Dora Estella Bright - Composer and Pianist
By Anthony Bilton
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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’.
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
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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
the age of 70, Dora became the radio critic for ‘The Musical Opinion’.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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