Born: Established: 26 Sep 1866 Sydney New South Wales ; Died: Ceased: 7 Nov 1951 London
George Clutsam was a composer, songwriter, librettist, and pianist. Described by one London music critic as one 'of the moderns' and 'a close student of Strauss and Debussy [whose] work reveals great mastery of orchestral possibilities and many clever touches of instrumental humour', [his] early life saw him exposed to and involved in many different styles of music. He is believed to have moved around with his parents quite often during his early years, with periods of time being spent in Sydney and Victoria before his family settled in New Zealand. It was in that country that Clutsam developed his passion for music through piano lessons and a desire to compose. An Australasian journalist records in this respect : 'Master G. Clutsam, a native of Victoria, but now of Dunedin ... and who is only nine years old, has composed and published a piece for the pianoforte entitled "La Pluie De Printemps"' (11 Oct. 1879, n. pag). Although the writer was incorrect in respect of Clutsam's age (he would have been 13 years old) it is clear that the young pianist/composer was already on the road to a career that would eventually see him accepted as one of the leading popular composers of London around the turn of the century.
During the mid-1880s Clutsam was engaged as a pianist with one or more minstrel troupes, and is believed to have toured Australia and the East, with the latter region's tour possibly undertaken en route to England. Clutsam's involvement with minstrelsy dates back to his earlier teenage years in New Zealand when, according to the Theatre, he 'conducted an Amateur nigger minstrel company' (August 1906, p17). His involvement with blackface comedy and American music at this stage may explain, too, his later passion for Negro songs and spirituals.
Clutsam arrived in England in 1887, aged just twenty-one, and within a few years established his reputation in London as a top-level accompanist. During this period he also began to develop his craft as a composer, seemingly intent, at first, on writing serious art music rather than appealing to popular tastes. Two of his more accomplished works from around the turn of the century were the orchestral piece 'Carnival Scenes' (1895) and the opera The Queen's Jester which he began writing sometime around 1902 (it was eventually staged in 1904). An earlier opera, A Love Tangle, is believed to have been produced in 1901.
Despite the amount of serious musical composition he undertook, as a composer Clutsam could not compete with the financial rewards that successful popular composers of the period gained, and thus during the mid to late 1890s he began to devote more of his time to writing songs and piano pieces. Around the same time, too, he began to explore a variety of non-traditional music styles, and the music of the American Deep South. Indeed, one can hear these melodies and rhythms in many of the orchestral compositions and songs he wrote during the remainder of his career. Two of Clutsam's most successful songs from this earlier period include, for example, 'My Curly Headed Baby'(1897) and 'I Wander the Woods' (1902).
As a composer of both serious and light music Clutsam's reputation and competence was such that by the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century he had already had several of his orchestral works performed by leading London orchestras. The Queen's Jester, which is known to have toured the provinces in 1905, was described by the English press as a 'romantic comic opera' and 'a work of high musical art' (qtd. in Brisbane Courier 2 December 1905, p12). 1905 also saw Clutsam publish a book of songs, dedicated to Madame Melba, several of which the diva included in her repertoire (Brisbane Courier 23 December 1905, p12). Three further operas were also staged over the next five years or so, these being The Fool's Cap (Leipzig in 1906); A Summer Night (1910) produced during the Thomas Beecham Opera Comique season at His Majesty's (London), and later at Covent Garden; After a Thousand Years (1912). That same year his musical masque King Harlequin premiered in Berlin as König Harlekin. In 1916 Clutsam collaborated with the composer Hubert Bath and librettist/lyricist Basil Hood to create the patriotic opera Young England, the success of which firmly established his reputation a specialist music theatre composer.
The musical burlesque Back to Blighty (also 1916), for which he co-wrote the music, was to be the first of a number of successful light musical comedies and musical plays he helped create. The rights for this musical comedy are known to have been purchased by Australian entrepreneur Hugh J. Ward in late 1922 for a possible local production (Theatre December 1922, p23). A search of Ward's theatrical activities in Melbourne (1923) and Sydney (1923/1924) has so far failed to locate any such production having occurred, however. The musical comedy Gabrielle was followed in 1922 by Clutsam's most successful collaboration, Lilac Time. Based on Heinrich Berté's story about composer Franz Schubert, Lilac Time contains a musical score by both Schubert and Clutsam, and a libretto by Adrian Ross. It premiered at London's Lyric Theatre in late December and went on to become one of the big hits of the 1920s, playing 628 performances. Lilac Time is reported to have been revived in London at least nine times up to 1942, at which time it was staged at the Stoll Theatre with Frank Titterton as Schubert (Times 14 October 1942, p6). Twenty years later Clutsam collaborated with several others to create the operetta Blossom Time (1942) which they adapted from the 1934 film version.
Clutsam wrote the scores for at least five British films including Blossom Time (known as April Blossoms in the USA). The others are : Mimi (1935), Heart's Desire (1935), Drake of England (1935) also known as Drake the Pirate (USA) and Elizabeth of England, and additional numbers for Big Fella (1937).
George Clutsam's considerable career achievements remain largely unacknowledged in Australia. His creative output and influence on the development of British music theatre are, however, deserving of greater recognition. His reputation among his contemporaries was certainly high. A Times critic once wrote of A Summer Night, for example : 'There was more good music in the hour and a quarter [the opera ran] than in many works at Covent Garden which held the stage from eight to eleven' (qtd. in Eric Irvin, Dictionary of Australian Theatre, p72). The Brisbane Courier reports another London critic's opinion : 'Mr Clutsam's scoring is pointed, fanciful to a degree, picturesque, even humorous when occasion requires, and above all things, it comes off' (2 December 1905, p12).
Clutsam's professional and compositional strengths lay in his ability to collaborate (in the true 'musical' tradition). Several of his more successful productions also required that he re-score accompany pre-existing compositions - as with Lilac Time (Schubert) and The Damask Rose (Chopin) on which he collaborated with Robert and Cicely Courtneidge. It was staged in 1929. It is possible that this has led to his creative role been down-played by critics and historians ignorant of this significant factor in the creation of popular culture music theatre entertainment. Evidence of this veiw point can be seen in a Times review of the premiere of Lilac Time, which makes no mention his contribution while congratulating Adrian Ross on his adaptation of the work into English (23 Dec 1922, p6). Nevertheless as the Pall Mall Gazette notes in its review of Summer Night, Clutsam at his best displayed a high degree of proficiency in his ability to write 'melodious [and] harmonically fanciful [music which was] married throughout by a thorough and complete attention to detail', and that his 'scoring [shows] an admirable knowledge of true effect' (25 July 1910, p4).
Although largely recognised by his peers for his stage music and light classical works, Clutsam also succeeded in carving out a lucrative career as a popular songsmith - with over 150 published songs to his credit. In addition he wrote a large number of compositions for piano, along with vocal and piano arrangements for his stage compositions. Many of his works were published under the pseudonyms Paul Aubrey, Robert Harrington, H. S. Iseledon, Georges Latouyr and C. G. Mustal. Clutsam was also in demand as a composer for silent films, one of which was Heart's Desire (1937). Despite his reputation as a composer of stage music he never gave up serious composition entirely, however. A suite, The Green Lanes of England, composed in 1920, was another of his more acclaimed art music scores. In retrospect the neglect of Clutsam's contribution to music theatre by his home country is no doubt as a result of his career having been spent almost entirely overseas. Indeed, even the 2001 edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians refers to him as a 'British pianist and composer' (p66).