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Joseph W. Pegg
Early History
Charles Avison
The Conspicuous Worthies
The Age of Elegance
The Grand Music Festivals
The Harmonic Society
Dr. William Rea
The People’s Concerts
Newcastle’s Musical Theatres
Music for Everyone
The Celebrity Concerts
The Newcastle Conservatoire
The Newcastle Philharmonic Orchestra
End of a Golden Age
Culture at a Price
New Beginnings
Past Regrets – Future Hopes
A History of Music in Newcastle upon Tyne
© Joseph W. Pegg
This book presents, for the first time, a comprehensive account of Newcastle’s
musical history. My original intention was to write an essay on the musical life of
Newcastle during the Victorian era but that would have meant passing over
Charles Avison. I decided, therefore, to begin at the beginning and take the mid
nineteen fifties as an end date. In the circumstances it should be unnecessary to
remind readers that all my references and comments, unless otherwise stated,
are to musical activities in Newcastle prior to the nineteen fifties. .
Culture in its higher forms was never to the fore in Newcastle’s rich history and
in the past Newcastle was never perceived as a cultural town let alone a musical
one, but behind its sooty industrial facade the region managed against all odds to
build up an impressive musical culture, which suffered only as the 20th century
progressed and by mid century it was all but forgotten. Newcastle was reborn in
the mid-20th century but in spite of its new and exciting image as one of Europe’s
leading cities its past musical heritage has remained buried and largely forgotten.
Newcastle and the North East Region has always been steeped in culture,
culture in the sense of rituals and custom that seal the bond of membership in a
community rather than the culture we associate with art and music. Growing up
in the town in the nineteen forties I felt constantly frustrated but then there was a
war on. After the war there were concerts at the City Hall by visiting orchestras,
the odd ballet week at the Theatre Royal and a recital now and then but none of
it was homegrown. I well remember a Sunday concert by the Northumberland
Orchestral Society in March 1946, conducted by Arthur Milner, one time
professor at the Newcastle Conservatoire, that opened with the Overture ‘The
Hebrides’ by Mendelssohn played without trombones. Apparently they couldn’t
find any trombonists free that afternoon! Such was the state of affairs.
I used to wonder why other big industrial towns, such as Birmingham,
Liverpool and Manchester, could support professional orchestras - orchestras
they were proud of - when the best my home town could do was assemble an
assortment of professional, semi-professional and amateur musicians into an adhoc symphony orchestra to give a once a year concert to a half empty hall. Little
did I realise then that I was echoing the words of Ald. Ellis at a council meeting in
1896 when he said ‘Let the council look for a single moment at what was being
done at Leeds, Birmingham and other places, where only first class concerts
were provided, whereas in Newcastle, there had been the same second-rate
class of concerts from year’s end to year’s end.’
Many years later, when Newcastle developed a conscience about its historical
heritage and there was a proliferation of books on all aspects of Newcastle’s
history appearing in Newcastle bookshops I hastened to buy them. But to my
great disappointment they either completely ignored music or, where there was
an entry in the index, the supporting text invariably comprised a few lines
dedicated to Music Hall and the song ‘Blaydon Races’. I began to think that
Newcastle had no musical heritage and if it ever had it must have been lost on
the road to Blaydon. Half a lifetime later I found myself still turning over the same
question in my mind but by then, of course, the North East had changed. The
Northern Sinfonia was getting more national and international exposure than
Newcastle United and no one was greatly concerned about what had happened
before. But I was, still, and came to the conclusion that the only way I was going
to find the answer was to dig back in history and unearth the facts for myself.
I hastened to the local reference library and consulted ‘The New Grove
Dictionary of Music and Musicians’ Edition. 2001. There, under Newcastle upon
Tyne, I found barely two columns giving a potted musical history of the town. The
account concentrates mostly on the developments since 1958 with an
assortment of unrelated historical facts interwoven into the text. To me it paints a
sad picture of the town’s musical heritage and leaves one with the impression
that there is not much to talk about prior to the nineteen fifties. I turned to
Birmingham and found twelve columns spread over seven pages of enthralling
musical history. I then looked up Liverpool to find nine columns over five pages of
music history. Even Bradford could boast two columns reflecting a continuous
musical culture in the town. “What does it matter now anyway”, I can here
someone say. It doesn’t matter for those who do not care but why should
Newcastle not give full recognition to its musical past as it does to its industrial
past and claim its place as one of the leading provincial musical towns of the 19th
century long before it emerged supreme in the 21st Century.
