William Baines was born into a devout Methodist family on Palm Sunday, 26 March 1899, at 11 Shepstye Road, Horbury, West Yorkshire.  His father was organist at the local Primitive Methodist Church (as was his father before him), and it was there that the young William received his first musical experiences, from the age of 2, seated upon the organ bench whilst his father played.  The music played there was ‘strictly classical’, with the annual Messiah taking pride of place in the Church’s musical output.

The village was extremely musical despite its size for, in addition to the music at the churches, there was the Victoria Prize Band, and a world-famous troupe of handbell ringers, both ensuring that the young William was open to a variety of musical experiences from an early age.

When the young boy was four, the family moved to a music shop opposite the chapel, and amongst the items catered for by the business was the Edison-Bell phonograph to which the boy used to listen.  By this time musical instruction had commenced at home under his father’s watchful eye, and he was in capable hands, for George Baines gave piano lessons to many local pupils at that time. 

In 1907, William began serious piano study with his father, who had great ambitions for his son, yet had not the finances that would allow the best possible training.  He could, however, afford to send him to a modest establishment, and this it was that William began to study under Albert Jowett at the Yorkshire Training College of Music in Leeds, on 10 September 1910.

With Jowett, Baines was taught harmony and counterpoint whilst he received piano tuition with Arthur Fountain.  In both areas he progressed rapidly, and by the age of 12 he was making his first attempts at composition, mainly hymn tunes and chants, later followed by short piano pieces.

In March 1913 Mr Baines took up a post as cinema pianist in Cleckheaton (10 miles west of Leeds), and so the family moved there only to discover that their new home was rather more urbanized than Horbury.  There were advantages, however, to living in Cleckheaton, and one of those was that William was able to attend the concerts of the Bradford Permanent Orchestral Society. By borrowing the scores from Jowett of the pieces to be played he soon became acquainted with the basic orchestral repertoire and also the actual instruments themselves, of which he had little previous knowledge.

In the late summer of 1914 war broke out in Europe and, when it was generally accepted that it would continue for some time, Baines began to realise that he may be called up once he had passed his 18th birthday in 1917, although this was still some time off yet.

 In February 1916 Baines provided the organ accompaniment for a performance of The Creation in Cleckheaton, his largest public undertaking yet, and it was shortly after this that his father was appointed musical director of the Fossgate Cinema in York, so the family moved again to 91 Albemarle Road in York.  William, however, remained in Cleckheaton for a year, taking over his father’s post at the cinema.

Immediately prior to the move to York, Albert Jowett had had to close the Leeds College, but he retained pupils of his choice, so Baines had to travel to Jowett’s home in Leeds.  After a while he decided to give up the lessons due to the long distance they necessitated. Baines had studied with Jowett for nearly six years and, although Eaglefield Hull told the British musical establishment that Baines was “entirely self-taught”, there can be little doubt that Jowett exerted a large influence on the composer (Baines himself was fully aware of his debt to his former teacher in later years.)

From this point on, then, Baines was alone, forging his way towards his own individual musical language.

When William did eventually move to York, he often acted as a relief pianist for his father, but the cinema audiences of the city can hardly have been prepared for the lengthy extracts from Beethoven sonatas that he played to them.  During the first year there Baines wrote his Symphony in C Minor, a colossal achievement for a 17-year old, especially considering that he had never actually heard a symphony at the time.

1 January 1918 saw William begin to keep a diary and so, from here onwards it will be useful to quote from it as a comment on his life and musical activities.

During the first few months of that year Baines began to work on his String Quartet and also the Four Sketches for piano.  On 7 May he wrote:

“Last night I felt very ill – I describe it best as a sort of general weakness.”

This is the first occasion on which we hear of Baines being physically weak and he never really fully regained his health from this point to his death.  On the same day, 7 May, he received his papers from the army stating that he had to be re-examined at the medical office.  He had been examined in March the previous year and the doctors had graded him C3, which was not a total rejection, just a deferment and, in fact, he underwent two more examinations that year (his deferment was renewed on both occasions).  This time, however, the officer deemed that William was fit to undertake work of a light clerical nature.

On 3 June 1918, following a walk to Haxby with his Mother and Teddy (his younger brother) Baines received the inspiration for his piano piece, Paradise Gardens, and he began the first draft two days later.

While on holiday in late September of 1917 William received a letter from his mother stating that he had been placed in the Labour Battalion, and on 4 October he entered into service. His last diary entry reads as follows:

“This is my last day behind an artist’s bow – (oh! how I love art). Tomorrow I shall be in khaki. I have joined as a batman, a servant (Officer’s) in the R.A.F. – Only those who have my temperament can understand what it means – I have played a little tonight, but it hurts. However, I am hoping the day will not be far distant when I can start my diary once more – Ah! once more – once more – Adieu.”

Baines was stationed at Blandford Camp, in Dorset, rumoured to have the worst conditions in the country, as was proven when, after only two weeks in the cold, wet, influenza-ridden establishment, William contracted septic poisoning.  A telegram was sent to his parents, reading:

“Come at once. Your son dangerously ill.”

