Black and white photograph of Frederic  Cliffe, smoking

Frederic Cliffe (1857–1931)
Professor of Piano, 1884–1931

Cliffe had been something of a prodigy, and trained at the National Training School, before joining the staff of the newly-formed Royal College of Music in 1884. During a long career there he taught John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin (Cliffe’s son, Cedric (1902–69) wrote the libretti of three of Benjamin’s operas).


Frederic Cliffe, who died on 19th November, was one of the very few survivors of the original Scholars of the National Training School, the parent of the Royal College of Music.

My first introduction to him was in 1892, when, as a very nervous youngster, I walked into his room in what is now the Royal College of Organists for my first lesson. For something over three years I knew him as an exacting, occasionally discouraging, but always kindly teacher, and since then I have known him as a friend to whom I have been indebted for many a good turn, and whose death was to me a very real personal loss. With regard to Cliffe as a musician, it may perhaps, not be realised by the younger generation that in 1889 his first Symphony in C minor was produced at the Crystal Palace by August Manns, with such success that the composer was hailed as one of the coming "hopes" of English music. This was followed in 1892 by a second Symphony in E minor, after which, as far as I know, he only produced three works of any importance — the Violin Concerto in D minor (1896), the "Triumph of Alcestis" (Sheffield Festival 1902), and "Ode to the North East Wind" (Norwich Festival 1905). One may speculate as to why Cliffe never produced more works. If I say something of him as a man, it will be to assert that those who knew Cliffe during the last ten or fifteen years of his life, never really knew him at all. They would see as someone with a manner which appeared artificial, a man who as the most ultra die-hard conservative I have ever known had very little sympathy with democratic ideas in politics, or the most modern idiom in music. Those of us, however, who had known him for so long, realised that, under that aloof exterior, was one of the most generous and warm-hearted men who ever lived, a man who, in a quiet and unobtrusive way, would always do anything for a friend and especially for old pupils. It was almost a religion with him to bide his deeper feelings under a cloak of apparent indifference.

Cliffe's friends are glad to remember that be loved life, and that there can have been few men who have more thoroughly enjoyed the good things of life. His last few years were, I fear, lonely ones. His increasing deafness had forced him to give up his work, and it had become very difficult to make him hear. I can only hope that the remembrance of all the good times he had had may have afforded him some consolation.


Obituary, RCM Magazine 28/1 (1932), 21-2



A. Ashton: ‘The Late Frederic Cliffe’, MT, lxxiii (1932), 62–3
Obituary, MT, lxxiii (1932), 80
P.A. Scholes, ed.: The Mirror of Music 1844–1944 (London, 1947/R)
L. Foreman: Music in England 1885–1920 (London, 1994), 17–8, 39, 72