Ivor Novello, LOC LC-B2-6025-8
Ivor Novello. Bain Collection,
Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress, LC-B2- 6025-8

As May washes over Cambridge, no fan of Jeeves-era British popular music can pass a garden without thinking of Ivor Novello, who gave us several ravishing songs about lilacs and Spring. Novello ranked with Noel Coward as England’s top triple threat of the light spectacular. When not writing, scoring and starring in a procession of backstage comedies and Ruritanian extravaganzas which reigned over Britain’s stages for twenty years, Novello launched careers, fed out-of-work show people, fostered every kind of talent, threw thrilling parties and displayed his faultless profile to best advantage in a range of films.  His death in 1951 gave rise to public grief as intense as that for Princess Diana half a century later.

Ivor Novello. The Dancing Years, I.ii, p.2 (Loeb Music: ML50.N934 D3 1939)
The Dancing Years, Act I.ii, p.2
Loeb Music: ML50.N934 D3 1939
(click to enlarge)

Loeb Music Library recently acquired Novello’s personal rehearsal libretto (ML50.N934 D3 1939, typed on carbon paper in a clip binder) for his  1939 smash hit The Dancing Years. The pages explode with notes, eliminations, elaborations, mapping Novello’s legendary theatrical insight at work. If you can read his writing, he inserts a fairly important plot point – a scene in which Maria, the heroine, tells Rudi, the hero, that she has had his child – in longhand on the back of the previous scene.

It’s much easier to follow the final dialogue for the 1951 film version (PN1997.D362 1950.) Daringly for a show produced in Neville Chamberlain’s England, the stage version of The Dancing Years had concluded with Rudi and Maria’s last meeting in an Austrian prison, where Rudi is under arrest for aiding refugees.   By 1951, political defiance was slightly passe, and the film ends poignantly rather than tragically, with Maria introducing Rudi to his long-lost son.

For Novello, the “joy of giving” Maria sings about was not just a figure of speech: his time, his talent, his influence, his money, his company, he gave them all freely and gave great joy in the process.

For Further Reading, Viewing and Listening:

CD 25067 includes recordings by the original cast of several numbers from The Dancing Years, including “Waltz of My Heart” and the beautiful “I Can Give You the Starlight.” If you want to know why Novello wrote roles for himself in which he played the piano but never sang, listen to “Used to You.” The fine voice that had made him a choir soloist as a boy deserted him in adulthood. Novello once tried to develop his singing voice for a part but gave up when he learned that schoolchildren were gathering outside his studio to speculate on what those strange bellowing sounds were.

Three good biographies of Novello are available from Widener: Ivor Novello by James Harding, and Paul Webb’s Ivor Novello: Portrait of a Star are lively recent biographies, chockablock with stunning photos and theatrical zingers (“We agreed that Ivor Novello’s nose and chin are still the world’s handsomest outline. Told Ivor this, and he said the word ‘still’ was unnecessary.” – James Agate). For a loving look at Novello by one of his lifelong friends, try Walter Macqueen-Pope’s Ivor: the Story of an Achievement.

If you want to see Novello in action (and rather heavy makeup), The Lodger is available as part of The Alfred Hitchcock premiere collection. Gosford Park features a well-cast Jeremy Northam as Novello, with a delicate, beautiful scene in which he sings Novello’s songs at the piano: the self-centered aristocrats he’s supposedly performing for ignore him, but the household servants gather outside the room to listen, softly spellbound.

– Sarah Barton