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Alfred Kirby And His Music—A Tribute
by Rex Hart B.M.G. March 1944
ALFRED KIRBY began playing the banjo at the age of eight, on an instrument, which he soon came to regard as a museum piece. It was a smooth-neck banjo with inlaid frets, wooden push-in pegs, and a nailed-on vellum! In many respects it was similar to the 18th century banjo in the Royal Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington. (Readers will remember the photograph of this, interesting banjo reproduced in "B.M.G" some time ago.)
According to Mr. Kirby, his first banjo was a most crude affair, on which he did his best until his father, who gave him constant encouragement, bought him a better instrument.
It must have been an amusing interlude for the budding virtuoso when he had to hold his banjo close—but not too close—to the fire, before settling down to a strenuous but enthusiastic "practice" at his home in Heckmondwyke.
His first teacher was a coloured banjoist whom Alfred Kirby had heard in the Plantation scene of "Uncle Tom's Cabin", on tour at that time. This banjoist, who played by ear, had a style which appealed to the youngster, who persuaded the negro to give him a few lessons whilst the show was appearing in Bradford; and it is evidence of the young Kirby’s enthusiasm at this early stage that he travelled from Heckmondwyke for each lesson.
Some time later he went to Harry Sykes, of Leeds (a relation of the late Albert Lyles, well known, to most banjo players) for further tuition and progressed to the stage when he could study alone.
From then onwards he worked hard to attain his self-appointed object, and by the time he was fourteen he had become a professional banjoist.
The next three years were put to good account by him, and he began composing banjo music at the age of seventeen. "Florenza Serenade", "Empress March", "Gavotte Sentimentale", "Japanese March" and his famous "Introduction and Quickstep" - for which he still receives requests, although it has been out of print for many years - were written at this period. "Swanee Echoes" - so ably recorded by his friend Ernest Jones in 1928 and "La Vivandiere", of which Jones also made a fine record, followed about five years later, but for some reason "Swanee Echoes" was forgotten by the composer and lay neglected for ten years!
"Marche Americaine" was his next composition; and Mr. Kirby regards this as the most difficult solo he had then written.
GIVES UP PLAYING
The next few years saw him busily engaged with the banjo, but he did no more composing for the instrument and eventually, in 1912, gave up playing entirely and went into the variety agency business, which kept him occupied until 1916 when he joined the Army. He saw service in Malta, France and Belgium, finishing his army life after a spell with the army of occupation in Bonn, the birthplace of Beethoven.
Although his banjo had been untouched for four years before he ‘joined up’, it went into battle with him (having many narrow escapes from destruction) and became the mainstay of countless concerts in garrisons at home and abroad, being in great demand everywhere; particularly when his battery was enjoying a brief respite from seemingly endless front-line action.
After the war, the threads of business were again taken up and the banjo was once more silent. It seemed likely to remain so, but a few years later a new factor in Alfred Kirby’s life made itself felt.
The terrific slump in music hall business was already beginning and it was this change of circumstances which brought him back to the banjo; and secured for the banjo world some thirty-five outstanding solos that otherwise might never have been written.
The long interval seemed to have imbued him with a new enthusiasm; fresh ideas poured from his pen and the best of his work was then in the making.
He became a popular broadcaster from 5.I.T. (the Birmingham studio) and during his long succession of radio programmes played about twenty-five of his original compositions.
Next came the question of recording arid the difficulty of convincing the gramophone companies of the "sales worth" of banjo solos. Despite this obstacle, he secured a contract with the Piccadilly Co., who released his first disc, number 608, in 1930.
The record, featuring "Heather Bloom" and "Riverside March", sold extremely well, but unfortunately for Kirby and his admirers the company was a failing one and no more pressings were released. Still, we who love the banjo owe a debt of gratitude to the Piccadilly Co. who could claim no small share of the credit due to those companies which have sponsored banjo recordings.
