Arthur Somervell

Sir Arthur Somervell (5 June 1863 – 2 May 1937) was an English composer and art song writer. After Hubert Parry, he was one of the most successful and influential writers of art song in the English music renaissance of the 1890s–1900s. One of his best-known works is his English-language adaptation of a Handel aria, “Silent Worship”.

He was born in Windermere, Westmorland, the son of shoe-manufacturer (founder of K Shoes, earlier Somervell Brothers) Robert Miller Somervell JP of “Hazelthwaite” at Winderemere (1821-1899). The Somervell (originally Somerville) family came from Scotland, settling in London in the 1700s. Arthur Somervell’s brother, shoe-manufacturer Colin Somervell was later High Sheriff of Westmorland in 1916, as was Colin’s son, Maj. Arnold Colin Somervell, O.B.E. in 1936, and, later, other members of the Somervell family.

Somervell was initially educated at Uppingham School and King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied composition under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. From 1883 to 1885 he studied at the High School for Music, Berlin, and from 1885 to 1887 at the Royal College of Music in London, under Parry. He studied composition with Friedrich Kiel. He became a professor at the Royal College of Music in 1894, and conducted his own works at the Leeds and Birmingham Festivals, 1895-97.

His style was conservative, and shows the influence of Mendelssohn and Brahms. He achieved success in his own day as a composer of choral works such as The Forsaken Merman (1895), Intimations of Immortality (which he conducted at Leeds Festival in 1907), and The Passion of Christ (1914). His Violin Concerto of 1930 was dedicated to the violinist Adila Fachiri.

Today he is chiefly remembered for his song cycles such as Maud (after Tennyson, 1898) and the first known setting (1904) of A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. His popular Handel adaptation “Silent Worship” was featured in the 1996 film Emma.
Somervell was also influential in the field of music education. He worked for twenty-eight years as one of His Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools (HMI), with special responsibility for the teaching of music. He was appointed Inspector of Music at the Board of Education and Scottish Education Department in 1901 (succeeding John Stainer), and in June the following year received the degree Doctor of Music from the University of Cambridge.