Postgraduate Profiles: Simon Carpenter – Rethinking the Role of Sir Herbert Brewer

This post comes from MA by Research student Simon Carpenter, who is being supervised by Dr Christian O’Connell and Prof. Melanie Ilic.

My research is focussed on Sir Herbert Brewer, who was Organist of Gloucester Cathedral between 1896 and 1928, his educational philosophy and his influence on the careers of his teenage articled pupils. It is leading to a greater understanding of a key stage in the education of three of the most gifted musicians this country has produced: Ivor Gurney – a leading poet and composer, nicknamed ‘Schubert’ by one his teachers; Herbert Howells, regarded by the Royal College of Music as the most gifted composer of his generation; and Ivor Novello an outstanding composer, playwright, actor, and impresario remembered today in the song writing and composing awards that bear his name.

Ivor Gurney

All were with Brewer a few years before the First World War. While their reputations have become etched in British musical history, Brewer has disappeared from sight, and is only remembered by the biographers of his famous pupils as either ‘workmanlike’ at best, or at worst, a positive hindrance to their careers. My research analyses their recorded interactions with Brewer, and then examines these firstly alongside what else is known of him and his teaching philosophy from his memoirs, and secondly the recorded experiences of his other pupils.

Herbert Howells

So far my research suggests that many of the accepted (negative) ‘truths’ about Brewer’s relationship with Gurney, Howells and Novello have not been appropriately contextualized and therefore are worthy of reconsideration. For example, Brewer is sometimes referred to as the ‘idiot’ teacher who told Novello that he had no future in music – like the fabled producer who turned down the Beatles. In reality, Brewer was very patient with Novello (who was famously lazy and often living in a world of his own), recognised his natural talent and was warning him that he needed to knuckle down and build up some foundational knowledge. There was clearly a clash of styles between the two. Novello went on to compose ‘Keep the home fires burning’ in 1915 which set him up for life, meaning he didn’t need to ‘knuckle down’ at all. From then on he was able to pay others to do his orchestrations and manage his life for him. Another significant finding is that Brewer was by vocation a teacher and that many of his pupils and employers found him to be inspirational and caring. He was not just an organist who happened to also teach, for several years he taught in the rather less than encouraging surroundings of a boys public school.

Ivor Novello

Another important discovery from my research is that none of the three famous pupils came from secure family backgrounds but came from difficult circumstances which made them potentially very challenging students for Brewer to mentor. Gurney has since been retrospectively diagnosed as being bipolar. In the early years of the twentieth century it led to his incarceration in an asylum for the last 15 years of his life. Howells’ father was declared bankrupt when he was a small boy, which led to the whole family being shunned by their former friends where they lived in Lydney. In addition, Novello arrived with Brewer as a vulnerable teenager coming to terms with his homosexuality and having been expelled from his previous school for … well you can guess. The fact that being gay was then illegal and would remain so for another sixty odd years was another issue Novello was then faced with. All four key players in my research were major contributors to 20th century culture. The research is helping us to have a fuller, more rounded picture of the three gifted musicians, but also of Brewer as their teacher.

Sir Herbert Brewer

Featured Image: Three Choirs Festival organists I A Atkins, H Brewer and G R Sinclair. Date unknown. Photo: Herefordshire Libraries /

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