Dora Bright (1862 - 1951) Composer & pianist
‘Dora Bright writes her own concertos better than she plays them’ this was Bernard Shaw’s tongue-in-cheek review after hearing Dora Bright play her own piano concerto, and he continued with ‘I do not know that she plays any better than I do, except in respect of her fingering her scales properly, and hitting the right notes instead of the wrong ones.’
Dora Bright was a notable pianist and composer in her day with the added distinction not only of being the first woman ever to win the Charles Lucas Silver Medal for composition but also of being the first woman ever asked to produce a work for the Philharmonic Society. From the age of 21 she had spent six years studying at the Royal Academy of Music where she was part of a group of young composers known as ‘The Party’ with other members including Edward German. Her teachers were Ebeneezer Prout and Walter Macfarren and she won several prestigious prizes at including the Potter Exhibition, the Lady Goldschmid scholarship and the Sterndale Bennett prize. She gave the first performance of her piano concerto at an Academy orchestral concert and her fame quickly spread as far afield as Australia where the Sydney Mail reported in July 1889 that her piano concerto was ‘exceedingly good…sterling musicianly work, with a grace of expression, elegance of rhythm, and a thorough command over the resources alike of the solo instrument and the complete orchestra’. Of course, other contemporary reviews made frequent reference to her sex with critics describing her playing as combining ‘the genuine tenderness of womanly feeling with masculine vigour and energy’ [Monthly Musical Record 1889] and her compositions as “pianoforte passages of embroidery which ornament the main themes, surrounding them with a delicate feminine grace” [Musical News 1891].
I was intrigued to find that very little was known about Dora’s early life and even more so when I noticed that the few references to her parents mentioned only the father, never the mother. So I did some digging in old newspapers to produce this biography:
Dora Estella Bright was born in Stanton Broom, Sheffield on August 16th 1862. Her father, Captain Augustus Bright, was owner of the business A. Bright & Co and described himself as a ‘Brazilian Merchant’. He was well thought of in the community, leader of the volunteer Hallamshire Rifle Corps and in 1872 acquired the official title of Vice-Consul on his appointment as Consular Agent to the Emperor of Brazil for Sheffield & District. It would seem therefore that Dora had grown up in comfortable surroundings, but under the veneer of success all was not well in the Bright family. Perhaps indicative of this malaise was a report in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph four days after it had printed the announcement his Consular appointment, that A. Bright had been prosecuted by the Inland revenue and fined a hefty 50 shillings for keeping a dog without a license.
Dora’s mother, Kate Pitt, was an actress and playwright descended from a family of theatrical players. In 1860, two years before Dora was born, she had made her debut as an actress in Manchester before appearing in various venues across the north of England with her father billed as ‘Mr Charles Pitt, Tragedian, and Miss Kate Pitt, Juvenile Actress and Farceur’. She married Augustus Pitt in Cardiff on June 22nd 1861 and continued her acting profession under the name of Mrs. Augustus Bright.
In 1873 Dora aged nine years, appeared in a concert in Sheffield with her father. The occasion was billed as a benefit concert to raise funds for the Hallamshire Rifle Corps. But it was also an opportunity for Dora to make her debut. Her father played the violin and she accompanied him in a performance of De Beriot and Benedict before giving a solo performance of a Beethoven piano sonata.
But Augustus Bright was suffering with heart disease and, aged 50, died suddenly at his home in Ashdell Road, Sheffield on November 1st 1880. His business continued in the not-so-capable hands of his widow with the assistance of the slightly more capable manager, William Erskine Mawhood. However A.Bright & Co was scarcely solvent at the time of Bright’s death and went into liquidation two years later in July 1882 with debts of nearly one thousand pounds. During the six months prior to the liquidation Mrs Bright had auctioned off her ex-husband’s art collection and sold his Guarnerius violin ‘recommended by the Duke of Edinburgh’ for £34. She had also, presumably strategically, married the manager William Mawhood and run up a great many debts including business expenses for the theatre company that she was still managing. So when the matter went to court, Mrs. Bright was legally unable to be declared bankrupt, since she was a married woman, and there was no money for the creditors.
The following year (1883) Dora began studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Her successes have already been listed and in 1886, the same year that she won the Sterndale Bennett prize out of a field of 32 competitors, Dora was appointed sub-professor of the RAM and selected to represent the pupils when Liszt visited the Academy “She was publicly introduced to him and he warmly commended her on her performance, shook hands with her and paid her compliments she is likely to remember for the rest of her life”. In 1888 shortly before leaving the Academy she wrote Variations on an original theme of Sir G.A. Macfarren as a tribute to that composer.
