Arthur Thornley (1905 – 1977) was a mainstay of the Leicester Symphony Orchestra for almost 50 years. He was educated at Wyggeston Grammar School where he created the first school orchestra, giving an early indication of his talent and enthusism for music.
He became a printer in the family business but his heart was in music. He joined the LSO in its early days, playing oboe, cor anglais and sometimes percussion. He was soon appointed Honorary Secretary and it is thanks to Thornley’s meticulous record keeping that we know so much about the early history of the orchestra.
It was through music that Thornley met his wife Mary, née Ashmell. She had shown outstanding talent as a violinist from a very young age and played in the LSO for just short of 70 years – probably unequalled anywhere. They married in September 1934. Mary remembered, “So devoted was he to his work that after we married, the typewriter came on honeymoon with us.”
In 1933 LSO’s superstar conductor Dr Malcolm Sargent was struck down with tuberculosis, from which he very nearly died. Thornley guided LSO through the subsequent appointment of a replacement conductor, the merger with, and later demerger from, the Leicester Philharmonic Choir.
Sargent had the highest regard for Thornley both as musician and administrator and Thornley became the vital and trusted link between Sargent and the orchestra. One of Thornley’s difficulties was simply getting hold of Sargent, who was always on the go. His wife Mary recalled Sargent’s proposed solution, “get on the train tomorrow morning with me, as far as Kettering and we will get the four concerts arranged for next season.” Mary added, “This happened on several occasions and it worked very well. Malcolm Sargent had an amazingly quick brain.”
During the early years of the war it was necessary to scale down the LSO and give concerts in the New Walk Art Gallery on a Saturday afternoon under the name People’s Concerts. Thornley conducted almost 50 concerts over a two year period. They reverted back to the LSO title on the odd occasion when Sargent was able to appear as guest conductor.
By 1942 Sargent’s growing reputation and demands both in Britain and abroad meant that it was no longer possible for him to conduct LSO. In Thornley’s own words, “Dr Sargent handed the baton over to me with instructions to keep the Orchestra going as well as I could.” Thornley liked to recall the time he was given his one and only lesson in conducting. This happened in the Grand Hotel, Leicester, with music propped inside the lid of Sargent’s open suit case.
It is no exaggeration to say that it was the extraordinary determination of Thornley that kept LSO afloat in these difficult years. In the words of the Leicester Mercury, “No one has worked harder during the war to keep music alive than Mr Arthur Thornley.” The same paper also noted, “Mr Arthur Thornley is generally acknowledged to be the most versatile musician in Leicester at the present time. Not only can he play just about every instrument in the orchestra but he can orchestrate and conduct.”
Thornley’s transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue was made in response to many requests, no doubt sparked by Stokowski’s transcription used in Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia. Bach’s work is probably one of the most well known and popular organ pieces ever written and has been transcribed many times but at the time of Thornley’s transcription there was no available version for full symphony orchestra. It was given its first performance in De Montfort Hall in January 1942. The work has remained popular and has been played 4 times by the LSO in the 70 years since it was written.
After the war he founded and directed the Leicester Opera Club and often had to arrange and transcribe music. Arthur Thornley often said he was “an amateur and proud of it”. The only thing he ever got paid for was a reduced version of the Grand March from Aida published by Novello. This was done for the Little Theatre – no room for a big orchestra.
Arthur Thornley steered LSO through the lean post war years. His tireless efforts and many musical talents helped restore the orchestra to its former standard, one of the best orchestras of its type in the country.
Thornley family knowledge and records
Neil Crutchley’s book on the LSO – on sale on this website