A COMPLETE LIST
Now let us consider Alfred Kirby’s fine solos—gems of high order, with nothing of the atmosphere of mass production about them—of which we have a complete list:
"Empress March", "Florenza Serenade", "Japanese Dance", "Introduction and Quickstep", "Gavotte Sentimentale", "Swanee Echoes", "A Summer Idyll" (MS), "Joy Dance", "Carry On" (B.M.G.), "La Vivandiere", "State Express" (MS), "Tired Marionette", "Speed Up", "Honeysweet", "Fairyfoot" (B.M.G.), "Red Line Quickstep", "Marche Americaine", "Riverside", "Heather Bloom", "Mayfair Nights", "Lido Dance", "Birmingham Club March", "Tango No. 1", "Green Isle", "Golden Beam Valse", "Rondo", "Valse Caprice", "The Merrymakers", "Lazing Around" (B.M.G.), "Gay Life", "Military March", "Fandango", "Restless Rag", "Tango No. II", "On the Move" (B.M.G), "Jig Saw", "Tango No. III", "Marionette’s Courtship", "Cossack Dance", "Springtime" (B.M.G.), "Polonaise", "Carnival" and "2/4 March".
The first solo in this list was published by Windsor and Taylor; the next four by Barnes and Mullins. Most of the other solos have been broadcast, whilst those solos in bold type have been published, some by Ernest Jones, some by Alfred Kirby himself and the others in the music supplement of this magazine.
This list is complete to date and in chronological order. Readers will, most likely, be amazed at the quantity of unpublished solos that Mr. Kirby has in hand but, as he says, publishers cannot find a market "large enough to justify the publication of a number of difficult solos." However, through the generous co-operation of the composer and the enterprise of the Editor, readers of B.M.G. have been given some typical Kirby solos in the music supplement.
"Carry On", for instance, is still otherwise an unpublished solo, for although Ernest Jones holds the copyright, he has never published this composition. Perhaps he, too, has met the difficulty outlined by Mr. Kirby!
Incidentally, Jones’ Columbia record of this composition is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. It was taken out of the Company's list some years ago and many collectors are now realising what they are missing by not having this record in their collection.
"Lazing Around" is yet another instance of a solo that is not played as often as one would expect, for it is a fine solo in the modem idiom.
"Empress March" was Alfred Kirby’s first published banjo solo. It is a good march in 6/8 tempo with a rousing bass string movement. "Introduction and Quickstep" is an extremely effective concert solo; full of melody but somewhat difficult to play well. (My friend, Mr. Behar of the Leigh-on-Sea Club, once played this for me at Lewisham and it became a favourite of mine there and then!)
ESCAPE FROM CONVENTION
"Marche Americaine" is one of the few "D tuning" solos Alfred Kirby has written. It is very difficult and includes a grand bass melody. "Mayfair Nights" and "Lido Dance", though very dissimilar in style, are "companion solos"; "Mayfair Nights" being unusual in that it has five movements—early evidence of Kirby’s desire to escape from the convention of the "one, two, three; then D.C." idea then, and even now, prevalent. There are excellent piano parts by Mr, Kirby to these two solos.
The "Club March" originally written at the request of the Birmingham Banjo Band, has since been rewritten for solo purposes. It has a good solo for third string in B which reappears later as a first string solo—thus providing excellent tone colour contrast.
"Green Isle" is an Irish number (in the style of "Heather Bloom"). It includes popular Irish tunes, one of which is arranged as a fourth string solo.
The three Tangos are definitely off the beaten track and were, at the time they were composed, the only tangos actually written specially for the banjo to the best of my knowledge. So rare is the tango in banjo-land that only three have since been written—two having appeared in "B.M.G"; the other being Bernard Sheaff’s " Gypsy Love".
"Valse Caprice" was written in answer to a request for a solo in the Cammeyer style and has a beautiful haunting melody which is none the less strictly original.
"Gay Life" is one of Alfred Kirby’s favourite concert solos—difficult, but effective and showy. "Tired Marionette" and its sequel "The Marionette’s Courtship" are both unusual and interesting; the latter is particularly full in harmony and novel in melody.
There should be no need for me to dilate upon the quality of the recorded compositions of Alfred Kirby - the huge sales of the Jones’ discs (Columbia) and the one record by Kirby himself (Piccadilly) proved beyond doubt that they were "winners" without exception. If the quantity of discs sold had been matched by the sales of the music itself, even Joe Morley’s "Gold Diggers" would have been eclipsed by these great solos!
"Japanese Dance" is rather quaint, but not eastern in the musical sense. "A Summer Idyll" is a 3/4 number with a waltz movement à la Cammeyer. This solo, according to the composer, needs partly rewriting. "State Express" is a very fast, showy concert solo, frequently broadcast by Ernest Jones. "Speed Up" introduces "Old Black Joe" in 2/4 time. "Red Line Quickstep" is one of Kirby’s older numbers which he often played as an opening number in his stage appearances and which was always well received.