The trouble seems to be that it has fallen to historians to write up the town’s
history, which is as it should be, but historians seem not to be overly concerned
with music matters, presumably on the basis that the history of the world would
not be changed one iota if not a note of music had been written. The musicians,
themselves, prefer to make music rather than write about it. This situation has led
to the town’s musical past being totally overlooked leading to the assumption, in
most people’s minds, that the town has none. The following story to some extent
bears witness to this fact. Whilst browsing in the music section of a second hand
book shop in Bournemouth I engaged in conversation with the owner and told
him I was thinking of writing a book on Newcastle’s musical history but would
need to spend time in the city to research it. He showed interest and when, a few
weeks later, I called-in at his shop again he told me that he had been discussing
my project with a professional man, an engineer from Newcastle, who was one of
his customers. For what it was worth, the bookseller said, the engineer wished
me luck but said I would be wasting my time and money because I wouldn’t find
anything. Newcastle has no musical history.
I was grateful for the engineer’s comment, it confirmed that which I had long
suspected and it renewed my determination to pursue the subject further. I was
finally convinced that there was a need for a book on Newcastle’s musical past if
only to counter the widely held opinion that the town has no musical history to
speak of. There will be those, of course, who are better informed and are well
aware that Newcastle has had a thriving musical culture for almost half a century
but pressed on the point I think many will be of the opinion that it all began back
in 1958. I hope, therefore, by the end of this book to convince all those doubting
engineers and other unbelievers that Newcastle has a rich and interesting
musical past and in addition, enlighten the better informed, in that whilst the
region’s cultural flowering fifty years ago appeared to come out of nothing, it was
in fact only another stage in a history that can be traced back over a thousand
years, beginning somewhere around the 7th century.
Music in the form of song has probably existed in the north east corner of the
country since the earliest times as a natural form of expression. Some languages
lend themselves better to song than others and the varied pitch of North Country
speech is undoubtedly one of them. Folk Song is by definition an anonymous art
originated by simple folk without learning and yet it maintains the most perfect
musical expression of a people’s soul and commonly expresses a region’s
characteristics in a definite way. It has always been at the core of
Northumberland’s musical heritage and a powerful influence in the area. The
Christian Church also made use of song very early in its history. This would have
taken the form of communal prayer and responses in chant form and through
time gave birth to the choral tradition, which is another form of musical
expression close to the heart of the people in the North East. The first references
to music in the north of the country come from the writings of the Reverend Bede.
He was born in Northumbria in 673 and died in Jarrow in 735. He was a monk, a
writer and a historian and although he did not compose music he wrote on its
practice in the church during the sixth, seventh and early eighth centuries. His
writings constitute some of the most important and informative evidence for
liturgical music in the Anglo Saxon Church. These include ’De orthographia’,
containing definitions of several musical terms and ‘De arte metrica,’ which
includes discussion of the definitions and differences between rhythm and metre.
He also showed concern in his writings about his feared deterioration in church
music through familiarity. We imagine that this music must have been fairly
primitive but to its contemporaries it was probably very much alive and
developing. Part-singing was being introduced and according to Giraldus
Cambrensis the Northumbrians sang in two parts. There would also most
certainly have been some form of instrumental music around but probably as
accompaniment to song or dance only.
Vocal music has always been to the fore in England and by the Middle Ages
songs and airs were being composed all over the country by persons from all
walks of life and were sung constantly in lanes and streets. Even then
Northumberland must have been a musical county and this is corroborated by
the striking fact that in the old song books published in London and the south in
Tudor and Stuart times, there often appears “set to an excellent north country
tune” and this is not a reference to north of the border. By the 1600s great
pleasure was taken by all classes in this form of native music. It was the custom
then even in the villages for musicians to wait on others for a small fee and an
important branch of musical activity for some centuries was that of Waits. These
were known as the Town’s Waits and in Newcastle were dressed in three-cocked
hats and blue cloaks. These municipal musicians strolled the streets at night
playing on some instrument to mark the hours and wakening the chief citizens in
the morning by music before their windows. They also provided music on civic
occasions as they may well have done in Newcastle in 1633 when King Charles
paid a visit to the city on his way to Edinburgh to be crowned King of Scotland
and later, when they most certainly did for Oliver Cromwell. He was wined and
dined as a guest of the city. ‘The people received him with very great
acknowledgements of love and he and his officers were sumptuously entertained
by the mayor. While at dinner in the mayor’s house the town’s waits played
outside on a little bridge over the Lort Burn near Sandhill.‘ The Waits were an
important branch of musical activity in England generally and continued in
Newcastle until in the 1790s when ‘amidst some modern, narrow, and gloomy
schemes of economy, the company was discharged’.
