Charles Prentice – Conductor, Musical Director, Composer, Arranger

Charles Prentice 1898-1970, Conductor, Musical Director, Orchestrator, Composer

Charles Prentice Mus Bac – Orchestra under the direction of – so say the record labels.

Who was Charles Prentice?

From information in the National Library of Scotland, this was Charles Whitecross Prentice, born Prestonpans, Haddingtonshire or East Lothian, Scotland 28th January 1898.

He was a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and whilst a student there, conducted the Edinburgh University Choral and Orchestral Society. He studied Violin under William Waddell, whilst composing and orchestrating music for university revues. He was a student of the distinguished academic Donald Francis Tovey, Professor of Music at Edinburgh University.

Charles Prentice became the Musical Director for some of the most famous musical plays and shows ever to have graced our West End stages. He was also an arranger (or what used to be called an orchestrator) and he also taught composition (and is credited as a teacher of such to one Leslie Douglas (1914-?), singer, bandleader and songwriter;  composer of Swing Serenade, Swinging Inbetween, One Man Went to Blow etc and who worked as a singer with Carroll Gibbons, Ambrose and Henry Hall)

Charles Prentice was married to Phyllis. One son who became a fighter pilot was killed during the war in 1943 at Salerno.

Charles Prentice was at work from about 1924 starting with “Betty In Mayfair” to about 1958 when he moves off the scene, probably into a well-earned retirement on the south coast of England. Known also as Jock Prentice – even ultimately using this name in the telephone directory – along with MUS BAC in capitals.

Characteristics of Charles Prentice as musician…

What characterises a Charles Prentice recording? First of all, tight orchestral playing. Energetic string and brass playing, incisive woodwind performances with neat embellishments and descants, plus total sympathy with singers and instrumentalists.

Piano, Violin and Discipline

Besides being a capable pianist, as a violin pupil of Waddell, Prentice would have absorbed the discipline that Waddell himself had when a student in Leipzig under Ferdinand David. From Tovey, Prentice would have learned deep musical insight and the ways to realise the full musical potential of all that was put before him. Tovey himself was a composer of considerable ability, although he is nowadays more remembered for his incisive analytical and critical writings – no doubt these were influential upon Prentice too.

The Master of Orchestral Accompaniment…

Charles Prentice is a master of orchestral accompaniment. Too many of the songs of the twenties thirties and forties can and do sound too similar if the proper nuances are missing. Prentice holds the keys to these songs and styles. For example, where to place pauses; how to make rallentando without creating tedium or threatening predictability both for the audience and the discerning listener. In other words, Charles Prentice brought these songs by many (including Ivor Novello, Noel Coward and Vivian Ellis) to life.

Famous Scottish Songs

As well as his work in the theatre, he made a number of recordings of comedy songs for Regal Zonophone in the early 1930s, in particular, songs by Will Fyffe and including the now iconic and world famous song “I Belong To Glasgow“.

In addition to this work, he also recorded with fellow Scot (and later Mancunian by adoption) Isobel Baillie with fine results, one of which – Angels Ever Bright and Fair – can be heard here.


A list appears in the discography at the end of this article. These quality of the orchestral playing in these records is very high and show typical traits of the Prentice “style” of orchestration. (The balance on this video is correct as many of the “corrected” recordings now current on mp3 and CD, whilst eliminating a lot of background noise, unfortunately place the voice too far forward to the detriment of the orchestral balance).

It is a pity that we do not know more about this fascinating musician and the early influences on his career. He styled himself “Charles Prentice Mus.Bac.” on all his recordings for Novello and this tells us that he was a music graduate. The results that he achieved are extremely high.

The Ivor Novello magic…

During the interval of “The Magic Of Ivor Novello” broadcast by BBC Radio 2 on March 1st 1975, Barry Sinclair interviewed some of the leading ladies from Ivor Novello’s shows. I heard the programme and have a reel to reel recording of it somewhere…but I digress…During the interviews, Dorothy Dickson, Mary Ellis and Roma Beaumont and perhaps Vanessa Lee talk about the orchestras but sadly none of them mentioned Charles Prentice, yet they all benefitted directly or indirectly from his musicianship.

