Obituary: King Palmer

Tim Bullamore
Sunday 25 July 1999 23:02

A MUSICAL polymath, King Palmer possessed the rare gift of being able to capture in a few bars of music a particular mood or feeling. Over 30 years more than 600 pieces of his music were recorded to depict almost every imaginable occasion. They included titles such as "Down a Country Lane", "Paddle Steamer" and "Hackney Carriage". A recording of the last was recently selected by an Internet site as an ideal piece of music to accompany dinner for people aged over 60.

Arrangements of popular classics - for example Chopin's ballet Les Sylphides published for chamber ensemble - also provided a regular diet of work, while collections such as Galopade, a pot-pourri of galops and cancans, were especially popular in the 1940s and 1950s. He arranged many other works for piano. Much of his music was broadcast by his own King Palmer Light Orchestra on the BBC's Light Programme with Palmer conducting.

But, while he excelled in churning out so-called "light music" on demand, Palmer had a serious, knowledgeable and erudite side to his musical personality. At the age of 26 he completed a study of the music of the composer Granville Bantock (1868-1946) and after the Second World War he continued as a popular writer about music. Among his most successful books was Teach Yourself Music (1944), part of the Hodder and Stoughton Home University series, which ran to several editions and is still in print. He also lectured in music at the City Literary Institute.

The son of an architect, Cedric King Palmer had a comfortable upbringing. He was educated at Tonbridge School and the Royal Academy of Music where he studied conducting with Ernest Read and composition with William Alwyn and Norman Demuth. On two occasions Henry Wood invited the promising young student to conduct at the Queen's Hall. In the late 1930s he conducted the West End show Miss Hook of Holland and wrote film music for The Dark Eyes of London and Secrets of the Stars. He also wrote the stage show Gay Romance (1937), from which the number "The Man for Me" achieved popularity.

During the war Palmer volunteered for service with the RAF but was considered too short-sighted. He worked for a while in an aircraft factory before becoming a special constable in Brighton. Towards the end of the war he conducted a revival of Sigmund Romberg's musical The Desert Song at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London.

Soon afterwards he met his future wife, Winifred Henry - herself the daughter of a conductor father and singer mother - when she sang in Victor Herbert's operetta Naughty Marietta which he was conducting; they married in 1947.

The couple settled in South Kensington and bought a bookshop specialising in the arts, which they named Nimrod after their dog (over the years all his dogs were named Nimrod, after that great variation by Elgar). The shop was not a success, but by the time it finally folded Palmer was increasingly in demand for his prodigious ability to compose music to order. Much later, in 1969, the couple collaborated on a musical based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen".

From a music room strewn with papers and recordings, composition continued day and night. Palmer's ever-growing collection of old instruments spilled into the rest of the house and included at one stage an enormous serpent on the wall. He was a regular visitor to the BBC's studios at Maida Vale from where he could be heard in such popular programmes as Music Hour and Music While You Work. More recently his work has been featured on BBC Radio 2's programme The Legends of Light Music.

For the Ford Motor Company's 1946 exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall, Palmer formed the Ford V8 Shadow Symphony Orchestra which, under his baton, performed, recorded and filmed "Rhythm of the Road", a number which still turns up regularly on promotional materials and advertisements for the company. Among the most popular songs he wrote was one that became a hit in America when it was adopted in 1954 as the theme tune for the television programme Eleventh Hour. It was recorded as the "Eleventh Hour Melody" by, among others, Al Hibbler, Lou Busch and Roger Williams.

Palmer's immense stock of recorded library music remains accessible to producers and, despite his not having composed for the past 30 years, his royalty cheques continued to grow, demonstrating the frequency with which television and radio producers avail themselves of his output.

During the 1960s he wrote music for several pantomimes and composed a number of children's stage works including, in 1965, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and - demonstrating his sense of humour - Coalblack and the Seven Giants. But while light music made his name and his income, King Palmer was not lacking in musical gravitas. For the piano he composed a work entitled Three Atonal Studies. He also published individual songs such as "For the Sake of a Song" and "Lonely Star".

The ABC of Church Music (1967) was written in conjunction with Stephen Rhys and sought for the first time to discuss ecclesiastical music on an ecumenical basis by comparing and discussing the musical ritual of the Anglican, Free, Roman Catholic and other churches in Great Britain. It also gave practical advice to church musicians on such sensitive matters as remuneration and how to deal with visiting clergy as well as notes on etiquette. For example he wrote that, at funerals, "While the priest reads a psalm, the organ might play very softly, though this is not looked upon with great favour by purists; speaking across music being considered `theatrical' or `American'."

Following the death of his wife in 1973, Palmer undertook a course in teaching music therapy and worked with patients who had been discharged from mental hospitals. He was also a visitor at Brixton Prison and a magistrate in Richmond, Surrey.

In later years he became a popular and patient piano teacher with, at one point, some 60 pupils on his books. He continued teaching and enthusing others with his love of music until just a few days before his death.

Tim Bullamore

Cedric King Palmer, musician: born Eastbourne, East Sussex 13 February 1913; married 1947 Winifred Henry (died 1973; one son, one daughter); died Twickenham, Middlesex 13 July 1999.

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