Edmond W. Rickett

June 17, 2019

Last week I wrote about Gilbert and Sullivan Vocal Score editor Bryceson Treharne. Today I will bring you information about the other Schirmer G&S editor, Edmond W. Rickett, who edited Patience, Ruddigore, Yeomen, and The Gondoliers. Like Treharne, he was born in the UK and emigrated to the US in the early years of the 20th century. Like Treharne, he was an accomplished pianist, organist and composer who seemed to have enjoyed working with amateurs and had an ear for the poetic. But whereas Bryceson Treharne had spent his young adult years looking for truth in literature and doggedly composing in a German prison camp, Rickett was a working music director who collaborated briefly with W.S. Gilbert himself. As we will see, he had a great deal to say about the experience. From the beginning, we see Rickett combing through old music, often rearranging it for use in a production. And as a composer, he seems to have been very interested in tailoring his music for performer and audience.
Edmond William Rickett was born in 1869 in Birmingham, England about 10 years before Treharne. I found no information about his early childhood. Bryceson Treharne had studied at the Royal College of Music, but Rickett studied at the Royal Academy of Music, the oldest conservatory in the UK. To those of us on this side of the pond, this is somewhat confusing. Arthur Sullivan studied at the Royal Academy of Music and was briefly the principal at the National Training School for Music, which later was reconstituted as the Royal College of Music. So both institutions have a Sullivan connection.
I had difficulty tracking down any information about his school years, except that he seems to have gotten married to a student named Alice Hastilow in 1895. They would have two children, Harold (b. 1896) and Helen Margaret (Peggy). The trail picks up considerably right at the turn of the century, when for about a decade, Rickett became the music director for the Garrick Theatre on the West End. His young wife played in the orchestra with him. In his capacity as Music Director, he worked with the finest actors of the early century and wrote incidental music for many Shakespeare plays.

Garrick Theatre 1902

The Garrick Theatre around the time Rickett was music director

For our purposes though, we want to focus on his time in 1904 writing music for the last full length play W.S. Gilbert ever wrote, The Fairy’s Dilemma.