Charles Prentice brings Ivor Novello’s music to life…

However, they did point out one thing, Mary Ellis said that Ivor Novello was always trying to cut out as much of the brass as possible. I expect that if this was in “The Dancing Years”, it was probably the last collaboration between Charles Prentice and Ivor Novello, at least for a while.

The recordings prove…

The earlier Novello shows “Glamorous Night”, “Careless Rapture” and “Crest of the Wave” have much more vital music, electrifying even in places. This is in no small way due to the symphonic balance created by Charles Prentice. “Careless Rapture” manages to be musically the most coherent of Novello’s shows and that must also be down in no small way to Charles Prentice. The point is definitely arguable and James Harding’s biography of Novello describes in a couple of lines what was Novello’s compositional method.

Writing Naked…

It seems that Novello would send his melodies naked – that is, the melodies were unharmonised – to Leighton Lucas who then harmonised them. It could be a matter of fascinating debate as to what extent Lucas added to Novello’s compositions. Presumably then they were sent to Charles Prentice who orchestrated them. James Harding quotes Novello as arguing that orchestration was not memorable. “People don’t remember orchestration, they remember melodies” he is reported to have said. There is more to this than at first meets the eye though. Particularly so because the orchestra – especially in the original cast recordings – makes the music so much more memorable.

Melodies and original cast recordings…

It is beyond doubt that the values in the cast recordings are manifold. Firstly as Novello said, the melodies themselves. However, the melodies themselves are nothing without harmonies, the harmonies are what colour the moods of the song, they lend the poignancy or render the uplift needed to communicate the exact point; they serve to highlight the lyrics,as well as pinpoint the climaxes. Likewise, the orchestration is that which universalises the harmonies and intensifies the music generally, that it might be appreciated in all its dimensions and supporting the singer too. Imagine any of these shows just presented without harmony and orchestra – just a continuum of unaccompanied and unharmonised melodies – not good!

Immature remarks

Ivor Novello was an astute and able musician, and I am sure that he did see the ultimate value – the true value – in orchestration. His remarks about orchestration belong to an informal discussion with a friend at a time before 1914 when he was very young and was making his way as a ballad composer. They do not represent the judgement of the later composer and playwright.

Furthermore, we cannot fault his choices of collaborators for in that, he was unimpeachable, Charles Prentice being the most obvious example after Christopher Hassall and Leighton Lucas.

But there are no manuscripts to study…or are there? Anybody care to own up to knowing where they are?

We might listen…

But digression again so, back to Mr Prentice – to hear a recording of the theatre musicians under the authoritative baton of Charles Prentice is to hear something of delight, to enjoy the symphonic aspects brought to life of the music of Ivor Novello, Noel Coward and Vivian Ellis among others. Listen to the Medley Part 1 (sadly, the link is no longer active) which is the orchestral set from “Big Ben” – Vivian Ellis and A P Herbert’s 1946 offering which sadly did not enjoy a long run. The charming melodies and beautiful orchestrations that Prentice controls (he may not have been the orchestrator here) with consummate skill, translate vocal lines and accompaniments into some very fine music indeed. Expert climaxes and tempos, with full emphasis upon the players who surely must have enjoyed making this recording. (A careful selection on Spotify will also lead to some of Charles Prentice’s master recordings).

Understanding the mechanics of an orchestra…

Especially listen to the details in the orchestra brought out in the piece about 3.57 – specially the low D in the piano, and the way the chords are presented. The melody from 4.19 does not appear in the piano selection, so I cannot give you its title but listened to the fluidity of the woodwind and the careful string playing, especially from 5.00.

The G Trombone – usually misunderstood…

From an instrumental point of view, one cannot help but feel that Prentice had a real understanding of the G trombone (and the musician playing that line) – for several times he allows the G Trombone some real prominence around the 6.00 mark and surely some of the best G Trombone notes ever recorded – classy and controlled – at 7.18, 7.26 and finally, at the section from 7.36 and 7.46. Please listen and give it a few goes because it is great and you might not get it the first couple of listens – transport yourself back to 1946 and enjoy it!

