bed is a boat (Stevenson) (1928) Vol. 1
The reminder (two versions) (Hardy) (1934-1941?) Vol. 1
The moon (version 2) (Stevenson) (1936-1941?) Vol. 2
To blossoms (Herrick) (1953-1954) Vol. 2

Turnbull’s partsongs have been published in three volumes . Each partsong below is listed in chronological order with the volume number in which it appears.
The Shower (Vaughan) (1926) Vol. 1
Cargoes (Masefield) (1927) Vol. 2
Take me to the north countrie (anon) (1927) Vol. 2
Where go the boats? (Stevenson) (1927) Vol. 3
You spotted snakes (Shakespeare) (1928) Vol. 1
There was a simple maiden (Oxenford) (1928) Vol. 2
To blossoms (Herrick) (adapted Jeremy Dibble) (1953-1954?) Vol. 1

Source: Turnbull Memorial Trust Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (February 2011)

Percy Turnbull: Short Biography | Bach-inspired Piano Works: Works | Recordings

Links to other Sites

Thurbull Memorial Trust




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