His Work for the Banjo.


Bernard Sheaff.

Keynotes, Volume 1, Issue 1, April 1925

CAMMEYER is unquestionably a great artist; and I incline to think that time will prove that he is, up to the present, the greatest man who has ever devoted his life to the development and progress of the Banjo as an artistic musical instrument.

It is not, however, his abilities as a performer I am lauding in this article, but that which is even more certain to make his name immortal to all players and lovers of the instrument— his work as a composer for the Banjo.

No banjoist, whatever his personal taste in music may be, can fail to admire Cammeyer's fine achievements in this direction.

When Mr. Cammeyer first came to London from New York in 1888, his repertoire consisted of items from the musical plays popular at that time, and such well-known classical numbers as Pizzicato from Delibes "Sylvia"; Waltz from the "Faust" Ballet Music; Funeral March of a Marionette by Gounod; Chopin's Nocturne in E Flat, and others of this class.

Playing at a private engagement one evening early in his career, Mr. Cammeyer was approached by two of the guests, gentlemen, who both expressed great interest in his instrument, and asked him if he would mind stepping into an adjoining ante-room, which was empty of other guests at the time, and extemporising for their benefit some of the harmonies and progressions which had so much captured their fancies. After playing for some fifteen or twenty minutes these gentlemen rose, and, thanking Mr. Cammeyer, expressed their surprise and pleasure in hearing his banjo, which, they said, although quite distinct from any other stringed instrument, was capable of such charming and artistic effects. You may be sure Mr. Cammeyer appreciated the value of this praise to the full when he read the names on the cards left behind for him on this ante-room table —Mr. Arthur Sullivan and Sig. Paola Tosti!

The interest Mr. Sullivan (afterwards Sir Arthur Sullivan, as we know) had shown was not in the least affected, as shortly after the above incident Mr. Cammeyer received an intimation from one of his patrons, a friend of Sullivan's, to the effect that Mr. Sullivan would very much like Mr. Cammeyer to play at his flat for a private dinner party which was fixed for that following Sunday week. Mr. Cammeyer was much elated by this invitation, which he considered was an honour, for Sullivan was a great man even at that time, and accepted this opportunity with alacrity. Although he played for Sullivan on many subsequent occasions, it is this first visit which has such an important bearing on Cammeyer's creative work.

When Sullivan's party was breaking up on that Sunday evening—or rather it was early Monday morning, I am afraid—Mr. Cammeyer was engaged in a final chat with his host in the study, when Sullivan said, "Well, Cammeyer, we have all enjoyed your playing very much, and my hearing your instrument again has not in the least diminished my opinion of its charm, But what I do appreciate now is that it would sound very much better if you played music more suited to its peculiarities. Now Chopin's Nocturne does not suit the Banjo in the least! Is it necessary that you should play such things as this?" Mr. Cammeyer, somewhat crestfallen I have no doubt by this frank criticism, answered that he knew only too well how much he was handicapped by passages in some of his arrangements which suited the Banjo very ill. But what was he to do? There were no Banjo compositions that were suited to his style of playing. Said Sullivan, "Anyone who can extemporise modulations on an instrument like you do can certainly write something worth listening to. Go and write your music yourself, Cammeyer!"

Cammeyer carried home with him in his cab that morning the inspiration and incentive for work of which Banjoists and Zither Banjoists the world over now enjoy the fruits.

His first attempts at writing (most of them unpublished) were comparatively crude from an instrumental point of view; but that fine gift of melody, which gives beauty and character to every piece of his we know, was there to encourage the artist to delve more and more deeply into the possibilities of the Banjo.

The result is the finished work he gives us today; compositions which, for melody, form, and artistic treatment, will compare very favourably indeed with music specially written for any other instrument. And I think it is not claiming too much to say that Cammeyer's compositions have done a very great deal towards raising the Banjo from its lowly position as an adjunct to the Nigger Minstrel Troupe and property of the low comedian on the music-halls to the respect which it is now beginning to enjoy—an instrument worthy to be studied as a hobby and pastime by artistes and gentlemen of culture.