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Welsh composer whose songs and films won him worldwide fame; Ivor Novello was a Cardiff-born composer and actor who served in World War I before masterminding what became one of the most patriotic songs for those on the front line and back home. He found global fame and his legacy lives on to this day. Tom Houghton tells his story.

IVOR Novello was born David Ivor Davies on January 15, 1893 in Canton, Cardiff.

His mother was Dame Clara Novello Davies, a renowned singer and teacher who was founder of the Welsh Ladies Choir, and his father was David Davies, a tax collector for the city council.

The house of his birth on Cowbridge Road East was called Llwyn Yr Eos (Grove of the Nightingales), and can still be identified by a plaque on its front wall.

The family then moved to 11 Cathedral Road.

According to BBC Arts Wales, from an early age Novello was commended for his soprano voice, performing at Eisteddfodau across Wales.

He later won a scholarship to Magdalen Choir School in Oxford, where he became known as the Welsh Prodigy.

It was in Oxford that he began to write music under the name Ivor Novello, and quickly had a number of them published.

Moving to New Bond Street in London with his parents in 1910, he took singing lessons and continued to perform at shows and write music.

Leaving home in 1913 Novello, now 20, relocated to a flat above the Strand Theatre in Aldwych, which would later be the venue for much of his work.

Having signed up as a 21-year-old training pilot with the Royal Naval Air Service, the very next year he wrote the key phrase and chorus to what would become perhaps his best known work: Keep the Home Fires Burning.

The lyrics were written by American poet Lena Guilbert Ford, who was living in London at the time.

According to the WWI Photos website, the song was "immensely popular" upon its release in 1914.

An excerpt from the song reads: Keep the Home Fires burning, While your hearts are yearning, Though your lads are far away they dream of home.

Theres a silver lining, through the dark clouds shining, Turn the dark cloud inside out, 'till the boys come home.

Overseas there came a pleading, "Help a nation in distress." And we gave our glorious laddies, honour bade us do no less, For no gallant son of freedom to a tyrant's yoke should bend, And a noble heart must answer to the sacred call of "Friend".

As well as being played to soldiers on the front line, it was brought back to the home front and was said to have greatly helped raise morale, entertaining both the public and troops on leave.

Soon enough, it became the anthem of an entire generation, sung not only in Britain but also the United States and further afield.

Safe to say, this was quite unexpected even from Novello's perspective, who eventually earned the princely sum of PS15,000 from the song.

There was more than one theory as to how the song came to be, but according to Walter Macqueen-Pope - one of Novello's biographers - writing in 1951, it was prompted by his music teacher mother, Clara.

She had originally asked him to write a patriotic song so that she could promote it for him at concerts, but he ignored her wishes.

Much to her son's embarrassment, she wrote her own song called Keep the Flag a'Flying, prompting him to take the initiative and create his own song once and for all.

However it was written, it was widely claimed that Novello's real contribution to the war effort was not as a pilot, but as a songwriter.

Other well known tunes by Novello included We'll Gather Lilacs, and he was said to be composing patriotic songs on a regular basis.

Not being the most talented airman, he completed his training on dual control aircraft, but reportedly crashed on his first solo flight, and did the exact same thing when given a second chance.

Because of this, Novello was actually grounded for the duration of the war, but that didn't stop him having an influence.

In 1917, while he was still serving with the Navy, his show Theodore and Co was produced on the West End, proclaimed by many as the hit of the year. He met 21-year-old Bobby Andrew in 1916, and embarked on a relationship that would last 35 years, performing together on various occasions.

With the First World War ending in 1918, Novello was discharged and could not wait to commit his life full-time to the industry he loved.

His stardom in both Britain and the US was cemented in the post war years, with his film count totalling more than 20.

A particular highlight of that era for him came in 1919, when he was offered the lead in the silent film The Call Of The Blood.

Further successes for Novello saw him star in The White Rose as a Valentino-style lover in 1923, before portraying the suspected serial killed in The Lodger by Alfred Hitchcock.

That was a box office success, and led him to star in many more silent films in Britain, America, France and Germany.

Novello's life story took a bizarre twist in 1944 when he was sent to prison, for misusing petrol coupons.

During wartime Britain this was viewed as a serious crime, and he was sent to Wormwood Scrubs for eight weeks, although he would eventually serve just four.

He reportedly attempted to bribe the officer, which did not help his cause.

It is believed that the incident, along with his homosexuality at a time when it was illegal in the UK, cost him his chances of a knighthood.

Novello died in 1951 from a coronary thrombosis, hours after having performed the lead in his own production called King's Rhapsody.

His funeral was attended by thousands, where women outnumbered men by 50 to one.

His memory lives on in the industry through the Ivor Novello Awards - representing the pinnacle of musical achievement and peer recognition in the music industry, whose winners last year included Skepta, Coldplay and Florence and the Machine.

Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians called Novello "until the advent of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the 20th century's most consistently successful composer of British musicals".

In 2012, leading actor Simon Callow called him "one of the great figures of his time".

A few weeks before his death, Noel Coward wrote of him: "Theatre - good, bad and indifferent - is the love of his life. For him, other human endeavours are mere shadows.

"The reward of his work lies in the indisputable fact that whenever and wherever he appears the vast majority of the British public flock to see him."


<B Starring in 1925 film The Rat

<B The blue plaque on his former house in Cowbridge Road East, Cardiff

Ivor with his mother Clara

<B Ivor Novello and Vivien Leigh in Max Beerbohm's The Happy Hypocrite at His Majesty's Theatre, Haymarket in 1936 Aberystwyth University
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 8, 2018
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