Ethel Bilsland (1892-1982)

Pen portrait of a composer - with her original recordings and rediscovered compositions

By Alison Bailey


Ethel Bilsland in 1909 wearing the Gold Medal for Pianoforte
For more photos, see The Bilsland Family Photo Gallery

Midi files
Battledore and Shuttlecock" and
"Friends to Tea" , two of six children's pieces for pianoforte by Ethel Bilsland from "The Birthday Party" (1918). All the six pieces can be heard as midi files (and printed off as free scores) at the bottom of this page.

Christianity has a distinctive "flavour". But does it give an "added dimension" to music? This personal 'pen portrait' of a Christian composer, soprano and pianist offers some very personal insights. It publishes for the first time Ethel Bilsland's piano recordings (see under photo below), shares Midi files of her published compositions and videolinks to some of her favourite songs.

Ethel Bilsland (1892-1982) was a soprano, composer, pianist and Professor of Singing at the Royal Academy of Music in London before, during and after the Second World War. This page gives some background to The Ethel Bilsland Award for Singing at the Royal Academy of Music. It also uploads onto the internet, for the first time:

a) a private 1956 recording of Ethel Bilsland playing Bach, Rachmaninov, Milhaud, etc piano duets with her daughter Margaret (see link to recordings under photo below)
b) midi files and scores to print off (see bottom of this page) of her published children's compositions, "The Birthday Party" (1918) for pianoforte, broadcast on BBC radio, in August, 1939.Warning: do not listen to these computer-generated renditions with headphones due to very loud interference before the start.
c) her unpublished compositions (see list below) yet to be added in midi files.

Pen Portrait
Ethel Bilsland's life spanned the two World Wars. This was the period also of the rise of the women's suffrage movement. The beginning of the 20th century began to offer wider opportunities for the expression of the talents of musical women. In France, Nadia Boulanger was the first woman to conduct major orchestras. In England, Dame Ethel Smyth was writing quartets around the same time (1912) as Ethel Bilsland. (Ethel Smyth was, in fact, imprisoned for her suffragette activities). By the start of the 20th century, it was becoming respectable for a woman to compose serious music. Although Ethel Bilsland was decidedly "anti-suffragette", there was never a question, for her, that musical composition was an activity entirely suited to women.

Career Details
Ethel Bilsland was known by her friends and contemporaries as "Billy". Notable Royal Academy pupils were Janet Hamilton-Smith (see attached etching of her in "The Song of Norway" by Sir William Flint) the star of this long-running West End musical hit, about Edvard Grieg and opera singer Stella Andreva, who played Wagnerian roles in the large opera houses, including at the New York Metropolitan Opera House.

She received her musical education first from her elder sister Margaret, and then at the Royal Academy of Music where she was awarded a scholarship, being regarded as "a very poor and very talented" student. She studied composition with J B McEwen, later Royal Academy Principal and singing with Mme. Agnes Larkcom. In 1909, she was awarded the MacFarren Scholarship for composition, going onto win many prizes during her four year studentship between 1909-1913, including the Piano "Gold Medal". She won a grand piano playing the difficult "Black Key Study" (Chopin's Etude in G♭ op.10 no.5) (click on videolink to see it performed). Ethel excelled at it, taking it with virtuoso speed, emphasising the first note in the right hand's cascading black note phrases, striking it like a bell, to make the whole study "sing". She sang with considerable success at the Crystal Palace and Henry Wood's Queens Hall "Promenade Concerts", which later developed into the world famous "BBC Proms". She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1929 (FRAM) which was the start of her teaching career.

Career Highlights
Some highlights of her professional singing career included Santuzza’s aria "Voi lo sapete, O Mamma" (sung on this link by Maria Callas) from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana (4 September 1923) with Sir Henry Wood and the Queen's Hall Orchestra at the "Promenade Concert" in The Queen's Hall. Before joining the leading solo artists' agency Ibbs and Tillett in 1925/6, she was one of Henry Wood's soloists who appeared in Norwich Cathedral, with a massed 270 voice choir (29 October -1 November 1924) with the Queen's Hall Orchestra. She sang soprano before Queen Mary in Mendelssohn’s Elijah, delivering the soprano aria "Hear ye Israel" (sung on this link by Ernest Lough, the choirboy). During the 1920s, she earned enough to buy a substantial house from her earnings as an orotorio singer and as a solo soprano at the Popular "Saturday Night Concert".