What effect the Reformation had on music in 17th century Newcastle is difficult
to say but generally it is thought that by the time Charles II returned to the throne
in 1660 musical England was in a morose state. On the other hand one can
imagine that Cromwell was much less concerned about what was going on in the
North East and we had after all entertained him well! Cromwell, himself, was very
musical; he sang psalms after dinner, held musical gatherings, employed a
keyboard tutor for his daughter, and a personal organist. Perhaps the most
revealing aspect of Cromwell’s musical side is to find that at the wedding of his
daughter ‘They had forty eight violins, and much mirth and frolics, besides mixt
dancing’. Musical expression was as much a part of life in Newcastle then as
now, in the church, in the small select musical gatherings of the gentry and in the
boisterous, bawdy music making of the illiterate masses. And behind the
personality of each of these strands lay the common property of all. Since the
Middle Ages music had sought to free itself from the restrictions of the church
and there had emerged around the mid 16th century a new art form known as
secular music. The term is not really very helpful for the purposes of definition
because with vocal music much of it was written for domestic use and was
unambiguously sacred. But then there was the question of social functions and
circumstances of performance to consider as well as publication. Secular
instrumental music had established itself somewhat earlier than vocal, around
1540, as a fully independent repertory and a self-sufficient art form weaned from
its liturgical dependence.
Travelling musicians were largely responsible for bringing this music to the
attention of the people, and by the seventeenth century the skill and virtuosity of
these minstrels had reached a high standard. Although these purveyors of song
and melody had not always been welcomed by everyone and the Church had
tended towards the view that minstrels were purveyors of filth and sin and who
speaks filth is the servant of Lucifer. The power of music as an incitement to lust
was commonplace in medieval thought. This period witnessed the development
of instrumental music and saw the rise of the lute virtuoso, who in turn gave
inspiration to other composer performers. Many of these came from the
Continent and it resulted in an influx of foreign musicians engaged for their skill in
performance. The early flowerings of Italian opera also began to have an
influence on English music particularly solo song. The first great flowering of
English music was brought to an end with the death of Purcel in 1695 and the
foreign domination of musical England was to begin with the age of Handel,
fifteen years later in 1710. All of this was to have an effect on musical life in
Newcastle but for the time being the main formal musical activities remained with
the church as it had done since the Middle Ages. In Newcastle it lay in the hands
of such leading musicians of the day, whose names are inscribed in gold lettering
on the entrance to the organ loft in St Nicholas Cathedral together with the date
they took up their organistship).
Thos Tunstall
John Nichols
William Hauzwell
Thomas Palmer
Samual Nichols
Thomas Powell
Such compositions of theirs that have come down to us through history are
the subject of further research. Although music publishing began in the 1500s
most early music of this nature is lost to us today. Few composers of any
distinction have remained associated with a particular locality and achieved any
sort of immortality through their music. However, there was one exception, a
Newcastle composer who turned his back on London and in spite of it became
widely known in English music circles in his own lifetime as much for his musical
compositions as for his musical criticisms. Today his name is frequently spoken
of in the same breath as the leading musicians of his time although he was never
one of the inner circle. His name was Charles Avison.
Charles Avison is unquestionably the single most important figure in
Newcastle’s musical history and the city is justly proud of him. Today he has a
society bearing his name, which is dedicated to restoring his music and his
rightful place as a Georgian musician. The man and his reputation has, if
anything, grown over the years and today there are many potted biographies and
articles about him, but as so little is known about his early life, much of what has
been written is speculation and can be neither proved nor disproved. The most
reliable of them in my opinion is that written by Arthur Milner and published in
The Musical Times, in two parts, over January and February 1954. However, the
picture that emerges from all that has been written about Avison is of a man
greatly respected and admired for his personal qualities, whatever faults and
deficiencies he may have otherwise had, and I think this would have greatly
pleased Charley Avison from Nolte Market, and no doubt it is the way he would
have wished posterity to remember him.
Charles Avison was the third son of Richard and Anne Avison, born in 1709.
