Leo Livens – Composer Pianist Teacher

Writing about Dorothy Pilling and Winifred Bury took me back to a familiar set of books and papers. Among them were two pieces for piano by Leo Livens. This music coloured my early days and I often imagined the nursery pictures as a child when my mother played Leo Livens’ “Sing A Song Of Sixpence” and “Little Polly Flinders”.

A Nice Chap

Leo Livens must have been a nice chap, I thought. How else could one feel about a composer who was charmed by nursery rhyme stories and saw fit to use them as his inspiration for at least two delightful miniatures? Getting older and asking my mother about Leo Livens led to a dead end. Her only comments were “Nobody knew what had happened to him” and “If you ever find a copy of ‘Lunar Rainbow’, let me know”. She only knew one person who had copies of at least some of his output for piano and that was Dorothy Pilling, her piano teacher.

A Conspiracy of Silence

Even at university, I spent some time trying to find out more about Leo Livens but details were virtually non-existent. A conspiracy of silence appeared to have surrounded this man to the extent that it would not have been unreasonable to assume that “Leo Livens” were a pseudonym.

A Sad Story

In the years between 1977 and 2005, I managed to purchase quite a lot of Leo Livens’ work and several things then happened quickly and mostly down to the internet. This came about because a relative of the Livens family, now living in Australia, was anxious to know about her ancestor – and rightly so. She had left an email address in an open forum and so I wrote to her, offering my information and ideas as I wanted to know more too. Leo Livens – as it turned out – had lived to a great old age even though in one book, an editor had speculatively decided that he must have died about 1961. What emerged subsequently was a sad but interesting story and one which deserves to be told.

Horace Mann Livens and Vincent Van Gogh

Leo Livens was born 24th May 1896. His father, Horace Mann Livens was an artist – a great artist – and a personal friend of Vincent Van Gogh. Horace Mann Livens had even painted a portrait of Van Gogh when they were at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp, about 1885. Van Gogh afterwards invited him to Paris. Letters between the two are still in existence. Leo Livens’ mother was Gertrude Evangeline Brock. Horace Mann Livens often sketched and drew pictures of his children and luckily for us, a lot of these survived and are now held in galleries and collections. However, during the Second World War Horace Mann Livens’ home was a victim of the London blitz and much of his work was lost. Even more was lost in a fire at the home of his widow around 1957. For these reasons, we must assume that Evangeline’s and Leo’s manuscripts are lost to us and although copies may survive somewhere, they have yet to come to light.

The Matthay School

Leo Livens became a pupil at the Tobias Matthay School of Pianoforte Playing, located from 1905 in Oxford Street and afterwards in Wimpole Street, both London. Matthay – of German extraction – was probably the most influential piano teacher and writer of piano technique in the English speaking world.

In 1910, Tobias Matthay presented Two Invitation Pianoforte Recitals at the Bechstein (later Wigmore) Hall, London. These recitals consisted of “Junior Students” on Wednesday 6th July and “Scholars and Artist-Students” on the following Thursday 14th July. The programme list of performers and teachers reads like a veritable “Who’s Who” of music in England in the first half of the twentieth century. Included in the programme is Leo Livens’ sister, Evangeline. She attracted a great deal of interest as a pianist and composer too.

Leo was composing early and by the age of 14 had written some pieces good enough to be included in recitals.

Press Reports

Saturday October 14th 1911 – Royal Academy of Music – Award of Scholarships.
The Henry Smart Scholarship (organ or composition) Alec Rowley (London); Leo Livens, highly commended.
Wednesday December 20th 1911 – Royal Academy of Music Awards.
The Hine Prize (composition) has been awarded to Leo Livens (of Beckenham)

A Review for Evangeline from “The Times”

Friday May 10th 1912
Music…The Woltmann Orchestra…(it seems that Evangeline played as an extra item in an orchestral concert)…Miss Livens played an Impromptu of her own composition with quite up-to-date harmonization arranged on an intelligible plan, and Liszt’s Gnomenreigen, which was well adapted to her agile fingers. She was recalled, and played Chopin’s Etude in F Minor…”

Leo Wins a Scholarship

Thursday October 9th 1913 – Royal Academy of Music
The following scholarships have also been made:- Macfarren scholarship (composition), – Leo Livens (Beckenham)

1914 – The Matthay School Garden Party Photograph

Garden Party of the Matthay School, 1914 (Leo Livens 2nd from right on back row; Evangeline Livens front row 1st left)
Garden Party of the Matthay School, 1914 (Leo Livens 2nd from right on back row; Evangeline Livens front row 1st left)

Leo as Prizewinning Pianist and Composition Student

In 1915, Leo Livens was awarded The Oliveria Prescott Prize at the Royal Academy of Music. This prize was awarded to distinguished composition students and took the form of presentation copies of orchestral scores. Also awarded the Philip L. Agnew Prize, for pianoforte in 1915. Leo Livens had music in print at this time.