The Added Dimension
Ethel firmly non-conformist Christian faith was important to her. Her staunch upbringing was also reflected in her music-making. She became a professional orotorio (religious) soprano and a regular solo soprano at services at Westminster Central Hall. Being "emboldened" in many spheres of life is often related to the sense of self-worth, service and a sense of "calling". For me, Ethel's music expressed the Christian concept of "grace" and depicted it in full, round, emotional, modulating harmonies. Of course, other dimensions, included natural taste and the romantic atmosphere of the Edwardian era which was influenced by late Romantic composers like Rachmaninov and Brahms. This was also the melodic period of Elgar, Sir Henry Wood and "Tommy" Sir Thomas Beecham. However, there was, in Ethel's music, for me, another element. It is difficult to capture in words musicianship which is underpinned by a strong faith, although the recordings (below photo below) of two-piano duets by Ethel and her daughter, Margaret Roberts, LRAM, who inherited her mother's style of musicianship, demonstrate something of her style . (Ethel plays the upper register parts and Margaret plays the lower register parts). There is vigour and bravado, emotion and harmony, brilliance, excitement and, above all, the all-important "tune". All these lift and comfort the spirit, in a particular way, taking it into a higher dimension of "dance". Above all, Ethel always instructed students to "make the tune sing". To sing is to express Joy, which is a special gift of grace.

Her Character
Ethel's character was forged from a disciplined, modest background of Congregrationalism in South East London, at the end of the 19th century. Several of her elder sisters were very musical (a cellist, a violinist, a piano teacher). Coming from modest artisan (but not grindingly poor) hard-working beginnings, Ethel was never self-indulgent, even when in her 60s, she lived in wealth with a grand house, chauffeurs and attendants. On a personal level, she was warm and emotional; a rather imposing, dominant and indomitable personality. She was also someone who put her family duties first, scrupulously aware of what an upright life meant in practice. Her household was always regulated to an ordered schedule and she kept alive the elegant, formal atmosphere of the Edwardian Age. After high tea on Sundays, people listened with delight to her brilliant improvisations, full of bravado and assertiveness, on a highly polished Bluthner grand. Her keyboard style was characterised by intricate fingerwork and grand, masterful and cleverly modulating chords, which reflected, through her confident sense of harmony and bright tone, 'a more beautiful, sunlit place'. As a three year old child, standing at her side while she played, I had no doubt that she was describing "Heaven".

Her Musical Taste
Her favourite aria was the great statement of faith from the Book of Job , I know that my Redeemer liveth (sung on this videolink by Lynne Dawson) from Handel's Messiah. Amusingly, she always referred to Handel as "dear old Handel", as if she had known him personally. Her other favourite composers were Rachmaninov (whose songs she played on the piano for her singing students, as they sang them) and Brahms, whose romantic harmonies and "wholeness" appealed to her character. She did not much care for Wagner's "Ring" Cycle, perhaps finding some element in it which she could not identify with, although she loved Walther's Prize Song from Wagner's "Meistersingers of Nuremburg" (sung on this videolink by Ben Heppner).

Richard Strauss
Clearly impressed with Richard Strauss's lovely songs for the female voice (sung on the this videolink by Jessye Norman), she ignored official instructions and offered a warm, welcoming hand to him, telling him how much she liked his music, during a post-war visit to London. This was only just after the Second World War, before it became apparent that, while appearing to sit on the fence over Fascism, Strauss's intent had been to protect his daughter-in-law, who was Jewish from the Nazis. By appearing, until 1936, to be ambivolent about Fascism, Strauss saved his family from the Holocaust.

Published Compositions: "The Birthday Party"
Ethel fondly doted on babies, toddlers and small children before she married. She often attended the children's parties of her young nephews. In this published compositions, she describes the special qualities of her nephews, who were toddlers during the First World War, on their birthdays (e.g. sleepiness, tin soldiers, garden games, badminton and tea parties). The mood of each activitiy is set into the music. For example in "Battledore and Shuttlecock", one hears the shuttlecock being batted from either side of the net. These are individual children's compositions for piano, dedicated to each of her nephews, in turn. One nephew went on to become a professional jazz pianist on the first Queen Elizabeth cruise liner, perhaps inspired by his aunt's playing, from his earliest years?

Unpublished Compositions (see list below)
In October 2007, several of Ethel Bilsland's manuscript compositions were rediscovered (written between 1912-1920) including the final movement of a Symphony, several string quartets and a Piano Concerto, some of which will be added to this site, in either musical notation as scores, to be printed off or in Noteworthy (computer generated).

