A MUSICAL ALL-ROUNDER: LEIGHTON LUCAS (1903-1982)
By Philip L. Scowcroft
Leighton Lucas, born in London on 5 January 1903 (his Canadian-born father Clarence Lucas published drawing-room ballads), was musically self-taught, yet he later became a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and also lectured elsewhere, even on radio. He had experience, as a dancer, with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe between 1918 and 1921 and then as a conductor with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (1922-3) and in a performance of Rutland Boughton’s opera "The Immortal Hour" in 1923. He later conducted for the ballet (as we shall see, he also composed for it) and, after war service in the RAF, formed his own Leighton Lucas Orchestra to give concerts on the BBC – perhaps elsewhere – of unfamiliar, sometimes "modern", but always approachable, music and often French music. I enjoyed these during my teens and they expanded my own listening. They combined serious and light music as the following example from 29 March 1949, transmitted as "A Serenade" on the Third (yes, Third) Programme.
Overture: The Cambridge Ode (Boyce, arr. Constant Lambert); Cantata by Carissimi; Gymnopeidie No. 1 (Satie, arr. Debussy); Four Songs (Sleep, Good Ale, Take O Take Those Lips Away andYarmouth Fair) (Warlock); Habanera (Chabrier); Lonely Waters (Mocran); Song of the Sicilian Cart-Driver (Anon.); Three Songs of The Roman Countryside (Anon.); Kamarinskaya (Glinka).
No ego trip there as there is nothing by Lucas himself. More recently I have heard a recording (made from a 78) of the LLO performing on the BBC (1955) Horace Dann’s stirringly Elgarian concert marchWorcester Beacon. He was always ready to try something new or less well known.
When we look at Lucas’ orchestral (and other) pieces we have to admit that several are "serious", though invariably accessible: a Litany (for strings), Birthday Variations (1970), three masses, many part songs, Chaconne in C Sharp Minor and many concerted works, a Concerto for clarinet, a Concertino for cello, Prelude, Aria and Finale for viola d’amore, Concert Champêtre for violin, theSinfonia Brevis for horn and eleven instruments and chamber music, most notably a String Trio and a Piano Quartet. His works inclined towards brevity and were never written in a "groove" as these and other titles show.
There were lighter works in orchestral and instrumental categories. In the former there were Ballet de la Reine (for strings), Suite Francaise (1940) and L’Europe Galante, after Campra (1939), a fruit of his preoccupation with French music old and new, even a few pieces of "library music" titles being Eastern Court, Princesses’ Dance and Snake Charmer. Instrumental miniatures included Meditation for cello and piano, Aubade for horn, bassoon and piano, Soliloquy and Tristesse for viola and piano, Orientalefor bassoon and piano, Disquisition for two cellos and piano duet, Three Dances for Three (two harps and oboe, clearly the Goossens family) and for brass band, Spring Song and A Waltz Overture.
But we have so far only scratched the surface of Lucas’ light music, quite a lot of which was in the fields of ballet and film music. His interest in ballet was reflected by his scores for The Wolf’s Ride(1935), Death in Adagio (after Domenico Scarlatti) (1938), The Horses (1945-6) and Tam O’Shanter(composed in 1972-3 but never staged). He wrote for dozens of films – many of them pre-war, wartime and post-war documentaries, but a number of feature length issues starting with the wartime propaganda film "Target for Tonight" (1942), very popular in its time, I remember, "Portrait of Clare" and "The Dam Busters" (1954). Admittedly he did not write the most famous part of that film’s music, which is Eric Coates’ "titles" march, bits of which are recalled later in the film, most of all at the climactic moment when the Möhne Dam collapses.
Lucas showed a few years later that he could write stirring marches of his own, for the films "Yangtse Incident" and "Ice Cold in Alex", which respectively yielded the marches The Amethyst and The Road to Alex ("Alex" also had a Romance published separately). Lucas also wrote for BBC Radio quite prolifically – plays, features and the serial "Just William", remembered with affection by the writer from his teenage years (1940s).
One is tempted to compare Lucas with Constant Lambert. Both were enterprising conductors, both had a great interest in the ballet, both wrote film music. Lambert had a sadly shorter life (Lucas lived until 1 November 1982) and achieved more in the ballet field but less in writing for the films. Perhaps, too, his achievement in composition generally was more memorable, if less extensive. But Lucas’ work deserves recall and indeed modest revival of the music.
This article originally appeared in the Robert Farnon Society’s magazine "Journal Into Melody" in September 2009.