"Golden Beam Valse" sounds exceptionally fine when played with piano and, indeed, Alfred Kirby has always taken great care to assure that his piano parts form a fitting background to his brilliant compositions.
One of this composer’s best numbers is surely the "Rondo" which is really a "D tuning" solo. It can, however, be played with the bass to C.
"The Merry Makers" includes "Drinking" and "A Tavern in the Town" and has a jolly festive atmosphere.
Another early solo is the "Military March" - moderately difficult, but very effective.
"Fandango" is unique, in fact I know of no other fandango ever having been composed and published for the banjo, although there was one arranged by Ellis. Kirby has made a magnificent job of this solo, and with piano it is a superb achievement.
"Jig Saw" has a novel style; small bits of well-known old melodies appear and mingle in quick 2/4 time with a very amusing effect. "Cossack Dance" is full of "atmosphere" and it typifies all that is best in Russian music. "Springtime" (which appeared recently in the music supplement of B.M.G.) is a graceful solo deserving of popularity.
"Polonaise" was "laid up" for years - like "Swanee Echoes" - and has been rewritten recently. It is an outstanding solo and, as far as I know, the first and only one for the banjo. "Carnival", and an unnamed 2/4 march, are the latest solos from Alfred Kirby’s fertile pen and have been written during the last few weeks. They both contain capital bass-string solos and, like "Polonaise", are very difficult.
Although Mr. Kirby feels that he has written better since his return to the banjo in 1925, there will be many who may think that such numbers as "Swanee Echoes", "Introduction and Quickstep", "La Vivandiere" and "State Express" cannot be bettered. But if these enthusiasts could hear some of the more recent solos I have mentioned they would soon realise that, as a composer, Alfred Kirby has gone from strength to strength and is still writing masterpieces today.
No doubt if he felt that the demand for these later solos warranted the heavy cost of publication he could be prevailed upon to publish some twenty-five winners, and the Banjo World would benefit accordingly, but until such proof is forthcoming these masterly compositions must remain in MSS, which seems a great pity.
Besides the solos tabulated, Alfred Kirby made some fine arrangements during his professional career of such numbers as "Husarenritt" (Spindler), which he arranged in C - as distinct from Oakley’s "elevated bass" arrangement. He also made an arrangement of "Home Sweet Home," with seven or eight variations, including one with bass melody; one in chord tremolo and another in thumb accompanied tremolo. This was in great demand during his wartime shows, particularly "up the line". The Belgians were profoundly impressed by it, too, as the banjo was something entirely new to them.
For the present, that concludes the story of Alfred Kirby’s music. In his solos the student of harmony will find many chords which are new to him; chords like the Italian sixth, the French sixth or the German sixth, but a study of such solos, coupled with a thorough knowledge of the context of the composer’s excellent articles on chords (which have appeared in B.M.G.) and his special chord studies in the series of twenty exercises for the banjo, will assuredly bring about a fuller grasp of fingerboard harmony and a finer perception of the banjo’s capabilities.
Since the foregoing was submitted Alfred Kirby has written four new solos:
"Good Hunting", "Adieu", "Tarantelle" and A Waltz (unnamed).
"Good Hunting" is a bright number invoking a splendid arrangement of "John Peel" - who gains prestige from this refreshing presentation.
"Adieu" is, in my opinion, Kirby’s greatest solo to date. It opens with a solemn bass melody which reappears in four-note chords an octave higher. Then follows the piece de resistance; a beautiful, haunting air on the first string with repeated notes and thumb accompaniment. As a composition it equals, if not excels Tarrega’s famous "Tremolo Study". "Adieu" is a momentous achievement.
As "Tarantelle" was written at my suggestion, I feel doubly proud of this solo which scintillates throughout its infectious and inspired duration. Like most Kirby solos, it has a melody of wide compass, and the skilful use of the high positions make it a most effective concert solo.
The "nameless" waltz has a simple - almost naive - charm, and the beauty of its melody places it in the forefront of these compositions.
Such, then, is the quality of Alfred Kirby’s work, and it speaks for him with eloquence. I, having been privileged to hear all of his solos, can count myself extremely fortunate, and I sincerely hope that in the not too distant future the Golden Treasury of Kirby’s genius will be laid before the Banjo World to receive the acclamation it richly deserves.
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