Bedford’s Musical Diemer Family
by Ross Purves
Philip Diemer (1836-1910) is best remembered today as a founding member of the Bedford Musical Society (later to become the Bedford Choral Society). His important contributions to the establishment and early years of this Society are well documented in Michael Benson’s (2015) Bedford’s Musical Society: a history of Bedford Choral Society. We also benefit locally from a small display on the Society, featuring coverage of Mr Diemer in the Higgins Museum. In his day, however, Philip was also a prominent and respected music teacher, conductor and organist. As a published composer of piano works, hymns, cantatas and songs, many of his printed works are held in the British Library, Cambridge and Oxford University Libraries. Philip taught music and singing at all four Harpur Trust schools and also established a prominent private teaching practice, Bedford School of Music, in De Parys Avenue. He also served as local representative for several music exam boards and is understood to have been a cousin of French concert pianist and professor of the Paris Conservatoire Louis Diémer (Brown and Stratton, 1897).
Together with his family, Philip developed Bedford School of Music so that by the mid-1890s the school was attracting 200 pupils a week and employing additional teachers from London. To accommodate these numbers, not to mention the school’s fourteen pianos, the family had an extra floor built on to their home in 1894. Yet, whilst Philip is the most prominent member of the Diemer family and is rightly remembered for his contributions to the cultural life of Victorian and Edwardian Bedford, his immediate family were central to this success. Philip’s wife Mary Elizabeth and their four daughters had important teaching careers of their own, leaving strong legacies of music making and service to the town.
At least seven immediate members of this family are buried at Foster Hill Road Cemetery.
Philip and Mary are buried in plots I3-209 and I3-198 in Foster Hill Road, whilst the four daughters share plots R-742 and R-764. Their brother Herbert, whose life and career took him beyond the family music teaching business, lies at K2-3.
Philip was born into Bedford’s Moravian community and was not the first member of the Diemer family to take up music. His grandfather was a master at the Modern School and played the organ at the Moravian Chapel. Music has always been a central feature of Moravian life and worship and so it is unsurprising that it was within Bedford’s congregation that Philip was to receive important formative musical experiences. Philip’s grandfather gave him his first piano lessons, whilst Harriett Montgomery, sister of Bedford’s Moravian minister at the time, taught the young Philip songs and accompanied him during performances to friends. Harriet had a strong creative pedigree of her own. Her uncle was the well-known Moravian poet James Montgomery who had recently edited a collection of hymns for the English denomination’s use, also contributing text of his own.
Philip was articled to Bedford musician and music retailer Robert Rose and completed a seven-year apprenticeship. The original apprenticeship indenture is held in Bedfordshire Archives, although it is now too fragile to consult. Subsequently, Philip studied at the Royal Academy of Music between 1857 and 1858, alongside Arthur Sullivan for a period. Whilst attending, he was taught by Academy principals Cipriani Potter and George Macfarren and a range of other illustrious musicians of the day.
Philip became organist at Holy Trinity Church, Bedford in 1858 and would remain in this position for forty-seven years. This position afforded him further opportunities to direct large scale oratorios with orchestral accompaniment and to perform one of Bach’s Passions. He also took on prominent roles in all four Harpur Trust schools, including serving as Director of Music at Bedford School for over thirty-five years . He occupied founding teaching positions at the Modern School, High School and Girls Modern School (later to become Dame Alice Harpur School), composing works for the opening ceremonies of the first two of these . By the mid-1890s, Philip Diemer’s reputation was such that he was profiled in an extensive interview published in the monthly Musical Herald in June 1896 (7 columns over 4 pages, including a portrait). This offers an invaluable resource on his life, work and family.
In December 1864 Philip marred Mary Elizabeth Herbert (c.1838-1915) in Chelsea, a location close to Mary’s father’s London legal practice. However, their relationship appears to have been kindled in Bedford. Mary was the daughter of Sarah Gibbs, a silhouettist and paper artist, and Francis Herbert, a solicitor practicing both in London and Bedford. Francis’s base in Bedford was a house (since demolished) on Mill St . Sarah had followed her father into professional silhouette portraiture at a young age but may have ceased paid engagements upon marriage . She did not, however, cease her creative output and is known to have exhibited paper artworks at the prestigious 1851 Great Exhibition in London (Royal Commission, 1851). Although nothing is so far known of Mary’s music education, it seems possible that her mother’s example as a creative artist might have been an influence on her own professional musical career, perhaps to the point of inspiring Mary and her daughters to continue the Bedford School of Music following Philip’s death.
