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PERCY SHERWOOD
A rare portrait photograph of
Percy Sherwood, perhaps c.1911

Percy Sherwood – composer, pianist, teacher – lies buried, with his wife and only child, in Hampstead Cemetery. He died in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, and had all but faded into total obscurity until interest in his work was reborn recently, when Hiroaki Takenouchi recorded the Second Piano Concerto, and Joseph Spooner and David Owen Norris recorded the complete extant works for cello and piano. Both recordings were greeted with considerable acclaim.

 

Percy’s end belies his earlier years and the success he achieved in Dresden, where he lived in a grand villa, taught piano and composition at the conservatoire, and performed chamber music with some of the most eminent musicians of the day. After studying at Leipzig University, his father had moved to Dresden with his new German wife (the soprano Auguste Koch) to teach English. The family would have been well established in the English community in the city, but Percy would also have been exposed to Dresden’s international cultural scene, of which he himself eventually became a fixture. He trained at the conservatoire from 1885 until 1889, graduating with glowing testimonials, and began working at the institution not long afterwards. In 1893, he married Charlotte Catherine Whittle (1852–1936), fourteen years his senior, in Brighton, and their daughter Therese was born within the year. Their daughter’s name is an indication of the newly married couple’s connections: she was named for the great dramatic soprano Therese Malten, who created the role of Kundry for Wagner; the singer remained in touch with the family for the rest of her life. Sherwood’s fame increased in the 1890s and early 1900s, and in 1911 he was appointed a ‘Royal Professor’ by the King of Saxony.

 

FaÇade of the Villa Sherwood in Dresden

This gilded life came to an abrupt end in the summer of 1914. The Sherwoods were visiting family in England in the summer, as they often did, when war was declared. The family had little choice but to remain – they would have been interned as enemy aliens had they returned. Percy contributed to the war effort by participating in charitable concerts in support of veterans. The family eventually settled, in what seem to be reduced circumstances, in NW3. The flat, in Adelaide Avenue, was lost during the Second World War, as was the Villa Sherwood in Dresden. Percy eked out a living giving lectures and teaching piano in a girls’ school. A few of his compositions had been performed in London before the First World War, but in the 1920s his style would have fallen from favour: only one composition was published, and Sherwood seems to have composed for himself. There is practically no information on the family for the late 1920s. The composer may have been ill at this time: a number of works from this period were composed at properties that formed part of the East Anglian Sanatorium. We know from diaries and a concert bill that there was a return to the piano in the early 1930s.

 

Sherwood died in 1939. Apart from a brief obituary in The Musical Times, Sherwood’s end went unnoticed. His music is highly individual, lyrical and dramatic; and 2016, the composer’s 150th anniversary year, is the perfect time to rehabilitate the reputation of this extraordinary musician.