The parish register of St John’s church, Newcastle, records his baptism on 16th
February 1709. He would have been taught the rudiments of music at home as
both his parents were musical, his father being one of the Town Waits. Charles
would have received some formal education at one of the local Free schools in
the district, thereafter he probably self educated himself in the local book shops,
which he frequented and later gained his poise and position in local society by
his association with men of letters and through his influential pupils who
introduced him to an ever widening social circle. One of these was Mrs Ord, a
bluestocking and typical of those wealthy learned women of the time who,
opened their homes (salons) to artists, men of letters and musicians and
provided a select forum in which they were able to converse with each other. At
some time in his early twenties Avison went to London and for a spell was a pupil
of Geminiani, Italian violinist, theorist, teacher and conductor (whom young
Avison may, or may not, have accompanied on one of his trips to Italy) and
through him was greatly influenced by the Italian style, which had infiltrated
English music of the time. A letter signed ‘Marcellinus’ in the Newcastle Journal
on 17th March 1759 indicates that Avison was offered the organist’s post at York
Minster in 1734 but refused it and between 1733 and 1740 was, on Geminiani’s
recommendation, offered two organist posts in Dublin, which he also turned
down. In addition to these he further refused offers of a teaching post in
Edinburgh with participation in the Musical Society there and the organist
vacancy at the Charterhouse in London. He chose instead to return to Newcastle
and take up a position as parish organist at St John’s Church. In that same year,
1736, when only 26 years old he was offered the post of organist at St Nicholas’
Parish Church – now Newcastle Cathedral - at a salary of £40 a year, which he
accepted. He was to remain in the post until his death thirty years later.
Soon after his return to Newcastle, on 15th January 1737, he married
Catherine Reynolds, a seamstress, and they had at least four children and
probably nine, most of them dying in childhood. Two of his sons succeeded him
as organist at St Nicholas’; Edward in 1770 and Charles, jnr., in 1789. The
appointment of Charles Avison, senior. to the city’s parish church made him at an
early age the leading musician in the district. He developed close musical links
with, amongst others, the Durham musician John Garth, (1722 –1810), who
assisted him in some of his musical compositions and in arranging concerts.
Other active musicians at the time included, Thomas Ebdon (1738 –1811), also
from Durham and Matthias Hawdon from Newcastle (1732 –1789). There
appears to have been created about this time, for a brief period, a North East
Vogue in musical composition style largely due to Avison’s influence but it had no
known effect outside the region.
In 1738 Charles Avison became head of the Newcastle Music Society (it had
been founded just before he came back to the town from London) and was also
director of the Community Concert series. He was active in organising the first
public subscription concerts to he held in Newcastle, which took place in the
Groat Market during the 1730s and 1740s. This was probably an idea Avison had
picked up in London where subscription concerts had begun almost a century
earlier. At these concerts, it is said, he introduced the works of many new and
important composers to the public, including those of Handel and Geminiani,
whom he considered superior to Handel. He no doubt also used these occasions
to showcase his own compositions. It seems that the young Avison from the
industrial north was greatly impressed by the colourful, larger than life personality
of Geminiani, who has been described as a romantic born before his time,
washed up in London on the tidal wave of Continental musicians in 1714, after
which he quickly established himself as a highly paid and much lionized society
violin teacher. Although Avison may have been impressed by his master he was
obviously not sufficiently influenced by him, or able to comprehend, the
opportunities Geminiani was bringing his way, which would have launched him
into leading musical circles in London and helped establish him on the road to a
successful and possibly lucrative career.
Richard Welford in his ‘Men of Mark Twixt Tyne and Tweed’, published in the
mid 19th century, gives us an interesting insight into Avison’s concerts, which is
worth quoting in full.
‘As soon as he had settled down to his duties at St Nicholas, Mr Avison took
the lead in organising a series of subscription concerts – the first that had been
given in Newcastle. They were held in the Assembly Room in the Groat Market,
commencing soon after Michaelmas, 1736 and continuing through the winter.
