My favourite (non-classical) composer has always been Ivor Novello, ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. So I thought, on this snowy and freezing cold Monday, I’d share with you a little more about the sick-makingly delicious Mr Novello and I.
I sang my first Novello number, Waltz of my Heart, aged 13. It’s a divine song, utterly romantic with sweeping melodic lines and in lilting waltz time. It conjures images of 1930s string orchestras and bias-cut gown-clad beauties waltzing until dawn.
From that first early meeting, I was hooked. So who was this matinee idol who won me over at such a tender age?
Ivor Novello was born David Ivor Davies in Cardiff on the 15th January 1893. His early successes were predominantly as a songwriter, although he went on to star in film and stage productions. His first big hit was the ever popular “Keep the Home Fires Burning” in 1914. It’s a highly emotive piece, which struck a chord (pardon the pun), with a country in the grip of a catastrophic war. It’s a song that never fails to bring a lump to my throat whenever I sing it as I imagine all those bereft families, and also those families in wars since. It was a huge success and brought him fame and fortune at the age of 21.
In 1917, Novello was introduced to the actor, Bobbie Andrews, who became his partner for the rest of his life. Scandalous for 1917, how delightfully modern though? Andrews, in turn, introduced Novello to the younger Noel Coward, who was awed by Novello’s instinctive glamour, he later wrote
“I just felt suddenly conscious of the long way I had to go before I could break into the magic atmosphere in which he moved and breathed with such nonchalance”
Bobbie Andrews in the early 20s
In the 1920s, he turned his rather talented hand to acting, first in films (he was the star of some rather early Hitchcock films) and latterly on stage. With his handsome profile and distinctive voice, he was rather successful at both. He also starred in the lavish West End productions of his own musicals, (didn’t I say he was just too talented?) The most successful being Glamorous Night in 1935 and The Dancing Years in 1939. I actually met a lady in Adelaide who went to see The Dancing Years when it first opened in London. As we say in Essex, I was ‘wel jel’ and by her account, Mr Novello was indeed divine.
As well as being successful on stage and screen, Ivor was also quite the success romantically speaking. Sometime in the early 20s, he had a short-lived affair with Siegfried Sassoon, whose biographer later wrote that Novello “was a consummate flirt who collected lovers as he gathered lilacs”.
In the late 20s, Ivor was able to buy a large property in Littlewick Green called Redroofs. It became a hotbed of bohemian entertaining, and weekend parties became quite notorious for their disregard for convention. Cecil Beaton coined the phrase “the Ivor Noel Naughty Set”!
For all his four 1930s musicals, Novello wrote the book and music, Christopher Hassall wrote the lyrics, and the orchestrations were by Charles Prentice. Glamorous Night starred Novello and Mary Ellis, with a cast including Zena Dare, Olive Gilbert and Elizabeth Welch, and ran from 2 May 1935 to 18 July 1936, at Drury Lane and then the London Coliseum. Careless Rapture ran from 11 September 1936 for 296 performances, with Novello, Dorothy Dickson and Zena Dare in the leading roles. Crest of the Wave starred Novello, Dickson and Gilbert, and ran from 1 September 1937 for 203 performances. The last of Novello’s pre-war musicals was The Dancing Years, which starred Novello, Ellis and Gilbert, opened at Drury Lane, closed on the outbreak of the Second World War, and re-opened at the Adelphi Theatre, running for a combined total of 696 performances, closing on 8 July 1944.
Novello presented only two new shows during the war. Arc de Triomphe in 1943 and Perchance to Dream in 1945. In between the two shows, Novello got himself into serious legal trouble and served four weeks in prison for misuse of petrol coupons which was a rather serious offence under rationing laws in wartime Britain. The prison term was a huge shock to Novello both mentally and physically and had serious lasting effects. Not everybody was supportive and even Coward’s sympathy was limited,
“He’s been fighting like a steer to keep going as before the war and hasn’t done a thing for the general effort”.
Novello died suddenly from a coronary thrombosis at the age of 58, a few hours after completing a performance in the run of King’s Rhapsody. He was cremated at the Golders Green Crematorium, and his ashes are buried beneath a lilac bush and marked with a plaque that reads “Ivor Novello 6th March 1951 ‘Till you are home once more’.”
His music never fails to move me, it is always a joy to sing and whenever I put together a new show, it is always liberally peppered with his songs, both popular and rare. I love to hunt out some of his lesser known songs and one of my favourites, which I found in a London archive, is called ‘Dark Music’. The most hauntingly beautiful melody, it’s packed with unusual chromaticism and luscious chords.
I often wonder whether a whole show of his songs would be like eating a whole tin of Roses at Christmas. Heavenly but altogether too rich. It’s music that needs the piquancy of other composers to show it off to its best advantage. Put it in a show with some Coward and some Hollander and it really shines.
I adore Ivor, I love to sing his songs and share the ones that aren’t so well known with audiences around the world. I’d like to think that had we met, we would have been kindred spirits and what terrible fun we would have had and what songs we would have sung.
Only a few weeks before Novello’s death, Coward wrote of him:
“Theatre – good, bad and indifferent – is the love of his life. For him, other human endeavours are mere shadows. The reward of his work lies in the indisputable fact that whenever and wherever he appears, the vast majority of the British public flock to see him.”
Truly, a star.