Fairy's Dilemma 2
In April 1934, Rickett told the New York Times about his association with Gilbert:
“My task was to provide an overture, a ballet, and much ‘incidental music’ all of which was to be selected either from the music of the sixties or in the manner of that period. The play was based upon that old-fashioned ‘harlequinade’ which is the traditional epilogue of the English Christmas pantomime- an entertainment, which, I may say for the benefit of the uninstructed, is more in the nature of a ‘revue’ and which has traveled a long and disastrous road away from its pantomimic origins.
I instituted a sort of house-to-house search of the old-established music-publishing firms, and I shall not forget Gilbert’s delight when at last I dug out of a dust-covered shelf in Charing Cross Road a parcel of long -forgotten melodies which included such gems as ‘Champagne Charlie’, ‘Villikins and his Dinah’, and others of the sort, which formed the basis of the music of the piece. Nor shall I forget the first night. I never before or since saw in a theatre such a concourse of gray-beards and bald heads. I can only suppose that the gathering consisted of all those old admirers of Gilbert and Sullivan who had followed their work from their first association more than thirty years before. Never were there such rapturous receptions of mere tunes as those old songs received. Indeed the eclat of that first night could only be equaled by the puzzled silence of their reception by subsequent audiences, who had not the least idea what they were or why they were.
Gilbert, at any rate, was pleased, and later asked me to write some music for his brilliant little skit on Hamlet entitled, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the occasion being a benefit performance for some charity, in which performance all the parts were taken by well-known dramatic authors. Gilbert himself played the King; Captain Marshall, the author of that delightful comedy, “A Royal Family” played Hamlet, while our own American Writer, Madeleine Lucette Ryley played Ophelia. Afterward I received a charming note assuring me that much of the success of the play was due to my ‘charming music’ which was very gratifying, but quite untrue. This fact remains: that for some reason- perhaps my devotion to the antiquarian research work above mentioned- I was one of the very few people who ever ‘got on’ with W.S. Gilbert.
It must be regrettably admitted that he was not easy. I had ample opportunity during rehearsals of studying his methods, and to tell the truth, they were not endearing; in fact, I soon came to comprehend why he was probably the most dreaded director in London- for he invariably directed personally and autocratically the production of his own plays and operas. Nor does this apply merely to the spoken word. He planned the scenery, the lighting and ordered not only the groupings of the chorus, but practically every inflection of the voice and every gesture of the actors. And there was no argument and no appeal from his decision. And when I add that he was invariably right, and in the habit of telling you that he was, one may imagine that he was not exactly loved.
His faculty for composing stage pictures was extraordinary, as anyone who remembers the Savoy productions will agree. Those charming groups of girls in ‘The Mikado’ so blended with the composition of the scenic background as to form a new and delightful picture with each change of pose, the masterly handling of large groups as in the combination of peers and fairies in ‘Iolanthe’, that never to be forgotten scene of the fight in Princess Ida- all were his and his alone. As to the poor downtrodden actor; I recall the sad fate of that very clever performer O.B. Clarence. ‘O.B.’ had made a name for himself in old man parts, but for some reason Gilbert had selected him to play the young curate in The Fairy’s Dilemma. The rehearsals were one long agony for him. At every sentence, nay, every word, he was pulled up with: “No, Mr. Clarence, too feeble. Please be a little manly.” Or: Mr. Clarence, will you please try to remember that you are not playing a doddering old imbecile.” And to me, aside, “These actors! I chose that young man because I thought he would be teachable. God knows I don’t expect intelligence.” Which was quite unfair, because “O.B.” was really an extremely clever actor, if perhaps a little unadaptable.
As to Gilbert’s autocratic manner, I remember a day when for about three hours he had the company repeating one short scene until every one was utterly weary, and the words had lost completely any meaning they might be supposed to possess. At last, when, for perhaps the thirtieth time, the author said, “We’ll go through again, please” the actor-manager Arthur Bourchier stepped forward and said, “If you don’t mind, Gilbert, I’d rather not do that any more now; let’s get on to the next scene.” “Very well!” said, Gilbert, and without a word picked up his hat and cane and marched gloomily out of the theatre. Whereupon the business manager was sent hastily out with humble apologies, and the assurance that there was not the least thought of opposing his authority. So he came back, majestically, and continued to rehearse the same scene for another hour.

Fairy's Dilemma 3 Arthur Bouchier

Bourchier, looking terrifying in The Fairy Dilemma

The very appearance of Gilbert was forbidding at these rehearsals, even terrifying to his victims. He was tall, with a florid complexion and a drooping moustache and- at these times- he wore a general expression of complete and utter disgust for the whole business and a very thorough contempt for his human material. However, when we came to the period of dress rehearsals, he professed himself satisfied, sat back in the orchestra surrounded by a bevy of ladies invited by himself, and to the huge relief of everybody, proffered not one word of criticism. On the first night, throughout the performance, he stalked gloomily up and down and would talk to no one.
It will be gathered from the foregoing that the mental picture one has of W.S. Gilbert as the leading fun-maker of his day was not ever present in the minds of those who worked with him. Still, that is just what he was, and the tales of his caustic repartees are many, and so good that they have been often repeated and credited to many other wits. It was Gilbert, for example, who, when asked by Tree how he liked his “Hamlet” replied, “Oh, I like it Tree. Fun, without vulgarity!” It is told also that once he met F. C. Burnand, who was chosen as editor of Punch in preference to himself, and said to him: “You must have some uncommonly clever and funny things sent to you for insertion in your paper, Burnand. Burnand answered, “Why, yes, we do. You’d die laughing if you could see some of them” Said Gilbert, “Well, why don’t you put ‘em in?” And one could go on indefinitely.

F.C. Burnand.jpg

F.C. Burnand is now best known as the librettist of Cox and Box

The tragedy of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership was that neither of them ever realized how completely dependent on each other they were. Hence an endless squabble which, at last, not even the diplomacy of D’Oyly Carte could prevent coming to a final rupture. Afterward, they both had some disappointing experiences. Sullivan produced ‘Beauty Stone’ at the Savoy, and it failed; Gilbert wrote several comic operas with other composers and achieved only one comparative success, this being the delightful ‘The Mountebanks” with music by Alfred Cellier- an opera which, one would think, it would pay some enterprising manager to revive. Only together could they achieve success, and as ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’ they have become, and will remain two of the really great figures of stage history. ”
There is a letter from Gilbert to Rickett written in 1904 that is in the Morgan Library that I have not been able to access. Perhaps one of you will be able to visit and see what it says, and if it is in fact the letter he mentions in this interview.
In 1910, in his early 40s, he moved to the US to become the director of the music faculty at the Bennett School for Girls in South Millbrook, New York. The Bennett School’s main building was designed as a luxury hotel and retreat, but the hotel closed in 1901. 7 years later, the Bennett school moved into the facility.