The following year there was a concert in the Race Week, another on the
Wednesday in the Assize Week (the latter for Mr Avison’s benefit), and the
subscription concerts were repeated. In 1738, he had again a benefit concert in
the Assize Week and took upon himself the sole liability of the subscription
concerts, changing the hour of commencement from 9 P.M. to 6 P.M. and
charging 2s 6p for a ticket, which admitted one gentleman or two ladies to the
whole series. Next year the concerts were renewed with increased success. On
29th November, as we learn from a local record, “there was a grand performance
of three celebrated pieces of vocal and instrumental music – viz., ‘To Arms’ and
‘Britons, Strike Home’, the ‘Oratorio of Saul’ and the ‘Masque of Acis’. There
were twenty-six instrumental performers, and the proper number of voices from
Durham. The gentlemen and ladies joined in the chorus, and all present saluted
the performers with loud peals of claps, acknowledging a general satisfaction.
There was the greatest audience that ever was known on a like occasion in
These concerts continued under the management of Charles Avison until his
death, and afterwards by his sons.
We have little idea of what sort of person the young Avison was and I am not
the first person to be at a total loss to understand why he chose to give up the
opportunity of a career at the centre of music in the capital and instead become a
humble parish church organist in Newcastle. The portrait of him in the Laing Art
Gallery – painted when he was 41 provides food for thought. The high domed
forehead and large sensitive eyes point to a man of reflective, caring and sincere
disposition. The receding hairline and the set of the features give the impression
of intelligence, quiet determination with perhaps just a hint of artistic arrogance. It
was said that Avison had the basic characteristics of a north countryman;
shrewdness, common sense and outspokenness tempered by a refreshing sense
of humour. Georgian London, quite obviously, did not appeal to him. Perhaps his
small town upbringing, his limited education and his north country dialect left him
feeling like a fish out of water in the artificial, insincere, hot house atmosphere
that, as a musician, he would certainly have had to involve himself in if he wanted
to progress in the capital, (The great George Stephenson suffered a similar fate
a century later and was asked by one member of the Parliamentary Committee
he was addressing, “Are you a foreigner?”) Did Avison perhaps foresee the
advantages of accepting the appointment as organist at St Johns’ as a golden
opportunity for him to indulge his career as a musician in a ‘plum’ post without
the struggles, the competition and attendant hardships of having to establish
himself in London or some unfamiliar provincial town? Or was it, as I prefer to
think, that strongest of all reasons that brought him back; the love of a woman.
The woman he married soon after his return and lived happily with for the
remainder of his life. His contemporaries considered him to be a man of energy
and enthusiasm and a person of considerable charm and general culture. Avison
may have lacked that vital spark of ambition but one thing is certain and that is
music was his passion. In a letter that appeared in the Newcastle Journal after
his death it was stated that ‘had music been less his passion and more his
business his time would have been more profitably employed’
Avison is often referred to today as the foremost English concerto composer
of his time. It is an epithet that seems to have stuck to him. He composed sixty
concerti grossi in the style of Geminiani as well as arranging another set of
thirteen from Domenico Scarlatti sonatas. His further output comprises a
collection of sonatas for harpsichord and strings in the style of Rameau and odd
anthems and hymns. Further arrangements include a set of 50 Psalms set to
music by Benedetto Marcello, on which he collaborated with John Garth, the
Durham musician. There is also mention of a number of quartets and trios and
one source credits him with as many as 50 violin concertos but this is not
confirmed elsewhere. He was in this respect the most active composer of
concertos amongst the English born musicians of his day. Some fifty or so were
published in his lifetime and these followed Geminiani’s example in the preferred
four-movement scheme and in his use of a concertino group of two violins, viola
and cello as opposed to the two violins and cello of Corelli and Handel. The
twelve for string orchestra are arrangements of Domenico Scarlatti’s harpsichord
sonatas and are reported as being more adventurous than the other concerto
grossi and show a lively feeling for orchestration and a boldness of invention
which is lacking in some of the concertos of the other sets. Following his death,
however, his music remained largely unperformed, but I am pleased to say that
even as I write work is in hand at the Northumbria University to restore some of
his original manuscripts and house these in an Avison Archive in the town’s
Central Library. There is, as well as The Avison Society, a long established early
music group, Concert Royal, that has received a grant from the Regional Arts
Lottery Fund to continue keeping alive the music of Tyneside’s most famous
Georgian musician.
