Dora Estella Bright - Composer and Pianist

By Anthony Bilton

Dora Bright, a ‘Sheffield Lady Musician’, as reported by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph 12th February 1889, was a highly-regarded and important part of the English music scene from the 1880s through to the late 1930s. Critics reported her as one of the finest piano players of her time and throughout her career she was well reviewed and her music well received, being ‘noted above all for grace and charm’.

Augustus, Dora’s father, was an industrious entrepreneur. He spent time in Brazil from 1849 to 1854 and during this time must have made many important contacts, as he was appointed the Brazilian Vice-Consul in Sheffield in 1873, after a meeting with the Emperor of Brazil 2 years earlier at the Victoria Hotel, Sheffield. On his return to Sheffield he set up as a cutler and produced high-quality pocket knives and as a retailer of fine Brazilian cigars.

Her mother Kate Pitt was an actress and member of the Dibdin Pitt dynasty of actors and theatre proprietors. She was well educated, having spent two years at a boarding school in France, and was very highly regarded as an actress. The Cardiff times reported, ‘she is an exceeding clever young lady, possessing also natural advantages which used as the handmaid to intelligence will prove an adornment to her professional efforts’.  Her father became the lessee of the Theatre Royal in Sheffield and she starred in a number of works from 1860.

Augustus and Kate most likely met at a military concert at the Theatre Royal, Sheffield, in April 1861, where Augustus played the violin with the Hallamshire Rifles Band and Kate acted. Despite being thirteen years older than Kate their love must have blossomed, as within three months they were married in Cardiff, on 26th June 1861, to the considerable disapproval of her father.

The following year, Dora was born on the 16th of August 1862. Her mother left the stage for ‘domestic and social purposes’ and perhaps Dora was home taught at this point. Her first introduction to the world of music was aged 5, when she attended the Freemasons Ball in Sheffield with her parents - dancing commenced at 10pm with quadrilles, polkas, waltzing and ‘much dancing’ as the papers reported. This must have been something to behold for a 5-year-old.

At the age of 8 Dora was a pupil with 19 other students at a Boarding School for young ladies in Wath-on-Dearne, which  specialised in music and the arts. Clearly musical from an early age she first performed publicly with her father in Sheffield at a military concert, aged 10, where she accompanied him in a selection from Lucia by Donizetti and then performed a solo Beethoven piano sonata from memory.

Augustus died of a heart attack in 1880 and within a few months Dora was recorded on the April 1881 census living in a boarding house in Kensington, London, along with 11 other students. In the Lent term, she becomes a pupil at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), having been recommended by the publisher Stanley Lucas.

Her first recorded public concert is on the 26th January 1882, at the Hornet Club in Islington, where she opened the Concert with ‘a skilfully-played piano solo, which was applauded’. Only a few weeks later her first known work, a song titled ‘Wither!’, was performed at a public RAM concert in February 1882 and published in the same year.

Her studies were extremely successful. In her first three years she achieved the bronze medal, silver medal and the Certificate of Merit. On 15 December 1884, Dora received the coveted piano scholarship "Cipriani Potter Exhibition", giving her £12 (about £1,500 today) towards further study. Her teacher W. Macfarren took her on as an Assistant Professor and in 1886 she was awarded the Lady Goldsmid Scholarship (awarded to those with a talent for composition) and giving her a further 2 years of free tuition. In May 1887 she was awarded the Sterndale Bennett Prize for piano, and in July 1888, she became the first woman to be awarded the Charles Lucas Silver Medal for her ‘Air and Variations’ for string quartet.

She was a regular performer at RAM concerts, playing her own works as well as accompanying others. Further non-RAM engagements began with a Promenade Concert in Autumn 188.

Many more songs followed her initial publication and in 1885 she performed her first large work, a Concertstucke for piano and orchestra at a RAM concert, the work being reported as ‘promising but too ambitious’. A Theme and variations in F# minor premiered at a concert of the Musical Artist's Society in April 1886 followed by a Piano Suite in G minor and her Piano Concerto in A minor débuted in July 1888.  

The piano concerto was well received by the critics attending the RAM concert and Dora went on to present the concerto to two promenade concerts on the 19th and 26th September 1888.