Bennet College1910

Bennett School in 1910

I have no way of knowing why he chose to migrate, but a few years later on faculty at the Bennett school were the mystical Christian pacifist playwright Charles Rann Kennedy and his wife, the actress Edith Wynne Matthison, both of whom he had worked with professionally in London. They seem to have arrived at the school just as he was leaving in 1918 or 1919, and Rickett’s musical replacement was another young English composer; Horace Middleton. So there seems to have been an English connection to the school.

The setting was idyllic. Rickett must have performed programs in this hall:

Bennett College Auditorium.jpg

Which now looks like this:

Bennett School stage area
The school has been closed since the 1970s, and is now a very frightening ruin much admired by abandoned building enthusiasts! But at the time, these picturesque surroundings must have inspired Rickett, because he wrote a lovely poem that was printed in Harper’s Magazine in 1911.

Morning Song
Rickett’s position gave him a reason to write for young people, which led to the composition of some wonderful music. His Twenty Nursery Rhymes Set To New Tunes was published by Oliver Ditson in 1911.
One reviewer wrote, “If all musical works for the use of children were as good as Twenty Nursery Rhymes Set to New Tunes, the work of the reviewer would be much more pleasant.”
In 1916 the songs were recorded on Victor by the prominent American singer Kitty Cheatham:

In 1913, Rickett wrote music for a Fairy Tale Play of Snow White, which was subsequently performed by many amateur organizations.
The inspiration of nature is also evident in a piece he wrote for the commencement exercises in 1914 called “A Masque of Spring”, for children’s voices and a small chamber ensemble. The piece included dances and was ultimately published by Schirmer. The advertising for the school around this time emphasized how beautiful the area was in the winter, and the story of this masque involved the progression of Winter into Spring.
Rickett felt at home enough to become a US citizen with his family in 1917. He appears to have gotten a divorce in 1918.
Following his divorce, (it seems to have been around 1919) Rickett moved to New York and began to connect with a circle of people who were interested in bringing high culture to the Lower East Side, or rather, to bring high culture out of the Lower East Side. The group had recently opened the Neighborhood Playhouse, where they offered dance and drama training to children and teenagers. Rickett joined the faculty of the Henry Street Settlement and of Yvette Guilbert’s school of the theatre and allied arts, teaching the chorus and becoming Guilbert’s regular recital accompanist. Guilbert was a French Cabaret singer and actress who had been the subject of Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster works. He researched music history for her, in particular for her Medieval programs. In 1926, he completed 2 volumes of French songs with Ms. Guilbert that were published by Heugel. The Neighborhood Playhouse had wanted to respond to World War I with an ambitious theatrical event called Salut au Monde inspired by the words of Walt Whitman, and they had commissioned a score by Charles T. Griffes.

Charles Griffes

Charles T. Griffes

When Griffes died at the age of 36 in 1920, Rickett completed the score to Griffes’s Salut au Monde, which was ultimately presented in 1922. Rickett’s completion is disapproved of by Griffes scholars and enthusiasts, but it must be remembered that he was trying to assemble enough music for a theatrical event, and Griffes had not completed very much music. Rickett remarried actress and playwright Joanna Roos, (32 years his junior) who had attended Yvette Guilbert’s schools in New York and Paris, where she and Rickett met. The two appeared together in The Grand Street Follies of 1927.