Some Personal Details
Ethel Bilsland married twice and was twice widowed, for the first time in 1933. As a single parent, she provided for her two children throughout the bombing of South East London in the Blitz, by working as Professor at the Royal Academy of Music. At the age of 60, she married Sir Thomas Spencer (d.1975) who was knighted for his services, in the field of electronics during the Second World War. As successful Managing Director and then President of Standard, Telephones and Cables which invented fibreoptics (modern high speed internet/telephone cables), he was excited by the forthcoming possibilities of computers, though he did not live to see them develop. When in 1956, he organised the attached piano recordings, he may have thought that, one day, through advanced electronics, they might reach a wider audience. It was Sir Thomas's chauffeur who was sadly killed by the 1940 landmine which nearly destroyed All Souls Church, Langham Place, while standing outside the BBC. On the other side of All Souls, stood London music-lovers' beloved "Queen's Hall" which, itself, was completely destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1941. The only thing left untouched, in the rubble of the home of the Proms, was the bronze bustof Sir Henry Wood, which has the place of honour each year at the Albert Hall. It is crowned annually with a chaplet on the Last Night but its usual place of honour is The Duke's Hall at the Royal Academy of Music.

Revd Dr John Stott officiated at the marriage of Sir Thomas Spencer and Ethel Bilsland (Lady Ethel Spencer), as a very young rector of All Souls.

Ethel Bilsland's daughter Margaret Roberts LRAM (below left) taught the piano (before marrying Dr Leon Roberts and having two daughters). Like her mother, Margaret is very keen on Brahms' piano compositions. One of her piano pupils is now the world expert in Brahms, Dr Michael Musgrave (Julliard School and university lecturer, specialist in German music of the 19th and early 20th centuries and author or editor of six books on Brahms).

This webpage is in remembrance of Ethel's first husband, Walter (1874-1933) (photo on link below) who financially supported Ethel's musical training at the Royal Academy of Music and, devotedly, supported her public singing career long before they married, in 1920.

Pieces for Two Pianos - Ethel Bilsland FRAM and Margaret Roberts LRAM

ethel-margaret-bilsland-200.jpg Ethel Bilsland with Margaret Roberts in the 1950s

To hear a set of recordings of Ethel Bilsland and her daughter Margaret Roberts playing "Pieces for Two Pianos", click the blue underlined link below. Scroll down linked page to five separate pieces (total playing time 24 minutes). (NB "Battledore" is not one of the piano duets).
Pieces for Two Pianos

Note on Recording Quality: these five pieces were re-recorded from disc made in a studio to CD-R ,with restoration. There is poor quality in recording the "flow" in the upper part, some distortion and groove swish, at source. Total Running Time of all 5 pieces : 24 minutes 10 minutes.

Unpublished works by Ethel Bilsland
These have recently been rediscovered, in manuscript form. Midi files of these will be added, as each is transcribed from the manuscripts)
- Idyll & Harlequinade for Cello & Piano (1913)
- Three Suites for Violin and Piano (circa 1910)
- “Sometimes” A Song - (Words by Margaret McIntyre)
- Quartette for Violins, Cello & Piano
- Piano Concerto in E major (2 movements)
- Finale of a Symphony in E Major

Published works

"The Birthday Party, Six little pieces for Pianoforte", dedicated to her six nephews and printed by The Anglo-French Music Co Ltd in 1918. These individual "family pieces" are:-
  • "Friends to Tea" (for Peter Stirling, later a civil engineer)
  • "Peep-Bo" (for James Stirling, known as "Alec" Stirling - a well-known civil engineer)
  • "Tin Soldiers" (for Alex Haddow LRAM, the appreciated Scottish jazz pianist, who, with his jazz trio, entertained on the first "Queen Elizabeth" transatlantic liner)
  • "Battledore and Shuttlecock" (for Billy Stirling, later a civil engineer)
  • "Ring o’Roses" (for George Bilsland)
  • "Sleepy Song" (for Ken Jeyes, later Dr Kenneth Jeyes - his photo is on gallery link below)

Midi Files : NB We recommend that you do not use headphones to listen the these midi files. This is due to very loud interference just before the start on some of some. If you are wearing headphones, you should turn your volume very low before listening (and then turn it up).

Ethel Bilsland Photo Gallery