Avison was as much respected for his critical and theoretical writings as for
his musical compositions. It was stated in the last volume of Burney’s History of
Music, 1789, that, ‘musical criticism has been so little cultivated in this country
that its first elements are hardly known’ and then goes on to credit Avison with
being the first and almost the only writer who attempted it. This reference was to
Avison’s famous ‘Essay on Musical Expression’ of 1752 and subsequent
editions. These provoked much discussion and several public replies. The
strength of Avison’s Essay is that it presents the plain good sense of a genuine if
minor composer, but it’s criticisms of other leading composers including Vivaldi,
Palestrina and Handel as being guilty of subordinating harmony to melody or vice
versa, enraged some of his contemporaries and brought a furious reaction from
William Hayes of Oxford University, whose anonymously published pamphlet
attacked Avison the composer as lacking the skill to justify his credentials as a
theorist. Avison replied with dignity to his “virulent, though, I flatter myself, not
formidable, Antagonist” countering his criticisms of specific passages with
reasoned defences and the citation of parallels in generally admired composers.
Avison comes to life in this letter and his forthright style is like a breath of fresh
air compared to the stuffy convoluted academic style of his ‘anonymous’
detractor. But to Avison’s detriment he is at times less than eloquent, which sadly
detracts from the cultured image he so carefully cultivated. It is not difficult to
appreciate, even today, why there was all the fuss; Avison, the provincial
musician daring to criticise Handel, the musical God of his day and the King’s
favourite to boot, as regards his over use of pictorialism in music: ‘What shall we say to excuse this same great Composer, who, in
his Oratorio of Joshua, condescended to amuse the vulgar Part
of his Audience, by letting them hear the sun stand still?
It has been said that Avison in his critical writings showed more of the
enthusiast than the unbiased critic but nevertheless they give a first hand insight
into his approach to music and the musical scene of his time.
In his criticism of Handel, Avison was reacting to the over pictorialism or imitation
of nature in music which was a big issue in the 18th century. The term ‘nature’
was a synonym for feeling, spontaneity, and expressiveness and was seen as an
abuse that indicated nature could mean anything and so it became a convenient
weapon that all factions used for their own purposes. Art viewed as an imitation
of nature reduced it to a pleasing lower truth in that it lacked intellectual
substance. It was largely this that resulted in music being banished by the
philosophers of the day from the domain of art. During the 18th century, however,
the issue was eventually modified and music was accepted in its own right as art.
Charles Avison died at his home in Green Court, Newcastle, in May 1770 and
was buried beside his wife, now in St Andrews’s churchyard. His death was
marked by a simple obituary in the local paper that read;
‘Thursday died Charles Avison, upwards of 30 years organist in this town. His
loss is greatly lamented by all that had the pleasure of his acquaintance for he
was much valued for the amiableness of his private character as admired for his
skill in the profession and for his excellent compositions’
A century after his death a certain Grand March for harpsichord briefly brought
him the glory of resurrection, but even before that his name was widely known by
a simple strain of music. Thomas Moore, the Irish poet, wrote a poem, which
begins ‘Sound the loud Timbrel’ and in 1816 adapted it to a portion of a
movement from one of Avison's concertos. He penned a footnote to the
arrangement which said ‘I have so altered the character of this Air which is from
the beginning of one of Avison’s old-fashioned concertos that, without this
acknowledgement, it could hardly, I think, be recognised’ It was decent of Moore
to acknowledge the source of his melody but it did not do him any good even
though the tune was a hit and he came in for a lot of criticism. In the music world
perhaps honesty is not always the best policy. It was the march, however, that
allegedly inspired the poet, Browning to immortalise Avison in his ‘Parleyings with
Certain People of Importance in Their Day’. published not long before the poet’s
death. The following quote from the work appears on Avison’s gravestone: “On the List
of worthies who by help of pipe or wire
expressed in sound Rough Race or Soft Desire
Thou Whilom of Newcastle Organist”
Today, Charles Avison ranks alongside the best of his English contemporaries
and could undoubtedly have had a more distinguished career had he courted
success, yet in spite of not doing so his legacy lives on. He still retains a certain
distinction for an outsider; an uncompromising provincial musician, in that he
continues to have articles written about him and is referred to and discussed in
most of the leading musical dictionaries and encyclopaedias as well as in other
critical musical publications. Having said all that there still remains that nagging
feeling that he is being denied his rightful place in the roll of honour of 18th
century English musicians. But before we explore this let us have a closer look at
the tenuous link between Avison and Browning – these two men who lived their
lives one hundred years apart.