A musical force…

Please also continue with the second part of the medley (the former link here was removed) with the vocal lines for the recording really is something. Here is a flavour of the continuity of the musical play in post-war England. Charles Prentice’s skill as orchestral accompanist is self-evident in this section.

When the sessions are over, try comparing the two recordings to see how the presentation with lyrics is so different from that without – and that is a lesson in itself.

Authenticity in performance…

For all musicians out there, a note and a thought:- much of what happens in all music is not always on the actual paper – and what is on the paper is sometimes not exactly what is required – and that is worth remembering.

I do hope that you agree how wonderful it is to hear someone bring such lovely theatrical melodies and settings to life.

If you want music, here it is in spadefuls – the best that the London studios could provide and a great conductor to boot.

Charles Prentice was a consummate musician and his ability to make great music should surely be recognised for all it was 70 years ago.

Here is somebody who could present music as sincerely as was possible, without a trace of silliness or unwelcome cynicism.

Here’s a link to a site that contains Charles Prentice’s autograph and he has included his nickname “Jock” – no doubt held in affection by many musicians and to be truthful, you can hear why now.

Charles Prentice died on 7th September 1970 in Steyning, Sussex, England.

Anybody got a photograph to share? Please get in touch!

Partial discography and incomplete record of engagements, broadcasts and compositions including Charles Prentice:

1925 Charlot’s revue Music for “Sealed Feet” by Charles Prentice – a significant revue introducing “The Fox Has Left His Lair” (music by Peggy Connor); “Poor Little Rich Girl” (Noel Coward) (Sealed Feet designed and staged by Quentin Tod)

1925 Adelphi then Shaftesbury Betty In Mayfair Musical Director Charles Prentice

1927 From ‘The Blue Train’.
Music by Robert Stolz, Ivy St.Helier and Gorney, lyrics by Dion Titheradge and Reginald Arkell. Recorded with the Prince of Wales’s Theatre Orchestra, conductor Charles Prentice, in London on 13th June 1927.

1928 Isobel Baillie soprano
HANDEL: Angels ever bright and fair (Theodora)
Orchestra / Charles Prentice
13.11.1928, London • WAX 4275-2 (Columbia 9697)

1928 Lilac Time by Heinrich Berte and G. H. Clutsam Dalys Theatre, London, 24 Dec 1928, closing performance, 23 Feb 1929; staged by Charles Cannon; dances by Carlotta Mossetti; orchestra conducted by Charles Prentice

Charles Prentice travels to America
Charles Prentice Hotel Stuart, Richmond Hill, Richmond Theatrical Musical age 31
Phyllis Prentice address ditto Pianist age 29
UK outward from Southampton to New York travelling with a whole company of actors and actresses Departure 15 Dec 1929
Returned Jan 24 1930 Mr Charles Prentice Mus Director Pavillion Theatre London
Mrs Phyllis Prentice Housewife – along with Cecile Courtneidge and Mr Chas Courtnidge Landed at Plymouth

1929 Charles Prentice, conductor
Balfe – The Bohemian Girl – Vocal Gems Part 1:
Happy and light of heart (p114-117); I dreamt that I dwellt (p96-98); When other lips (p178-179); Silence (p82-84, 87, transposed down a semitone)
Part 2: The heart bowed down (p161-162, transposed down a semitone to F); Thou who in might supreme (p75-77); In the gipsy life (p32-35) Score references to Boosey The Royal Edition vocal score (1899)

Columbia 9579
Matrices WAX 4343-2, 4344-1 (10737/8)
Recording Date 27th November 1928
Available from Jan 1929 to March 1942
Orchestra and Chorus, Charles Prentice
Miriam Licette, soprano
Francis Russell, tenor
Dennis Noble, baritone
Harry Brindle, bass