Within 24 hours his parents were there, although his father had to return home after a few days, his mother remained for a month, until the armistice was signed.  William was then transferred to a York hospital and he eventually came home for his demobilization party on 24 January 1919.  There he met two people who were to be of importance to him in later life.  One was Miss Edith Milner, a rich woman who later engaged Baines to do some recitals for her.  The other was Karl. S. Wood, also a pianist, but an artist and poet too.  He introduced Baines to the nuns at St Mary’s Convent in York and, as the composer was receiving concert engagements whilst still recovering, they allowed him to go there to practice.  Baines became very friendly with one nun in particular, Sister Mary Bernard, who became the dedicatee of the 2nd Prelude.

Karl Wood suggested to Baines that he send some manuscripts to Elkin’s publishers in London, and they soon invited him down to play for them.  On this trip Baines heard Stravinsky’s Firebird and Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Both made lasting impressions.  Elkin’s agreed to publish Paradise Gardens and the Seven Preludes, providing William paid for 300 copies of each in advance, which he duly did.

Back in York, William made the acquaintance of J. E. Kennedy, who was to provide him with access to a complete library of Scriabin’s piano music, which influenced him considerably in his later works.

The summer of 1919 saw the composer working on his Violin Sonata, the first concert study Exaltation, and The Island of the Fay.  After a holiday in Bridlington, taking in visits to Flamborough, Baines heard in early November from Elkin’s.  They were to publish the two works on the 26th of that month.

 The critics were complimentary. In the Arts Gazette, L. Dunton Green spoke of “the unmistakable imprint of genius.”

“Bring manuscripts and play to me tomorrow afternoon. Stay night.
Eaglefield Hull, College of Music, Huddersfield.”

This was the telegram that arrived on the Baines’s front doorstep on 20 January 1920.  Dr Arthur Eaglefield Hull was a renowned musical dignitary of the time who had founded the Huddersfield College 12 years previously, and had done a great deal for music in Yorkshire in general.  He had also written articles on Scriabin for various musical journals.

William played for him and was immediately taken under his wing.  Hull enrolled him in the British Musical Society (another organization of his founding), attempted to negotiate better terms with the publishers, and also planned a London trip.

Baines immersed himself in work, encouraged by this attention and enthusiasm, and the immediate resulting pieces were Radiance, The Naiad and the Rhapsody for string quartet.

In the British Musical Bulletin of March 1920 there was an article entitled “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” by none other than Eaglefield Hull, stating that he was taking on the responsibility of uttering this phrase (first written by Schumann about Chopin’s first published works) and that he was “prepared to abide by the consequences.”  The consequences were slightly disconcerting for the composer, in that journalists began to make frequent visits to 91 Albemarle Road, asking for interviews and, in addition, many letters were sent to him daily.  All this got too much for Baines and on 10 March he made the following entry in his diary:

“… my music is what I want to count. What matters whether I was born under a ‘gooseberry bush’ or not!”

In the Daily News of the same day, Baines is quoted as saying:

“I am like Debussy; I have learnt more from the wind than from any master. Music was in me…”

 Now, he was inescapably under the public eye and invitations for concerts, publishing enquiries, and reporters appeared daily. Unfortunately his health began to fail him again, so once more he left for Bridlington.  A month later he returned to York, this time in a bath-chair, and remained very weak throughout May and June.  He had no option but to return to Bridlington, but not before writing Goodnight to Flamboro’.  He remained at the resort for another month before returning home, and by September he was able to resume composition.

In December 1920 Baines received a letter from Frederick Dawson, a famous pianist, to whom Baines had sent some manuscripts. Dawson expressed great interest in William’s music and invited him to go and play to him, which Baines did and a great friendship was struck up.  Dawson regularly began to include the young composer’s music in his recital programmes, and in grateful thanks Baines dedicated both Silverpoints and The Naiad to the pianist.

 In February 1921 William was introduced to Benjamin Dawson and his wife (no relation to the pianist) by Edith Milner.  They had recently moved to Miss Milner’s old home, Nun Appleton (south-west of York on the River Wharfe), a house made famous by Andrew Marvell’s poem “Upon Appleton House.”  He derived great inspiration from the house and its grounds, and so too did Baines.  Much of his “nature music” was composed at Nun Appleton, including Twilight Woods and Glancing Sunlight.

Nun Appleton Hall
William undertook a trip to London with Frederick Dawson (in September 1921) and the highlights were some visits to the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts.  One in particular was a great impression on him:

14 September: “Tonight I had my greatest sensation. Scriabin’s 2nd Symphony. Ah! He was a great man: there were times during the performance when my back recorded 20 degrees below zero!”

In February 1922 Baines heard Busoni play Liszt’s A Major Concerto in Bradford, and afterwards he was introduced to him.  He later sent some of his music to the aging Italian virtuoso and received an encouraging letter in return.

By the end of March William’s health began to fail, even a visit to Bridlington and Flamborough failed to register any improvement, and on 12 April he wrote what was to be his last composition, Pool-Lights from Pictures of Light.

He still managed to visit Nun Appleton occasionally, but soon he was confined to bed by a Bradford doctor, his condition still deteriorating.  On the afternoon of Monday 6 November, while clasping his father’s hand, William Baines died, aged 23, of consumption of the bowels.

The funeral took place on the following Friday, at the Horbury Methodist Church where Baines had first heard his father play the organ.

A memorial tablet was constructed a short while later, with the intention of placing it in York Minster. The scheme was turned down, however, so the tablet was placed in the chapel at Horbury, in 1924.

On the cover of A Last Sheaf reads the following lines:

“… For now the hours are said,
And ah! too soon
Thy golden notes have sped
To mingle with the music of the Spheres!”