I started researching the Welsh born, Birmingham based composer Margaret More in 2000; her unpublished works currently reside in the Archive at Library of Birmingham, including the score of her Opera "The Mermaid", only the second opera to have been written by a British woman.
Margaret Elizabeth More was born in Harlech on June 26th 1903, to parents William Henry More and Alice. She had much older siblings, Constance, Jack, Frank, Evelyn and eventually a younger brother, George. The family home was Crown Lodge, in Harlech on the rugged Welsh Coast. Margaret was a great deal younger than the next eldest sister Evelyn, and was undoubtedly an unplanned child. As the girls did not attend school, they instead had a governess, with whom Margaret studied music. Margaret was a natural rebel, and the boredom of life away from a big city necessitated that the siblings created their own entertainment.
As they all played the piano, their parents eventually became rather tired of the fashionable repertoire of Chopin, Chopin and yet more Chopin, and so the family friend Josef Holbrooke finally introducing them to Debussy, with whom Margaret found a great deal of enjoyment and inspiration. She also derived a great deal of benefit from the help and advice of Josef Holbrooke as well as Eugene Goossens.
Margaret was particularly interested in being involved in the community, and serving others, and indeed many compositions and amateur plays were written to this end. In about 1920, at the age of seventeen, she wrote the opera “ The Mermaid”, based on a libretto by Claudine Currey, who was her brother Jack’s mother in law. Twelve months or so later, her only published work “Harlequin and Columbine ”, was issued by Leonard & Co. A few years later she also began a girl guides movement in Harlech, whilst around the same time ( 1924 ), becoming the first woman in the county to own a motorbike!
Whilst in her early twenties, she studied orchestration at Trinity College, London with Edward d’Evry, but was forced to leave in order to nurse her ailing mother. She met Raymond Bantock, third son of composer Sir Granville Bantock, in 1928, at the home of fellow composer Josef Holbrooke, and after a happy romance, they were married in Harlech church in 1930.
As Raymond’s ambition was to teach and run his own school, they moved to Raymond’s home city of Birmingham, where they went on to produce six children; Robin in 1930, Anton in 1932, Cuillin in 1935, Merlin in 1938, Gavin in 1940 and Lucy in 1942. Their home for a number of years was The Grey Cottage, in Barnt Green, a rambling home where the children enjoyed an idyllic childhood. They also owned a cottage “ Traethdy” on the cliffs at Harlech, where they spent much time in the holidays, and which became their home for the duration of the war. It was at this cottage, with its rugged location, the local folklore and Celtic heritage that many of her compositions were inspired.
Two of her sons, Gavin and Cuillin Bantock, recall hearing their mother playing and composing well into the night, often rising late as she had been working into the small hours. She would first write compositions whilst sat at the table, only trying them at the piano later on; she did not consider herself to be an accomplished pianist. During the war, she ran a school and put on plays in Harlech for local children and the evacuees, and it was around this time that she began to suffer from inner ear deafness, a hereditary complaint, which grew steadily worse over the next few years.
In 1948, she was invited to tour South Africa with her opera “The Snow Queen” and did so for a number of weeks, but maintained her dislike of foreign travel, preferring to be at home composing. In 1951, timed for The Festival of Britain, the Barfield Grand Opera Society performed “ The Mermaid ”, some thirty years after it was written. A few years later, in 1953, the Coronation song “ Forward” was performed in Birmingham Town Hall, but under the pseudonym ‘William Novis’, whilst a copy was sent to Churchill.
In 1954 she won the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Competitive Festival with “ Sarabande” from “The Snow Queen”. That same year, she performed the piece for Sibelius, his response being that she was obviously a greater composer than he, as she had composed an opera whilst he had not! However 1954 saw the start of a difficult time for the whole family, but particularly Margaret, as her second youngest son Merlin was diagnosed with polio. This involved years of long distance travel and hospital visiting, until Merlin’s untimely death in 1958 aged 20.
During these difficult years, Margaret found solace in her music, and a new development occurred in 1955, which helped her to cope with the difficulties of family life, this was the formation of The Hans Andersen Players, with members borrowed from the Barfield Grand Opera Society. A key member was the actor dramatist Michael Martin-Harvey, who wrote most of the libretti for the performances of the players. The raison d’être reads, “To interpret the drama and poetry of the great Fairy Tales through a new art form based on economy of means and simplicity of style. Seated around a table, the Narrator and the singers present the tales with musical illustration.”
A drawing of Hans Andersen sitting at a table reading his stories, surrounded by a small audience inspired them. The singers, in costume were seated round the Narrator – Michael Martin-Harvey, and presented various characters from the stories. The pianist – Margaret More provided accompaniment for the songs and narration.
In 1957, the Danish Consulate organised a trip to Denmark where the Players toured for three weeks. By this time however, the stresses of looking after a family of six, particularly with a sick child were beginning to take their toll. As a response to the death of Merlin in 1958, Margaret composed an emotional tribute, simply titled “Prayer”, in memory of her son.
Her last complete work was “ The Mouse”, completed a few months before her death. This was a one act opera, based on one of the stories from the collection of Celtic myths, “ The Mabinogion” and was performed posthumously at Harlech in 1967.
Margaret More was a very self disciplined character, and very practical, she particularly enjoyed writing for the voices of people she knew, being happy to alter songs and parts to suit the performer. She is described by her son Gavin as “…a fun loving, witty and steadfast woman who inspired great loyalty…a woman of extraordinary charisma, energy…and constantly bubbling up with humour”. She knew herself to be somewhat exceptional as a female composer, and refused to trade on the Bantock name, maintaining the use of her maiden name, except on the rare occasion when she used the pseudonym ‘William Novis’. A number of works were broadcast; and her music was performed in London, Cheltenham, Birmingham, Wales, Denmark and in South Africa. Her contemporaries granted her with a great deal of respect in the main, she was an established member of her musical community, and her forays into the National and International musical scenes were very well received. The works are adaptable and easy to produce, whilst appealing to adults and children alike.
Margaret More died in 1966; her ashes were scattered on the Merioneth Coast.
Despite her legacy of a large body of works, there has been little written about her; there remains her published work “ Harlequin and Columbine ”, a few contemporary newspaper clippings, an entry in old Grove (1954), her personal scrapbooks, which are now held at Birmingham Central Library along with the majority of her handwritten scores and of course the personal memories of family and friends.
With thanks to the family of Margaret More, in particular the help received from Dr Cuillin Bantock.
Written for Sheroes of History by Danielle Saxon Reeves, BMus Hons, FISM. www.daniellesaxonreeves.co.uk
“Harlequin and Columbine / Air de Ballet / and / Romance / For the / Piano / by /
Margaret More ”. Leonard & Co, 25 Great Marlborough Street, London,
W1. Copyright MCMMXI.
The Birmingham Gazette, August 1st 1951
The Birmingham Mail, September 5th 1951
The Birmingham Despatch, September 6th 1951
Daily Telegraph, September 6th 1951
Evening Despatch, September 4th 1957
Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th Edition, E.B., 1954, page 887.