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Irving, (Kelville) Ernest (1877–1953), musical director and composer, was born on 6 November 1877 in Pound Hill, Godalming, the eldest child of Ashley Alfred Irving (b. c.1844/5, d. in or before 1898), ironmonger, and his wife, Emma Fenner (b. c.1854/5). His boyhood was much influenced by his maternal grandmother, whose late husband had been organist of Godalming parish church. Ernest became a choirboy at the same church at the age of seven and was later educated at Charterhouse School. On leaving school he sought musical engagements, and in 1895, at the age of seventeen, he became musical director of a musical burlesque in Maidenhead. There followed a succession of similar engagements around the country. At Fylde register office on 11 May 1898, aged twenty but claiming to be twenty-four, he married Bertha Newall (b. 1871/2) of Blackpool, the daughter of John Newall, a contractor. The marriage produced two children but did not last.

Among other subsequent touring engagements, Irving was musical director of a company playing British musical shows at the Teatro Comedia in Madrid in 1907. Then in 1910 he was engaged for the touring companies of George Edwardes, and in 1918 he finally obtained an extended London engagement as musical director of the Charles Cuvillier operetta The Lilac Domino at the Empire. He conducted the opening attraction of the Palace (later the Mogador) in Paris, and through membership of the Savage Club he became closely associated with Norman O'Neill. He conducted many of O'Neill's incidental scores, and through him was appointed to the committees of both the Savage Club and the Royal Philharmonic Society. During the 1920s and 1930s he conducted at virtually all London theatres, notably as musical director of Lilac Time from 1922 to 1924. He was also engaged for The Land of Smiles at Drury Lane with Richard Tauber, The Dubarry at His Majesty's with Anny Ahlers, and Henry IV at His Majesty's with George Robey. On 19 December 1930, following divorce from his first wife, he married Muriel (1898–1983), daughter of George Walter Heath, a woollen goods manufacturer. His wife was a contralto who had won prizes at the Guildhall School of Music and who had appeared in Lilac Time. They had one daughter; but the marriage was soon overshadowed by financial problems and bankruptcy from which, to avoid publicity, Irving never sought discharge.

Irving composed or arranged incidental music for forty-four plays in all, including The Circle of Chalk (1931) and eight Shakespeare scores for the Alhambra in London, the Hippodrome in Manchester, the Malvern Festival, and the Memorial Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. He also composed the operettas The Two Bouquets (1936) and An Elephant in Arcady (1938). During the Second World War he was musical director for the Entertainments National Service Association and also for the International Ballet.

Irving's most notable achievement was almost certainly his work in film music. Shortly after the First World War he had conducted music to accompany trade shows of the Gaumont-British Film Producing Company at the Empire Theatre, and this gave him early experience of fitting music to action on film. It led to other engagements and in due course brought him to the attention of Basil Dean, co-founder of Associated Talking Pictures. Irving directed the music for Dean's film Escape in 1930, and in 1935 was appointed musical director of Ealing Studios, a post he held almost until his death. He directed the music for over 100 films, including those of Gracie Fields and George Formby as well as such classics as Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945). He also composed film music, most notably for Whisky Galore (1949), and he arranged Handel's music for The Great Mr Handel (1943). Irving sought to raise the standard of film music by engaging distinguished composers, including John Ireland for The Overlanders (1946), Alan Rawsthorne for The Captive Heart (1946), and Ralph Vaughan Williams for The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947) and Scott of the Antarctic (1949). When Vaughan Williams based his Sinfonia antartica on the music for the latter film he dedicated it to Irving, who was also dedicatee of string quartets by William Walton and Rawsthorne.

Irving was well known as a lecturer and a writer on film music and was a member of the British Film Academy. He was for many years a committee member of the Royal Philharmonic Society and in 1951 was awarded the distinction of honorary membership. He also held an honorary degree of the Royal Academy of Music. A keen rock walker in his younger days, he was always an outstanding chess player. As such he was correspondent of the Illustrated London News and was known to frighten impresarios by playing chess with members of his orchestras during theatre performances.

After ill health compelled him to retire from Ealing Studios at the end of April 1953, Irving remained confined to bed at his home at 4 The Lawn, Ealing Green, adjoining the studios, and wrote a witty autobiography, Cue for Music, which was published posthumously in 1959. He died at home on 24 October 1953, aged seventy-five. A man of wide learning, Irving could—in his own words—be disputatious and didactic at times; but he was much valued as ‘a character’.

Andrew Lamb


E. Irving, Cue for music (1959) · private information (2004) [daughter] · J. Huntley, British film music (1947) · New Grove · J. Parker, ed., Who’s who in the theatre, 11th edn (1952) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.


photographs, repro. in Irving, Cue for music

Wealth at death  

£1912 4s. 3d.: administration, 28 Aug 1956, CGPLA Eng. & Wales