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Ketèlbey was born in Alma Street in the Lozells area of Birmingham, England. He was the son of an engraver, George Henry Ketèlbey, and Sarah Ann Aston. At the age of eleven he wrote a piano sonata that won praise from Edward Elgar. Ketèlbey gained a scholarship to the Trinity College of Music in London, where he showed his talent for playing various orchestral instruments reflected in the masterfully colourful orchestration, especially of oriental inspiration, that became his trademark. At Trinity, he beat Gustav Holst in competition for a musical scholarship. He used the pseudonyms Raoul Clifford and Anton Vodorinski for some of his works (some reference books mistakenly give Vodorinski as his true name and Ketèlbey as the pseudonym). His name is frequently misspelled as Ketelby.
Ketèlbey held a number of positions, including organist at St. John's, Wimbledon, before being appointed musical director of London's Vaudeville Theatre, where he met his future wife Charlotte (Lottie) Siegenberg (1871–1947), an actress and singer. Whilst at the Vaudeville, he continued writing diverse vocal and instrumental music. Later, he became famous for composing popular light music, much of which was used as accompaniments to silent films, and as mood music at tea dances. Success enabled him to relinquish his London appointments.
Once, whilst conducting a programme of his own music at a Royal Command Performance, Ketèlbey gave a second rendering of the State Procession movement of his Cockney Suite during the interval, at the request of King George V, who had arrived too late to hear it performed at the beginning of the programme.
He was active in several other fields including being music editor to some well-known publishing houses and for more than twenty years from 1906, served as Musical Director of the Columbia Graphophone Company, where over 600 recordings were issued with him conducting the Court Symphony Orchestra, the Silver Stars Band, and other ensembles.
Although not proven, he is frequently quoted as becoming Britain's first millionaire composer. In 1929, he was proclaimed in the "Performing Right Gazette" as "Britain's greatest living composer", on the basis of the number of performances of his works.
Ketèlbey and Lottie Siegenberg had a long and happy marriage, which ended with her death in February 1947; in October 1948 he married Mabel Maud Pritchett. There were no children by either marriage. He died at his home, Rookstone, Egypt Hill in Cowes, where he had moved in order to concentrate on his writing and hobby of playing billiards. His work fell out of favour after the Second World War and at the time of his death he had slipped into obscurity, with only a handful of mourners at his funeral, held at Golders Green crematorium.
On the other hand, such criticism, arguably misjudging his programme music by the principles of absolute music, has failed to extinguish the enduring popularity of his compositions. In the 21st century, Ketèlbey's music is still frequently heard on radio. In a 2003 poll by the BBC radio programme Your Hundred Best Tunes, "Bells across the Meadows" was voted thirty-sixth most popular tune of all time.
His most famous compositions include:
- The Heart's Awakening (1908)
- In a Monastery Garden (1915) — at age 40, the hit that made his name.
- Phantasy for String Quartet — listed but never found (1915)
- In the Moonlight (1919)
- In a Persian Market (1920)
- Romantic Suite (1922)
- Bank Holiday (Appy 'Ampstead) (1924) — from Cockney Suite
- In a Chinese Temple Garden (1923)
- By the Blue Hawaiian Waters (1927)
- In the Mystic Land of Egypt (1931)
- From a Japanese Screen (1934)
- Italian Twilight (1951)
- Cockney Suite
- Jungle Drums (1926)
- Tangled Tunes
- Bells across the Meadows (1921)
- Dance of the Merry Mascots
- The Clock and the Dresden Figures (1930)
- With Honour Crowned
- Wedgwood Blue (Graceful Dance)
- Sanctuary of the Heart (1924)
Ketèlbey's nephew, the pianist Sir Clifford Curzon, recalled in his BBC Desert Island Discs broadcast, 'Little Clifford was supposed to be in bed but he never was, he was out sitting on the landing, listening to my uncle playing through the well of the stairway of my father's old house, and so the first [pieces of] music I really heard were these immortal melodies of Ketèlbey.'
Ketèlbey's sister was the historian and author C.D.M. Ketelbey. Works included "A History of Modern Times", 1929, "History Stories to Tell", 1931, "Scottish History" 1938, and "The Growth of the British Empire", 1941.
Graham Ovenden, an English painter, fine art photographer, writer and architect, was taught music privately by Albert Ketèlbey.
Ketèlbey was related to Mrs. Maria Eliza Ketelbey Rundell, author of A New System of Domestic Cookery, the most popular English cookbook of the first half of the nineteenth century.
Ronnie Ronalde made In a Monastery Garden famous again in 1958. In his early television appearances, the comedian Ben Blue used In a Persian Market as his entrance music when in his guise as a swami. In 2006, a syncopated arrangement of In a Persian Market was used in a TV commercial for TomTom automotive navigation systems — this tune was also adapted for one of the songs (Persian Cat) by Taiwanese girl band S.H.E. Under the title Persian Cat, this tune was given a new lease of life in the 1960s by Jamaican producer Duke Reid and saxophonist Tommy McCook. They recorded two versions, one credited to The Skatalites, the other to Tommy McCook and the Supersonics. Serge Gainsbourg used the theme for his song "My Lady Héroïne". American fingerstyle guitarist John Fahey recorded it on his 1975 album, Old Fashioned Love. Della Reese recorded a vocal version called "Take my Heart" on her album The Classic Della. James Last made a recording arranged in his typical style. Also "In a Persian Market" was used as a theme running through the Disney film "One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing", especially when the Chinese (led by Peter Ustinov drive through a foggy London, with the dinosaur on a back of a low-loader.
- Sant, John (2001). Albert Ketèlbey – From the Sanctuary of his Heart. Sutton Coldfield: Manifold Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9538058-0-8.
- The Recordings of the Music of Albert W. Ketèlbey, a critical and historical discography complied by Tom McCanna
- The Music of Albert W. Ketèlbey a Catalogue, complied by Tom McCanna
- A Forum for all admirers of the Music of Albert W. Ketèlbey, on blogspot.com (2009)
- Brian Jones in the booklet with the Philips Digital Classics CD 400011-2 (1981 recording)
- The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, Phil Hardy 2001, ISBN 978-0-571-19608-1
- Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Edinburgh 1990, ISBN 978-0-550-16040-9
- The Times, London 1908, 1915, 1922
- The works of Duke Reid and Tommy McCook can be found via Trojan Records
- Website dedicated to Albert W.Ketèlbey
- Discography compiled by Tom McCanna
- Music Catalogue compiled by Tom McCanna
- BBC news clip
- Birmingham City Council page about Ketèlbey
- Downloadable and streaming recordings of In a Monastery Garden performed by the Peerless Orchestra and male chorus. From an Edison Phonograph recorded in 1921.
- Free scores by Albert Ketèlbey at the International Music Score Library Project