1929 London Hippodrome The Five O’Clock Girl Ch Prentice Mus Dir

1930 Columbia Mikado (Slightly abridged version) Recorded London 6-10 Nov 1930 – more about this recording here

Charles Cochranes 1930 Revue – Night,a Ballet in One

1929 – 1931 Comedian with orchestra of 8 men, Charles Prentice (conductor)
Recorded Petty France, London, Thursday, 29th. August 1929
WA-9403-2 She was the belle of the ball (Fyffe) Reg G-9390; RegZon G-9390; ColAu 01766
WA-9404-1 Sheila McKay (I. Mckenzie; Fyffe) Reg G-9462; RegZon G-9462; RegZonAu G-20680;
ColAu 05048 WA-9405-1 Twelve and a tanner a bottle (I. MacKenzie; Fyffe) Reg G-9390; RegZon G-9390; ColAu 01766
WA-9406-2 The train that’s taking you home (Fyffe) Reg G-9462; RegZon G-9462; RegZonAu G-20680;
ColAu 05048
NOTE: Charles Whitecross Prentice (Prestonpans, 1898 – )

Comedian with orchestra, Charles Prentice (conductor)
Recorded Petty France, London, Thursday, 17th. October 1929
WAX-5220-1 I’m 94 today (Fyffe) Col9928; SEG-7746(EP); ColAu 05080(12”);
CapCa 72009(7”.45)
WAX-5221-1 I belong to Glasgow (Fyffe) Col 9928; SEG-7745(EP); ColAu 05080(12”);
CapCa 72009(7”.45)
WAX-5222-1 The train that’s taking you home (Fyffe) Col 9775(12”)
WAX-5223-2 Sheila Mackay (I. McKenzie) Col 9775(12”)

Comedian with orchestra, Charles Prentice (conductor)
Recorded Petty France, London, Wednesday, 2nd. July 1930
WAR-233-1 MacPherson’s wedding breakfast (Fyffe) Regal MR-206; RegZon MR-206;
RegZonAu G-20929
WAX-5640-1 Daft Sandy – part 1 (Fyffe) Col DX-107; ColAu DOX-87(12”)
WAX-5641-2 Daft Sandy – part 2 (Fyffe) Col DX-107; ColAu DOX-87(12”)

Comedian with orchestra, Charles Prentice (conductor)
Recorded Petty France, London, Friday, 4th. July 1930
WAR-244-1 The railway guard (Fyffe; I. MacKenzie) Reg MR-206 RegZon MR-206; RegZonAu G-20929
WAR-245-1 Daft Sandy – part 1 (Fyffe) Reg MR-176; RegZon MR-176; RegZonAu G20887
WAR-246-1 Daft Sandy – part 2 (Fyffe) Reg MR-176; RegZon MR-176; RegZonAu G-20887
William Dean-Myatt. ‘Scottish Vernacular Discography, 1888-1960’. Draft. Decemb
er 2012. Preview copy.
WAX-5642-1 MacPherson’s wedding breakfast (Fyffe) Col DX-138; ColAu DOX-135(12”)
WAX-5643-1 The railway guard (Fyffe; I. Mackenzie) Col DX-138; ColAu DOX-135(12”)

Comedian with orchestra, Charles Prentice (conductor)
Recorded Petty France, London, Wednesday, 8th. July 1931
CAR-704-1 The spirit of the man from Aberdeen (Walsh; Fyffe) Reg MR-413; RegZon MR-413; RegZonAu G-21212
CAR-705-1 The waddin’ o’ Mary MacLean (J. D. Martin; Fyffe) Reg MR-413; RegZon MR-413; RegZonAu G-21212CAX-6165-1 The spirit of a man from Aberdeen (Walsh; Fyffe) Col DX-275; ColAu DOX-247(12”)
CAX-6166-1 The waddin’ o’ Mary MacLean (J. D. Martin; Fyffe) Col DX-275; ColAu DOX-247(12”)

Comedian with orchestra. Charles Prentice (conductor)
Recorded Petty France,London, Wednesday, 15th. July 1931
CAR-748-1 A’m feared for Mrs. McKie (Fyffe)
Reg MR-456; RegZon MR-456; RegZonAu G-21279
CAR-749-1 Uncle Mac (Roberts; Fyffe) Reg MR-456; RegZon MR-456; RegZonAu G-21279
CAX-6181-1 Ah’m feared for Mrs. McKie (Fyffe) Col DX-354; ColAu DOX-313(12”)
CAX-6182-1 Uncle Mac (Roberts; Fyffe) Col DX-354; ColAu DOX-313(12”)