The First World War

Leo Livens was conscripted into the British Army in 1916 and an appeal was made against being sent out on active service. This is a matter of public record and the appeal was allowed. Leo Livens was exempted. The decision reads: “Leo Livens of Springfield, Wood Ridings, Hatch End. Occupation: Musician, Pianist and Composer. Grounds of Appeal: E(xemption). On the ground of ill-health or infirmity”. Although he seems to have been spared the unspeakable atrocities of the battlefield, there is evidence that he remained in the Royal Sussex Regiment as a Private soldier 202427 until demobilisation in 1919. He was certainly awarded the Victory medal and the British War medal. There is no suggestion that the war had any deleterious psychological effect on Leo Livens.

Return to Civvy-street and more studies

Leo Livens returned to his studies at the Royal Academy of Music in 1919.

A Concert

Monday December 8th 1919 – This Week’s Music

ON Tuesday December 9th 1919, Mr Leo Livens (Aeolian Hall, 8.15) will give a piano recital, playing his sonata and Egyptian fantasies.

Leo Livens on the Staff of the Royal Academy of Music
In 1920, he was elected – by the Royal Academy of Music committee – ARAM. There is no evidence that he sat the Licentiate diploma of the Royal Academy of Music either as a teacher or as a performer.

London Recitals

Monday March 8th 1920 – This Week’s Music
Mr Leo Livens (Aeolian Hall – 3.) will play Handel’s Suite in D Minor, Chopin’s Sonata in B flat minor and a group of his own pieces.
Monday May 17th 1920 – Mr Leo Livens (Aeolian Hall, 8) will give a programme of piano music which includes Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, his own Sonata in C, and a group of his own shorter pieces.

Academic Tasks

Leo Livens was appointed in 1922 Professor of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music. Monday July 17th 1922Royal Academy of Music Centenary – Chamber Concerts
Bax – First Violin Sonata (Miss Winifred Small and Mr Leo Livens)
Friday December 15th 1922Royal Academy of Music
The Potter Exhibition (pianoforte) has been awarded to Sybil Barlow, Elsie Betts, Phyllis Sowerby-Coo and Lillian Southgate being highly commended and Myra Ison commended. The adjudicators were Messrs. Lawrence Taylor, Leo Livens and Herbert Lake (Chairman).

Ups and Downs
There seems to have been a change in Leo’s health after this time and the notices of concerts and adjudications appear to have dried up.

To Hospital

During several periods from around 1926 to 1934, he had been in the same hospital – Napsbury – as Ivor Gurney. Napsbury was rather more progressive at this time and mental health care was experimenting and progressing some way. We do not know at this time what the problem was nor is there any available diagnosis.

Leo Livens’ moods in his music might seem to suggest that he may have been bipolar. His music hovers between elation and isolation, happiness and loneliness and a seeming preoccupation with the minutiae of childhood and a fascination for the freedoms found in the natural and imagined world. It may be possible that Leo Livens had bipolar disorder – like Ivor Gurney.  Certainly, bipolar disorder can be hereditary to a great extent and Leo Livens’ sister Evangeline (also a precociously talented pianist with some compositions in print) was similarly diagnosed around 1932. Their mother also entered Shenley Hospital about this time too.

Difficult childhood

The home life of the children and the father had been difficult, coloured by their mother’s psychoses. As I learned from my contact, the Livens home was unhappy:

“…shoes were banned and the children had to walk on tiptoe in the house, forbidden to make any kind of noise. The keys (strings?) of the piano were covered in felt. Even Horace had to paint in the garden. In spite of all this, their mother still complained of people walking between the floors of the house…”.

Medical science was not sufficiently well progressed at that stage to help with drug therapy and so Leo Livens was, like Ivor Gurney treated in the only way that was considered suitable at that time and that was long spells in hospital during which time, his bipolar disorder would (in its untreated state) gradually take over his personality and ability to function.

When in hospital, Leo Livens was visited regularly and often by his father, Horace Mann Livens. He would endeavour to amuse his children by drawing for them and trying to make them feel comfortable. It must have been a great ordeal. He made sketches and paintings of other in-patients too.