Joanna Roos

Rickett’s second wife Joanna Roos

In 1923, Rickett had another son, Peter, who attended Juilliard and became a conductor, helming the Greenville Symphony for 34 years.
Edmond Rickett spent some time in the late 20s producing and acting in some plays in New York, receiving the following review in the New York Times for his small part in the play Stigma in 1927:
“Mr. Rickett and Mr. Duff, who are also the producers, make little of their parts”

Roos also appeared in Stigma.
In 1930, now in his early 60s, Rickett finally and firmly connected with the Gilbert and Sullivan community. He began a long association with the Blue Hill Troupe, which was at that point only a few years old. Rickett’s arrival seems to have coincided with a new stability in the company. The Blue Hill Troupe had first performed HMS Pinafore on the deck of a yacht lit by automobile headlights in 1924, but moved to New York in 1926. They did not perform in 1929. In 1930 they elected a Board of Directors and performed The Pirates of Penzance. In 1937 Rickett would lead the company in the second production of The Grand Duke in the U.S. (the Savoy Company, which I conduct, performed the third U.S. production the following year)
The thirties proved to be a very productive decade for Rickett.
In 1933, Rickett wrote a score to Moliere’s The School for Husbands, based on 16th and 17th century airs which was produced by The Theatre Guild, two years after they produced Green Grow the Lilacs and two years before they produced Porgy and Bess.

School For Husbands Program
In 1935, he became Organist and Choirmaster at Church-in-the-Gardens Forest Hills, Queens, where, among many anthems, he set The Lord’s Prayer to music in a way that delighted the parishioners. Some of these anthems were published by Schirmer. I was unable to find a photograph of Rickett that I could verify was in fact him, but I found this description from one churchgoer during this time:
“He was a short, somewhat stocky man, with grey hair and glasses without frames.”
He would continue to play multiple services at this church well into his 80s.

Church in the Gardens
Around 1940, Rickett wrote a book with Blue Hill Troupe director Benjamin T. Hoogland called Let’s Do Some Gilbert & Sullivan: A Practical Production Handbook, which did for Gilbert and Sullivan companies in the mid-20th century what I’ve been trying to do in my own modest way with this blog. Rickett’s authority at that time was extremely high, having known and worked with Gilbert, having worked both at the highest professional level, and with amateurs, and having a great deal of experience with the operas themselves. The book has held up very well. Each Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is covered in chapters that describe the relative levels of difficulty for every role and potential pitfalls for production. The general advice at the end of the book is fabulous, and includes the following note about watching the fellow down front:

“Watch the conductor. After all he is there to conduct you as well as the orchestra and its really better to let him do so. You need not stare at him–a little practice in keeping his baton in the corner of your field of vision will suffice. The spectacle of an enthusiastic chorus taking the bit between its teeth and galloping gaily all over the musical score is undoubtedly exciting, but has not yet been known to soothe the ear.”

I can’t be sure, but I believe it must have been around this time that Rickett made orchestral reductions of The Gondoliers, HMS Pinafore, Iolanthe, The Mikado, Patience, The Pirates of Penzance, Princess Ida, The Sorcerer, Trial By Jury, Utopia Limited and The Yeomen of the Guard for G. Schirmer. These allowed companies to perform the scores with smaller orchestras. It strikes me that he may have tried these reductions out with the Blue Hill Troupe. Ironically the only surviving G&S operas he seems not to have reduced were Ruddigore and The Grand Duke.
And so after the death of Bryceson Treharne in 1948, there was no person in America better suited to edit the last four Schirmer vocal scores than the octogenarian Rickett, who did yeoman’s work completing the Schirmer set.
He died in 1956 at the home of his daughter Helen Margaret Ramsperger in Madison Wisconsin at the age of 88.

I was able to piece together quite a lot of information about Mr. Rickett. If I’ve missed important information or have somehow mis-characterized any facts here, please let me know, and I’ll do my level best to correct it!


  1. […] most commonly used edition is the Schirmer vocal score, edited by Edmond W. Rickett. It’s fine. If you get an earlier printing of the Schirmer Score, you may discover that on […]

  2. […] Tales from the pit « Edmond W. Rickett […]

  3. Reblogged this on My Father – Peter Rickett.

    • Dear Mr. Hilliard,
      Thanks so much for this wonderful article about my grandfather, Edmond Rickett. He died before I was born so it was particularly pleasing to hear him in his own words from the New York Times article.
      You are an accomplished writer and researcher. On behalf of my family please accept our heartfelt appreciation.
      Kind regards,
      David (Edmond) Rickett

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