Ketèlbey showed remarkable musical gifts while still a young boy. There is an anecdotal tale (for once probably true!) of how 11-year-old Ketèlbey wrote and publicly performed a full-length piano sonata and received the blessing of Edward Elgar
for his efforts. Two years after that he received a scholarship to Trinity College, and at 16 he was named the new organist at St. John's Church in Wimbledon. Ketèlbey took to conducting musical theater shortly before the turn of the new century, which no doubt helped redirect his compositional interests toward light music.
Over the first couple decades of the twentieth century, Ketèlbey issued a hearty stream of pseudo-programmatic orchestral works; pieces like The Phantom Melody (1912) and In a Chinese Temple Garden (1923) were very popular in their day, and earned Ketèlbey enough money to eventually purchase and retire to an estate on the Isle of Wright. He also composed a comic opera, the Wonder Workers (1900), and several "serious" concert pieces, including a String Quartet and a Concert-Piece for piano and orchestra. Ketèlbey used pseudonyms for some of his music.