Dora was working hard at composition but also in her career as a concert pianist, and in 1889  she organised a series of 3 concerts at the Prince’s Hall in London. These were a bed to show her breadth of abilities and to perform not only her own works but those of her friends. They were a huge success and raised her profile enormously, the concerts being reported widely around the UK. One paper reports her as a ‘very gifted pianist(e), her playing is full of natural sensibility, her touch is delicious, and her technique is as remarkable as her memory’.

In 1889 she played her own Piano Concerto at Dresden, then in 1890 a new Fantasia in G minor for Piano and Orchestra at Dresden and Cologne. Both were very well received and Die Zeitung of October 1890 reports, ‘we have before us a rarely gifted musician, whose brilliant future seems a certainty’. Throughout 1889-1892 Dora barely rests and performs across England and Germany in no fewer than 44 documented concerts and composes 7 new works.

Her success drew the attention of the Philharmonic Society, who in 1891 approached her to write a work for the 1892 season, the first Woman to have been bestowed this honour. She dictated to the Society that she would write and perform a new work, one ‘with a critical audience well in mind’. Within a matter of months, she had written the Fantasia No.2 in G major which was very well received, and in typical English understatement of the times the papers reported her as ‘ one of the most promising women composers’.

This Fantasia was widely reported as in G minor and a recent discovery of the programme with small snippets of the work show this to be clearly in G major. In 1892 Dora took this work to Germany on a further tour. The work was described as a 'condensed concerto' and it is most likely that the Who's Who entry of 1913 misreports the fantasia no.2 as the piano concerto no.2 played in Dresden in 1892, there being no reference in any of the reports of her concerts of a second piano concerto. Both the Piano Concerto in A minor and the Fantasia no.2 in G, became firm concert hits and Dora played them many times across England. The Fantasia is now lost and was not published at the time due to the inability to find a publisher willing to take on such large-scale orchestral works from a woman. It seems that Dora was herself pleased with the Piano Concerto as it is one of only two works she decided to donate to the RAM archives.

Also, in 1892, she marries Captain Wyndham Knatchbull a retired soldier of the 3rd Dragoons and owner of a large country estate and house at Babington in Somerset, inherited from his Uncle in 1871. Although 30 years older than Dora the match was said to ‘have been better than one could imagine’.

They married in Kensington with Dora dressed in ‘a becoming gown of brown and gold corduroy velvet, trimmed with cock’s feathers and gold bonnet’. After a small reception the couple left with Dora wearing ‘a navy-blue costume with gold embroidered vest and long fawn fur-lined cloak trimmed with beaver and a blue silk hat’. Clearly Dora was not afraid of dressing to be seen. Wyndham’s wedding present to her was a bangle with the bearers name in diamonds, along with a grand piano and gold embroidered piano cover.

After a short honeymoon in Torquay, Dora was again on the concert circuit, and in the Autumn once again to Germany with her new Fantasia in G, which she played in Cologne and Hannover together with a new Piano Quartet. Moving on to Dresden she chose to support her friend from RAM, the Scottish composer Moir-Clark, and played a whole concert of his works, which were met with ‘much favour’. Concert appearances in 1893 become more local, such as those in Bristol and Bath, and Dora begins taking part in charitable events.

Time now seems to be split between Babington and the London House, with a further set of three Prince’s Hall concerts in London. There is now more time for composition and Dora becomes involved in her first Stage work, writing the incidental music to Uncle Silas performed at the Shaftesbury Theatre.  

For the next few years, concerts are more directed at raising monies for charities and at composing now there is more opportunity to fund the publishing of her works, such as her ‘12 songs’, The Variations on a Theme of Sir G. A. Macfarren for Piano and Orchestra, some piano pieces and a number of chamber works. At the same time Dora becomes actively engaged with the Babington Strolllers, a local amateur dramatic society, and takes on Stage Manager, Conductor and Pianist roles with them as they perform charitable concerts of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta around Somerset.

In the Autumn of 1895 Dora organises a set of four ‘National Concerts’ to showcase the music of Germany (new and old), France and Scandinavia at which she played all the piano works. These were on the whole well received.

Dora performed at more charitable concerts, with one commentator writing, ‘her valuable talents are so freely and enthusiastically given to charitable causes’. A number of songs and piano works go to be published, and in 1899 Dora wrote her second theatrical work, The Dancing Girl and the Idol, followed by the incidental music to ‘The Dream of Scrooge’, which was played at Sandringham at the specific request of the King.

Sadly, in 1890 Captain Knatchbull dies. Dora must have been deeply affected by her husband’s death as the remainder of 1901 and early 1902 appear very quiet, with only a few charitable events.