1932 In The Mystic land of Egypt  Ketelbey
baritone, Charles Prentice and his Orchestra, male chorus Columbia DB 767 CA 12394, 12395-2 10” 78, 2 sides [Apr 32] rec.Feb 32

From Albert Ketelbey Discography: Prentice is the only conductor to follow
the prescribed metronome of crotchet=108.  Everyone else follows the instruction of “quasi marcia”, at a faster speed between 120 and 132. (More here)

1933 Aug 30 I Think I’ll Have Another Think ; musical monologue wors Steohen Russell music Charles Prentice ; pf. (Reynolds and Co)

Prentice worked at Columbia and in 1934, Larry Adler tried to interest Columbia and Prentice in recording Robert Russell Bennet’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. According to a letter quoted in Ryan Banagales Book “Arranging Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and the Creation of an American Icon”, Adler felt that Prentice was the “big boss” at Columbia and that he was recording the big 12 inch discs with 150 piece orchestra. Prentice wanted to record iconic woks like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Franck’s Symphony in D Minor with Adler in Harmonica led renditions with orchestra but nothing ever came of it.

1934 Conversation Piece Noel Coward – Orchestrations Charles Prentice

1934 Columbia Light Opera Company, with orchestra conducted by Charles Prentice, in “Drury Lane Pantomime Memories” (Columbia DX-640, ca. 1934)

1934 Streamline Revue
Written by A P Herbert and Ronald Jeans
Music by Vivian Ellis
Original London cast: Florence Desmond, Naunton Wayne, Norah Howard, Meg Lemmonier, Esmond Knight, Sepha Treble, Charles Heslop. Musical director: Charles Prentice
SONGS: Kiss Me Dear/ Other People’s Babies/ You Turned Your Head [piano solos by Vivian Ellis]; I Will; The First Waltz; Other People’s Babies; You Turned Your Head; Kiss Me Dear; Speech Day; Perseverance

The impresario Charles B. Cochran personally introduces some of the items found in the revue he produced for the Palace Theatre in September 1934. (Larry Adler also informs us in “Arranging Gershwin” (op.cit) that “Streamline” was not well received at the time – this is a pity but I suspect that the 19 year old Adler was to inexperienced to appreciate the humour fully). A P Herbert wrote quite about “Streamline” in his autobiography thus: “Streamline was one of the rare theatrical enterprises I had a hand in that actually made money. If they revived revues there is much of this one, I believe, that would still stand up.” Charles Prentice and His Orchestra recorded “Streamline” on September 13th 1934 in the Opera House, Manchester.  The music is superbly performed and the whole concept is very good. Adler appeared in the revue himself in the final part of the London run. He later recorded some songs with Charles Prentice and a ten-piece ensemble which may or may not have been the entire pit orchestra from “Streamline”.

1934 December Theatre World has an interview with Charles Prentice with portrait.

Ivor Novello Shows
1935 Glamorous Night
1936 Careless Rapture
1937 Crest of the Wave
1939 The Dancing Years orchestrations Prentice, Harry Acres

1940 Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth C3171 She is far from the land/Lambert, Gerald Moore; Snowy-breasted pearl/arr Robinson, Charles Prentice,1940

1940 *B9051 Lover, come back to me/The New Moon/Romberg; Ah, sweet mystery of life/ Naughty Marietta/ Herbert, Walter Goehr?/Jock Prentice? 7-8 May 1940

1940 B9040 Lavender Lass; Love is my song/Murray, Charles Prentice, May 1940

1945 Light Programme – Music Parade with the Combined Stoll Theatre Orchestra (by permission of Prince Littler). Guest conductor Chrales Prentice

1946 Big Ben – V Ellis – Medley Charles Prentice And His Adelphi Theatre Orchestra 1946 Todd DUncan Baritone had a new song written for him in 1946 by his Scottish friend Jock Prentice – “Waters of Tralee”
1947 The Wizard of Oz revival (short run)
1949 London Brigadoon Mus Dir Charles Prentice
1954 Can-Can  London
1956  Little-known Songs of Robert Burns. Collected and arranged by C. Prentice … With a preface by John B. R. Whitfield… by Charles Prentice (1956)


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