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Life & Times

Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946) was a prolific composer of music, across several genres. He also worked tirelessly within the field of musical education in Britain and overseas.

In the years before the 1st World War he was recognised as a chamber music composer, and part of an active chamber music scene in London. During the 1st World War he wrote his only Symphony, premiered at the Opera House, Belgrade in 1921. At the end of the 1920s he wrote the music for a comic opera Tantivy Towers (libretto by A P Herbert) which had a successful run at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. This was among several stage works for ballet, light opera and cantata for school use.

Born in 1877 in Swiss Cottage, north London, he studied Composition and Piano at the Royal College of Music from 1893, aged 16, later winning an Open Scholarship (1897) for a further three years at the College. In 1899 he won the College’s inaugural Tagore Gold Medal, as ‘the most generally deserving student’.

Dunhill started at the RCM in 1893 when just 16, studying Composition with Charles Stanford, and piano with Franklin Taylor (who trained with Clara Schumann). His fellow students included Gustav (von) Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Ireland.

His first post was as assistant music master at Eton College, but by 1905 he was also Professor of Harmony & Counterpoint at the Royal College, and took on work as an international examiner for the ABRSM.

He taught at the RCM throughout his life, as well as examining, adjudicating at festivals, writing books (on Chamber Music, on Mozart String Quartets, and on Sullivan’s Comic Operas, giving lectures and teaching, privately and at schools. He also made numerous piano arrangements of classical and light music, especially of Gilbert & Sullivan operas.

Vocationally he was always a composer, and his works span a period from 1899 to 1945. His Opus numbers reach 101, but there are very many published works, especially albums of piano music, that do not have Opus nos.

The Thomas Dunhill Connection and this website were set up in 2012 by Paul Vincent, a grandson of Thomas Dunhill.


Thomas F Dunhill Diaries during 1st World War

Dunhill wrote a daily diary from 1893 when he first entered the Royal College of Music until a few days before his death in 1946. They form a record of his musical and personal life, along with the occasional comment on historical events. The diaries are now kept at the RCM Library, South Kensington.

Here is a link to extracts from Dunhill’s diary written during the 1st World War.

In 1914 he marries Molly Arnold (daughter of publisher Edward Arnold) and they will live in Notting Hill Gate, London. They attend a great many concerts and recitals, including those instituted by Dunhill himself (3 a year) to promote new chamber music. They also hold some intimate chamber music parties at home.

He continues work as teacher at the RCM, as well as doing regular examining work.  He edits the RCM magazine until 1920. He begins the long-running Arnold Singing Class series of songs for schools, and invites composers to contribute new songs and arrangements. He works for the ABRSM choosing the piano syllabus, and serves on various committees, eg representing composers at the Society of Authors.

Dunhill writes his one Symphony during the war – and much else. A cantata called The Masque of the Shoe (for schoolchildren) is published and performed. He writes several smaller piano works. A rare (for him) piece of church music, a setting of Evensong canticles, was also published – and sung first at Westminster Abbey.

Dunhill joins a somewhat farcical military unit called the Allied Artists, later becoming attached to the Irish Guards as a bandsman (playing bassoon), but is not required to serve overseas due to his advancing years and usefulness as a teacher. In the diary he records numerous events of the war, including zeppelins over London, and the loss of various musicians overseas. In fact the diaries are peppered with interesting minor events, some amusing, some poignant.

In early 1914 he discusses the impact of Schoenberg’s atonal ’5 Orchestral Pieces’ (conducted in London by the composer); at the close of 1918 he records, with great sadness, the death of Sir Hubert Parry, director of the Royal College of Music.


Diary 1914-18 – to be added shortly (as of 11th July 2017)





Entry On Thomas Dunhill (by Marion Scott, c. 1929) in Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music: click here for full article

About Dunhill’s works, by P Scowcroft

Click to download as a PDF

Of all the composers in this series of ten, Thomas Frederick Dunhill was surely the most ambitious. Apart from Markham Lee and Scott-Gatty, he was the oldest of them, being born in Hampstead on 1st February, 1877 (he died in Scunthorpe on 13th March, 1946).

About Dunhill’s works, by Stephen Matthews  Click to download as a PDF

Thomas F Dunhill is probably best remembered as the composer of the once popular light opera Tantivy Towers (Opus 73). This work, with a libretto by A P Herbert, was first staged at the Lyric, Hammersmith, and was so acclaimed that it then transferred to the West End where it ran for six months. During the early 1930s it toured the provinces and was even staged in America and Australia. It was regarded by some critics as the best comic opera of the inter-wars period, though Eric Blom.

Click here for two more academic comments about Tantivy Towers


A brief introduction to Thomas Dunhill’s musical career

Most of Dunhill’s 101 listed works from the 1890s to the 1940s lie dormant, but are increasingly revived for rare performances and recordings. They range across several genres including chamber music, song-settings, orchestral works including a symphony, light opera and ballet, suites for wind instruments, and piano music for all levels of ability. Most were published, and had very successful early performances. His best-known work is probably The Cloths of Heaven, a song-setting of a W B Yeats poem, which is often sung today. A pianist by training and a lifetime admirer of Sullivan’s light opera, Dunhill entered the Royal College of Music College at just 16. He studied Composition for 7 years under Sir Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford.

His contemporaries there included Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and John Ireland. Dunhill remained at the epicentre of British musical life throughout his career. He taught at the RCM over many years, and was also a music master at Eton College for two periods in his life. From 1906 he was an international examiner for the ABRSM, for whom he wrote numerous examination pieces which are still in use. He also lectured on music, set up a series of concerts to promote British composers, adjudicated at regional music festivals, and wrote four books, including a standard work on chamber music. This apart from a continuous output of musical compositions – even during the 1st World War, when he wrote his Symphony in A minor.