1902 sees a return to composition and a new Opera, ‘Toung Luong’s Shadow’, presented to the Dresden Opera House and performed in 1903. Also, in 1903 the ballet - the Dancing Girl and the Idol is performed at Chatsworth. The King who should have attended, but was taken with a cold, but  insisted that the work be played again at Chatsworth when he visited in January 1904.

There is a more determined return to composing and concert activities in the ensuing years, until in 1907 she approaches Adeline Genée, the great Danish Ballet Dancer, to take on the performance of her new ballet - The Dryad. Despite Genée’s initial misgivings, the work was performed and heralded as a great success, sealing their friendship and working relationship. Dora realised this was a great opportunity and leased Babington House moving to London.

After a meeting with Moszkowski in 1908, where she played his piano concerto in E major in Liverpool, Manchester and London under his baton, she takes time to improve her compositional technique and spends time in Paris, with him as her teacher during 1909 to 1912. This period also sees a new significant orchestral work, the Variations for Piano and Orchestra, first presented in the UK on the BBC Radio in 1937.  Dora may have become somewhat established in Paris, as her ‘Dancing Girl and the Idol’ was performed at the Theatre Français in 1909 and the Variations are fully scored in French dated 1910. Certainly, Moszkowski became a firm friend dedicating to her the Klavierstucke no.1 ‘Piece Romantique’.

Dora now wrote a number of ballets for Genée, including The Faun (1910), La Camargo (1912), La Danse (1914) and the Love Song (1932). These were all successes.

Genée took La Camargo, La Danse and The Dryad on tour to the USA, Australia and New Zealand. Between 1910 and 1917 Dora wrote ten further ballet works, which appeared at theatres across London to great acclaim. Her Monday’s Child and In Haarlem there Dwelt, running for upwards of 90+ shows.

In April 1915 a peculiar Concertstucke for 6 drums was performed in Harrogate, a new Suite de Ballet performed in Bournemouth and Bradford and a set of Russian Dances written to be played at a charity event in January 1916, in aid of British POW in Germany. Her next large-scale work, The Suite Brétonne, was performed at the Promenade concert in September 1917.

Performances now become fewer, although composition continues with a cello work, Neu Wien and Sketches a la Russe for the piano, both performed live on the radio in 1924. In 1926 a new Opera, The Waltz King, based on the works of Johann Strauss was reported but not staged until 1935. The work was ‘woven from Strauss’s wealth of waltzes through which a transcription of ‘the Blue Danube’ runs as a Leit-motif’.

In April 1932, there was a reunion dinner of the individuals involved in ballet at the Empire. It seems likely that as a result of this Dora wrote her final major work, The Love Song, which Genée premiered at the Coliseum in February 1933. Genée returned from retirement to dance the short ballet, which was a huge success with 12 curtain calls.

Dora’s music is now less frequently played, but does feature on the BBC radio throughout the 1920s and 30s. Her final concert appearance was a live performance from Babington House on the BBC Radio on the 24th April 1939 in which Dora played the piano and told stories of her past and time with Moszkowski in Paris. Unfortunately, the recording no longer exists.

A final flourish of charitable works included some very large events to raise monies to repair the Church at Babington and replace the organ. Her last ballet, My Lady's Minuet was written for one such grand event when the RAM dancers entertained dignitaries and locals on the lawns at Babington house in 1939 to raise money to treat the death-watch beetle in the little church at Babington.

Approaching the age of 70, Dora became the radio critic for ‘The Musical Opinion’.

After falling ill in London, she returned to Babington for the final time. Dora died on the 16th November 1951 and was buried in the family vault next to the little church in Babington together with husband Wyndham.

Despite being a major force in English music, her works were played little after her death and most of her music is now forgotten, lost or destroyed. Dora was a considerable woman, a fine pianist, a great composer and an excellent host. She was no shrinking violet, but nor does she appear to be self-obsessed as she worked hard with charities and in championing other composers work at home and on the continent. Her  ballet works with Adeline Genée, set the scene for a resurgence in the English love of ballet and the establishment of the Royal Academy of Dance through Genée’s presidency from 1920.

Readers with any news of Dora Bright, her family or works are invited to open a discussion with the author at

The author gave me permission to post this article on to my site in the hope that further information and content would surface about the life and work of one of Sheffield's very few composers of music


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This page was last updated on 10/03/21 17:49