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Victor Hely-Hutchinson

Victor Hely-Hutchinson was one of the most prodigiously talented British musicians of the early twentieth century. The youngest son of Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson, the last governor of Cape Colony, South Africa, he proved a musical prodigy, mimicking in voice the notes that his mother played to him on the piano before he could speak. His first words were the names of notes, and at age five, he could play piano reductions of orchestral pieces and transpose at sight in any key. At the suggestion of Sir Charles Hubert Parry, Hely-Hutchinson was sent to study with Sir Donald Tovey. It was with Tovey that Hely-Hutchinson studied counterpoint and, in a precursor to one facet of his later career, took exercises in composition by setting advertising copy to music -- all of this before his hands were big enough to play across octaves on the keyboard. At 13, he'd written a symphony and a mass in memory of his late father, and had played as soloist in one of the Mozart Piano Concertos in a concert with the London Symphony Orchestra. By his mid-teens, Hely-Hutchinson was a renowned keyboard virtuoso with a talent for improvisation that entertained his schoolmates and teachers when he applied it to nonsense songs. In 1921, he accepted a teaching post in Cape Town, South Africa. He emerged as a mature composer in the years that followed with his first notable song settings, of "The Owl And the Pussycat" and pieces based on "Ruthless Rhymes" by Harry Graham, along with an instrumental work called Three Fugal Fancies. Hely-Hutchinson also became a broadcaster on the radio program The Children's Hour in South Africa.

In 1926, he returned to England and was hired by the BBC as a musical assistant, with responsibilities including conducting and arranging, and re-emerged as a radio personality in the guise of "Uncle Bunny." He composed incidental music for numerous plays and established himself as an adult performer, giving regular public recitals on the piano and organ. The year 1927 saw the premiere of his Variation, Intermezzo, Scherzo and Finale, for which he was awarded the Carnegie prize, and the Carol Symphony, which became his best known large scale work. Hely-Hutchinson remained an executive at the BBC and, in 1933, became the manager of their Birmingham office. He subsequently founded the BBC Midland Orchestra and, in 1934, he became chairman of the Music Department at Birmingham University. He was a popular teacher, cheerful and outgoing of disposition, even as he reveled in his encyclopedic knowledge of music. He became associated with the Bach Choir and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, continued to compose (and write program notes) for theatrical plays, and retained his job with the BBC. He continued to teach and to perform during the war, and raising money for the City of Birmingham orchestra with a series of recitals of Beethoven's complete piano sonatas, and managed to earn his doctorate in music as well.

Hely-Hutchinson became the music director of the BBC in 1944, which didn't slow him down from performing, although his composing slackened in the years immediately after the war. The toll of a lifetime of furious activity became clear early in 1947 when Hely-Hutchinson contracted a fatal case of pneumonia. In the years after, his memory was kept alive by his widow and two sons, but primarily through his compositions. Most of his 50 published works were songs, which has given him the reputation of being primarily a miniaturist, but Hely-Hutchinson is also remembered as an orchestral composer for his Carol Symphony, which remains a popular Christmas piece.