Memories of Uncle Tom by Mary Dunhill, daughter of Alfred Dunhill

The member of the family I particularly remember at these Christmas gatherings was Uncle Tom, a man very different in temperament and character from either of his brothers, Uncle Bertie and Father. Though he could be withdrawn to the point of absent-mindedness, he so obviously enjoyed . . .  Click to download article as a PDF


Dunhill’s recollections of the R.C.M. Literary and Debating Society in 1896,  The R.C.M. Magazine (c 1908)

I chanced one day to be turning out some old papers in a dusty cupboard, when I came across a bulky manuscript book in which were entered the rules, minutes, and general affairs of a little Literary and Debating Society, which was established in the College early in the year 1896 . . . Click to download as a PDF


Dunhill’s memories of William Yeates Hurlstone, The R.C.M. Magazine, Vol. 33, No. 1 (March 1937)

I have beside me as I write a charming little book by H.G.Newell, which has recently been printed for friendly circulation. It is called “William Yeates Hurlstone, Musician and Man” * Whilst to many present and some past Collegians . . . Click to download article as a PDF


Dunhill’s family, friends and colleagues — a short list of relationships

Sir Hugh Allen, Director of RCM, 1919 — 1937: invited Tom to teach chamber music

Molly Arnold, studied piano and cello at RCM: married Tom in 1914, musician and mother to Robin, David and Barbara, died of TB, 1929; Tom dedicated his Symphony in A. minor (1913-16) to her

George Barnes, Director of Talks, BBC: commissioned series of talks by Tom on chamber music, 1937 . . .  Click to download article as a PDF


Obituary of Thomas Frederick Dunhill, by Claud Powell - The RCM Magazine, Vol 42, No. 2 (1946)

On account of a close musical association and friendship of many years’ standing, your Editor has given me the privilege of writing of this great musician and his work. I write from no critical angle and I do not presume to place Dr. Dunhill’s . . .  Click to download article as a PDF


Being an examiner for the ABRSM

The following exerpts are reproduced from the ABRSM’s own website. Dunhill joined the Associated Board as a member of staff and examiner around 1905 – presumably on the recommendation of Parry, director of the Royal College of Music.

Sir Hubert Parry himself outlined the founding principles and aims of ABRSM: “For the most part the objects which approve themselves to us are not so much the award of well-deserved certificates . . . but to give people something definite to work for; to counteract the tendency to sipping and sampling which so often defeats the aspirations of gifted beings, and also to give people . . .  opportunities to be intimately acquainted with the finest kinds of musical art, and to maintain standards of interpretation and an attitude of thoroughness in connection with music which will enable it to be most fruitful of good.”

At a General Meeting of ABRSM in 1937, Sir Hugh Allen memorably described the somewhat demanding range of abilities needed to be a successful ABRSM examiner: “the technique, as far as I can see, of an Examiner of the Board would be compounded of a talent for simple arithmetic, an elastic vocabulary, a synthetic memory, a decent handwriting, an unwearied patience, a ready power of description, a gentle demeanour, a sense of justice, solictiude for the weak, a taste for logic, a golden voice and a bedside manner.”    http://www.abrsm.org/en/home


Dunhill and Lionel Tertis (1876 – 1975), viola player

John White’s book on Lionel Tertis (published by Boydell & Brewer in 2006) contains numerous references to TFD, who wrote a piece Triptych, for viola and orchestra) for Tertis.

The biography “tells how he rose from humble beginnings to become the ‘father of the modern viola’. It explores in detail his long and distinguished career, persuading composers to write works for the viola, arranging existing works for the instrument, editing and performing, and teaching and coaching, notably at the Royal Academy of Music”.

Of small interest is the fact that Tertis used a viola made by Arthur Richardson, whose workshop was in Crediton, Devon – where this website is produced! Triptych is published by Faber Music. Two other (simpler) pieces by Dunhill for viola & piano are published by Stainer & Bell.

Two reviews of Triptych (arranged for viola and piano) were published: Musical Opinion (January 1946) wrote: “That Cinderella of instruments, the viola is now acquiring a fine repertoire, largely as a result of propaganda by its fairy godmother Lionel Tertis. At one time the viola player had little to turn to beyond arrangements of popular violin solos little suited to the character of the instrument. Certainly there was a splended sonata by Rubinstein (now unaccountably forgotten) and a sonata and a few pieces by Carl Reinecke, the latter more suitable for cello. Dunhill’s ‘Triptych’ bears every evidence of having been conceived entirely with technique and individual tone of the instrument in mind, and with no attempt to steal unsuitable acrobatics from its sister the violin. The three pieces are peculiarly English in character, and are an addition to real viola music.”

Musical Times (13th March 1946) wrote: “Dunhill’s Triptych was first heard with Lionel Tertis as soloist. My impression that the pieces were a little austere in character is confirmed by a study of the score. There is much to be said for an increase in the viola repertory, and these will be useful, although they are by no means easy of execution. Dunhill will be greatly missed, for he wrote so many things that were useful and needed, and always with such fine musicainship and clean workmanship.”

 About the works of Thomas Dunhill by Stephen Matthews

Click to download article as a PDF

Thomas F. Dunhill — a brief history

Thomas Frederick Dunhill (1877-1946) was an English composer born in London, whose life and career was spent at the very epicentre of the English musical establishment . . .  Click to download article as a PDF