Unfair assessment

Unkind assumptions and glib assertions have relegated Leo Livens to that “unofficial semi-official” never-never-land of “composers who fail to fulfil early promise” – whatever that might mean. Such banal statements are as damning a criticism as they are a meaningless expectation that what material is available for study does not amount to anything of worth; as if his complete oeuvre were no more than so many exercises in preparation for some future as-yet-unwritten extended composition. And whilst extended compositions are admirable, they are not the be-all and end-all of musical study.

An English Impressionist

Livens – an English Impressionst – was, like Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) and Roger Quilter and for that matter, Ivor Gurney too, essentially a miniaturist (Heseltine, Quilter and Gurney expressing themselves mostly through song). Leo Livens wrote mostly for the piano with an individual voice and one which deserves to be heard. That is not to suggest that his entire output should be listened to at one sitting for that is not a good idea for any composer. His works exhibit a love of piano sonority. Some are made of delicate gossamer-like musical lines. Most require an advanced piano technique. He seems to require a deep tone from the piano. Nearly all his titles are moods or suggest pictures. His music is harmonically complex and a great delicacy is required to play it successfully. This is certainly not light music, it is high musical art on a par with Ravel or Debussy.

The Four Preludes are really very beautiful pieces of music but with one tantalising gap:- I wonder has anybody ever seen a copy of No. 3? Even on the cover of the printed copies, Preludes 1, 2 and 4 are titles but Prelude 3 is blank.

Leo at the piano and Evangeline reading
Leo at the piano and Evangeline reading

Leo Livens: Born 24th May 1896 Beckenham, Kent, England. Died Shenley Hospital, Hertfordshire, 22nd February 1990 aged 93.
Evangeline Livens: Born April 1898, Croydon, Surrey, England. Died Shenley Hospital, Hertfordshire, January 1983 aged 84
Gertrude Evangeline Livens nee Brock born 1870 died 8th March 1950 Shenley Hospital, Hertfordshire, 1950
Horace Mann Livens born 1862, died 5th October 1936.

Works by Leo Livens

Allegretto Semplice – Prelude No. 1 of four Preludes for Pianoforte  
Presto ma non troppo – Prelude No. 2 of Four Preludes for Pianoforte
Quasi allegretto soave – Prelude No. 4 of Four Preludes for Pianoforte
Dance of the Insects
Flying Moments
Impressions for Pianoforte
Little Star – copyright March 28 1924 (Anglo French)
Peter Piper
Seven Impressions
Sing a song of sixpence
Sonata in C Major
Tanta (In the native quarters)
The Hobby Horse
Three Studies – 1 The Naiads 2 Heat Waves 3 A Hailstorm
Three Preludes
Two musical Rhymes – 1 To Banbury Cross 2 Little Polly Flinders
Zagazig (Egyptian Dance)

Recording by Malinee Peris on youtube

This is a wonderfully musical and sensitive performance of “Sing a Song of Sixpence“.

Recordings by Phillip Sear on youtube

Phillip Sear’s performances on youtube:

Sing a Song of Sixpence
Lunar Rainbow

Other Music by Leo Livens

There may also be more – some chamber music, orchestral pieces and a ballet “Alnaschar“, also letters, photographs and or diaries somewhere. Anybody found them yet?

There is a little more to be added, please revisit this page from time to time, but for now, the rest is music.


4 thoughts on “Leo Livens – Composer Pianist Teacher

  1. A fascinating and very informative article, thank you. I came across his music on Pianola rolls, and will be playing the Three Studies at Beckenham (his place of birth) on 11th July.
    Nine rolls were issued altogether, all made as direct transcriptions of the score, and requiring interpretation by the “Pianolist”. Livens made one roll for the Duo-Art reproducing piano of The Naiads and Hobby Horse, recorded in the early 1920s.

    1. Many thanks Michael for your response, comment and interest. How fascinating that you are to perform in Beckenham in July, I send every good wish for your performance. I did not know about the rolls or indeed about Leo Livens’ recording for the Duo-Art company, so many thanks for sharing information. Livens’ music is quite beautiful and accessible. I will update the page as more information comes to light, so do check back from time to time. Best wishes, voxturturis

    1. Thanks Michael for your continued interest in Leo Livens and thank you for sending the link. I have also created a direct link from the text. The perfomances are superbly executed as well as fascinating to watch. Best wishes.

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