Philip and Mary’s first child Herbert was born in 1865. A pupil at Bedford Grammar School, Herbert learned cello and organ as a child and later gained a degree at Christ’s College Cambridge, However, rather than join the family ‘firm’, he embarked on a career as teacher, housemaster, organist and choirmaster at Reading School, retiring in 1926 after 37 years at the school. Yet despite his years elsewhere, Foster Hill Road’s status as his final resting place suggests his links with his Bedford family remained strong.
Their oldest daughter Cecelia Mary (1867-1944) was taught piano at home by Philip. However, when the time came for Clara Maude (1868-1954), also known simply as Maud or Maude) and Norah Gertrude (1869-1957) to advance their musical studies, circumstances were such that Philip was able to send them to Frankfurt Conservatorium . Whilst there, Maud received piano tuition from renowned composer and pianist Clara Schumann, meeting Brahms in the process. Norah received violin tuition from Fritz Bassermann, subsequently known as a conducting teacher of composer Paul Hindemith . Philip Diemer was in the habit of adding dedications to his published compositions, including to local pupils and family. His ‘Sketches’ for Piano, published by Weekes in 1898, is dedicated to Clara Maud. Perhaps its two movements, the first entitled ‘Absence’ and the second ‘Return’ recall the time she was away in Frankfurt.
Philip and Mary’s youngest child Ethel (1870-1955) was not destined for Frankfurt but instead received tuition locally from Charles Inwards of Luton. Inwards had been a contemporary of Philip Diemer at the Royal Academy and collaborated with him in various performances of the Bedford Musical Society; he was clearly someone to whom Philip felt able to entrust his youngest daughter’s musical education.
After completing their various musical studies, all four daughters joined Philip and their mother in the family music school from the mid-1890s . All taught piano, with Clara Maud and Ethel also specialising in harmony and Norah offering violin. Alongside their teaching collaboration, Philip also performed alongside his daughters in concerts of the Bedford Musical Society. In April 1892, for instance, Ethel and Norah were members of the first violins in a performance of Gounod’s Redemption conducted by their father. The family was clearly very proud of Philip’s accomplishments, the Society and the town. The following June, Ethel wrote a letter extolling all these achievements to the editor of The Magazine of Music, concluding:
“I have no wish to become state trumpeter for our town, but only give these few particulars to show that music is being earnestly cultivated in our midst, and that we have succeeded in it, without any subsidy from the Corporation, which, I believe, in Germany, similar societies generally receive.” (Ethel Diemer, 1893, p.123)
Philip Diemer died in May 1910 and the Bedfordshire Mercury of the 20th of that month records his funeral and subsequent interment at Foster Hill Road as a very large-scale event, ‘amid unusual signs of esteem and affection’ (p.7). Following his passing, the four Diemer daughters decided to continue their school and an advert in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent on 23rd September (p.7) indicates that they had decided to share its principalship. It seems that their mother might have stepped back from teaching around this time. She subsequently died in August 1915, with obituaries posted in the local press in the London Times (August 30, p.1).
In 1920, the four sisters quit their home and studios in De Parys Avenue. Whether or not their intention was to cease teaching at this point is not entirely clear, but current and former pupils clearly responded to a call in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent on 6th August that year to subscribe to a gift presentation to Diemers marking their ‘retirement from Bedford School of Music’ (p.5). The subsequent gift of a silver tea kettle and stand, accompanied by a book of subscribers’ names clearly brought much joy to the four, who placed their own notice in the September 24th edition of the newspaper to record their ‘heartiest and sincerest thanks’ (p.7). In the event, however, the Diemers did not retire from teaching, even if they did possibly retire the name ‘Bedford School of Music’ at this point. Instead, they moved their home and teaching facilities to new premises in Devon Road where the necessary space was achieved by combining two adjacent properties. This enabled each sister to have their own teaching studio and piano as had been the case in De Parys Avenue. A fifth piano was the gift of a grateful pupil. The sisters were reported to combine teaching abilities with ‘a capacity for communicating their enthusiasm to the student’.