On leaving the Academy she commenced a series of pianoforte recitals, touring the continent, studying with Mozkowski in Paris and successfully appearing at Dresden, Leipzig and Cologne. Sophie Fuller, biographer, has unearthed a letter from a friend travelling with Bright in Germany which reveals much about Dora Bright’s personality The letter says ‘travelling with Dora is VERY trying. I believe she would like to do nothing better than to get up late, dawdle about all day, and go the opera at night’
In 1891 she played her own Pianoforte Concerto in A minor at the Crystal Palace and gave a series of successful recitals of English music followed by another series devoted to the music of other nationalities including the music of Scandinavia. George Bernard Shaw reported that in 1893 he ‘went to Prince’s Hall and found Miss Dora Bright wasting a very good programme on a very bad audience”. Although her music was championed by Sir Thomas Beecham, the only one of her compositions ever to be performed at the Proms was a work for flute and piano, the Suite Bretonne, [with the movement titles Aubade, Chanson, Angelus & Dance], which was given in August 1917 and which now seems to be lost. On that occasion the flute part was played by Albert Fransella with the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra conducted by Henry Wood. The Liverpool Daily Post reported that ‘It was exquisitely scored and the last movement entranced the audience which accorded the composer an ovation at the close’
Albert Fransella also performed Bright’s other work for flute and piano, Romance & Seguidilla in a programme of modern music that included Invocation [Donjon], Pan & the Birds [Mouquet] and Fantasie on a melody by Chopin [Demerssemann]. The Romance & Seguidilla was first published in 1891 in the Flute Players’ Journal [First Series] and originally was part of a five movement Suite for Orchestra [thanks to Sophie Fuller for this information]. It is dedicated to the Welsh flute player Frederic Griffiths, who had studied at the RAM, had been a pupil of Taffanel and was Principal flute of the Royal Italian Opera orchestra in London. An early writer describing the traditional form of the seguidilla, spoke of it as being ‘one of the most seducing objects which love can employ to extend his empire’.
After the upheavals of Dora’s life following the death of her father, it is possible to understand why she might have sought a life which had more security than a musician’s could offer and in March 1892, at the age of nearly thirty, she married Captain Wyndham Knatchbull at St. Andrew’s Church, West Kensington and went to live with him in his home in Babbington, Bath. He was sixty years old and a former captain of the 3rd Dragoon Guards. The Taunton Courier noted that the bride wore an outfit of brown corduroy velvet, and that the couple spent their honeymoon in Devon. However their marriage was to last only 8 years as the Captain died in 1990. Dora never returned to the professional scene, instead devoting herself largely to fund raising performances in the locality. Under the provisions of her husband’s will, she had been left the use of the house in Babbington and one of her major enterprises was to raise funds for the restoration of the church there which had been designed by Christopher Wren and which had been ravaged by death watch beetle. Before the start of one of these fund raising concerts, Lady Horner of Mells Manor House, gave an introduction in which she said that ‘Mrs Knatchbull had first appeared amongst them before the days of electricity, wireless and cinemas, but “Mrs Knatchnull had become their wireless and their cinema, and with her personality she had electrified their lives without charging them a penny. It had been a sleeping quiet neighbourhood where lived squires, parsons, and doctors with their wives and daughters and, within seven years, Mrs Knatchbull had turned them into a first-rate theatrical company…… In these days people were tired of subscriptions but Mrs Knatchbull had hit upon a very happy plan. She had provided them with very good tea and sherry and then very good music in very comfortable surroundings.”
The company to which she referred was the“Babbington Strollers” a group of lady and gentlemen amateurs including who, under the leadership of Dora Bright, raised considerable sums for charitable purposes by their performances of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas and other works in the Mendip area and elsewhere. The Wells Journal [January 10th 1895] reported on one of these occasions, a sell-out performance of The Mikado, with a special train running from Wells to bring members of the audience. Every seat was sold and more people were standing.
Dora also enjoyed a successful collaboration with the dancer Adeline Genée, founder president of the Royal Academy of Dancing) who had been described by the producer Florenz Ziegfield as ‘the world’s greatest dancer’. Together Bright and the Danish born Genée produced works such as The Dryad which was based on the story by Genée’s fellow countryman, Hans Christian Anderson
Another of their joint enterprises was a charity production of Bright’s ‘Ballet-Pantomime’ adaptation of ‘The Princess & the Pea’ in which the great actress Ellen Terry played the part of the Queen and with her own grand children as her train bearers.
‘Musical performances were also organised to secure funds for the erection of a men’s institute in the mining village of Colmford. The Bath Chronicle and Weekly gazette reported that ‘Mrs. Knatchbull has given the site for the building and has determined to raise the necessary money to build and equip the institute by her own and friends efforts. Several celebrated artistes assisted her on Thursday afternoon as well as on Friday evening.’ Adeline Gené had turned down a £500 engagement in order to be there. The programme included a performance of Mrs. Knatchbull’s dance play “The Dryad”
Other occupations included adjudicating at at the Shepton Mallett Festival, raising funds for the National Festival of British Music, performing recitals for the Bath Quartet Society, being president of the Mid Somerset Musical Competitions Festival and in the 1940’s, writing reviews for Musical Opinion. Dora Bright died in November 1951 aged nearly 90.
The Romance & Seguidilla is published by Trübcher by kind permission of the copyright owner ©Richard Wyndham Knatchbull and the ©British Library Music Collections h.232.a.(7.)