All four of the Diemers’ daughters were to remain unmarried. Well known in Bedford in their later lives as the ‘quartette’, they were said to live in ‘perfect harmony’ together. They followed their father in contributing to the wider musical life of the town; Ethel is understood to have composed operettas for performance by local societies whilst Maud was the local representative of the London College of Music.
The sisters were also active in local religious life. They joined the newly established congregation of St Andrew’s (possibly coinciding with their move to Devon Road?) and were leading youth drama performances at this church by 1923. One of their obituaries notes a ‘long and active association’ with St Andrew’s, and all four of their funerals took place there. The sisters were also prominent in various charitable enterprises, including hosting garden fêtes in aid of Bedford Musical Society and the RSPCA, and collecting materials for the Waifs and Strays Society (later to become the Children’s Society). The sisters kept in touch with many former pupils and were described as having a ‘wide circle of friends’.
As each passed away over the course of the 1940s and 1950s, the sisters were buried together at Foster Hill Road, close to the grave of their parents. Cecilia died suddenly in April 1944 but the remaining sisters continued to teach until their retirement in January 1952, as formally announced in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent. After a period of ill health in early 1952, Maud died in February 1954; Ethel died after a four-month illness the following year .
Clearly aware that the prospect of own interment would reunite the family ensemble, touchingly, Norah seems to have arranged for the inscription ‘Father’s Quartet’ to have been added alongside her own name on the grave at the point of her passing in 1957.
Thus, this family of musicians’ long contribution to musical life and education in the town came to an end. One estimate put the total number of individuals taught music by all six Diemers active in Bedford being within the thousands.
Bedford Record (1955). Taught Music to Many Bedfordians (Obituary of Ethel Grace Diemer). Bedford Record, August 9, p.7.
Bedfordshire Times and Standard (1944). The Late Miss C. M. Diemer: A Bedford Teacher of Music (Obituary of Cecilia Mary Diemer). Bedfordshire Times and Standard, 21 April, p.8, col. 4.
Bedfordshire Times and Independent (1954). Miss C. M. Diemer (Obituary of Clara Maude Diemer)., Bedfordshire Times and Independent, February 5, p. 14
Benson, M. (2015). Bedford’s Musical Society: a history of Bedford Choral Society. Bedfordshire Historical Society/Boydell Press.
Broadway, C.M, and Buss, E.I. (1982). The History of the School: 1882 B.G.M.S. – D.A.H.S. 1982. Dame Alice Harpur School.
BLARS X817/4/6 (1892). Programme and hand bill for The Redemption by Gounod, Bedfordshire and Luton Archives Service.
Brown, J. D. and Stratton, S. S. (1897). British Musical Biography: a dictionary of musical artists, authors and composers born in Britain and its colonies. S. S. Stratton.
Cunningham (2020, June 20). Hinton Gibbs and Miss Gibbs (blog entry)
Diemer, E.G. (1893). ‘To the editor of the “Magazine of Music”‘ (Letter by Ethel Grace Diemer), Magazine of Music 10(6), p.123.
Godber, J. and Hutchins, I. (1982). A Century of Challenge: Bedford High School 1882 to 1982. Bedford High School.
Hamson, J. (1896). Bedford Town and Townsmen: a record of the local history of Bedford during the last half century. Bedfordshire Times.
Montgomery, J. (1849). Liturgy and Hymns for use of the Protestant Church of the United Brethren, or Unitas Fratrum. A new and revised edition. William Mallalieu.
Musical Herald (1896). Mr. P. H. Diemer, The Musical Herald, No. 579 (June 1), p. 167-170.
Royal Commission (1851). Official catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851. Spicer Brothers. https://archive.org/details/officialcatalog06unkngoog
Skelton, G. (1995). Selected Letters of Paul Hindemith. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Underwood, A., Boon, P., Middleton, P., and Wildman, R. (2010). School of the Black and Red: A History of Bedford Modern School. OBM Club.
University of Cambridge (n.d.). A Cambridge Alumni Database. https://venn.lib.cam.ac.uk
Van Wart, R. B. (2009). Reading School – Some Random Recollections (Part 2). The Old Redingensian (Autumn). http://www.oldredingensians.org.uk/pdfs/OldRed_Autumn_2009.pdf
A version of this article with in-text citations can be found here: https://iris.ucl.ac.uk/iris/publication/1998672/1
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