Why should Avison from Newcastle have appealed so much to Browning, who
hailed from Dorset It is generally accepted that the little march attributed to
Avison which Browning is said to have found in his mother’s papers after her
death, inspired him to include the composer in his ’Parleyings’ but in fact
Browning must have heard other music by Avison if, as is alleged, he loved him
so much. (He even contributed towards a new headstone for Avison) One
explanation is that as a young man Browning took musical instruction from John
Relfe (1763–1837) organist, English musical theorist and composer. Relfe
composed sonatas amongst other things and perhaps because of this and the
fact he was a fellow church organist, he would have been aware of Avison and
his compositions, some of which were published in London, and through Relfe,
Browning was introduced to Avison’s works. Through Relfe, Browning also
acquired knowledge of music theory and composition and as a literary man
(although long in doubt whether he should not become a musician) would no
doubt have acquainted himself with Avison's musical criticisms etc. Browning
wrote his ‘Parleyings’ when he was seventy three years old and in a sense it is a
summary of his career in that it is full of reminiscences and deals with men
whose works connected themselves with his own intellectual sympathies and
imaginative pleasures of his early youth. On dealing with Avison, whom it seems
Browning had loved as a boy, he wonders whether Avison’s music is as dead as
the winter landscape before him (as he gazed into the early spring garden) ‘Once
it had captivated audiences and seemed perfect yet now when one has become
accustomed to the complicated harmonies of Wagner, Brahms and Liszt it seems
so simple. It no longer has the power to shine as it once had’. Browning explains
that he is saddened at the transitory quality of great music but considers how it is
possible to rekindle the life of the past by putting ourselves in sympathy with the
age that had gone before. Avison’s music, he goes on to say, can live again.
Browning also reflects on how truth was in human kind from the beginning and
though the forms may fade, the art that captured the truth for its age is of infinite
value in preserving the truth of that time, and he ends by proclaiming that
Avison’s little march provides the harmonic seeds for progress towards new
musical moulds.
Obviously at the time of its publication someone was impressed enough with
Browning’s tribute to have the above-mentioned quote from ‘Parleyings’ chiselled
into Avison’s headstone. Whoever chose the wording, chose it carefully because
if we refer back to Browning’s original text and extend the quotation the meaning
is somewhat different: “I o’erlooked the band
Of majesties familiar, to decline
On thee – not too conspicuous on the list
Of worthies who by help of pipe or wire
Expressed in sound rough rage or soft desire –
Thou, whilom of Newcastle organist”
Henry Purcell’s death in 1695, brought to an end what is generally referred to
as the first great period of English music. After that date English music is said to
have receded into the doldrums and nothing of any great event happened until
the arrival of Handel in 1710. His impact was so great on the English music
scene as to almost render its native composers extinct. His total output would
equal that of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all put together. His arrival on the
London music scene also gave rise to considerable rivalry between him and
other successful Italian composers active in the capital at the time, which is
beautifully summed up in an epigram written by the Lancashire poet, John
Byrom: “Some say, compared with Buononcini,
That Mynheer Handel’s but a ninny;
Others aver that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a candle;
Strange all this difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedeldum and Tweedeldee!”
London was the centre of musical life and at the heart of it, following the death of
Queen Anne, was the Hanoverian King, George I, whom Handel had deserted to
come to England. Later, however, after he had made his peace with the
monarch, it is said of the king, whose English was poor, that he enjoyed Handel’s
company because they could converse in German. Handel’s reign coincided with
what is commonly referred to as the period of Baroque in English musical
composition; a decorative form favoured particularly by concerto composers of
the time. Baroque, from the French meaning bizarre, or as Dr Charles Burney
(1726-1814) the eminent music historian preferred, after visiting Germany in
1773, ‘coarse and uncouth’. The worst excesses of the style, however, were
never accepted in England. This period also saw a great influx of foreign
musicians and a random survey taken at the time showed that half the
composers active in London were foreigners, mainly from Italy, but also from four
other countries. Thomas Arne (1710-1788) and William Boyce (1710-1779) are
regarded today as the most outstanding English composers of this era. Arne
showed some originality in the composition of his concerti and is remembered
today mainly for his Shakespearean songs and the fact he composed Rule
Britannia. The fame of Boyce, who is generally regarded as the better of the two,
rests largely on his three volumes of Cathedral Music. In their day both of these
men sought Royal Patronage, popular appeal and financial gain by composing
for the stage.
There were possibly as many as one hundred and fifty native composers
active in London in the second half of the 18th century, many of whom would
have been forgotten today but for one thing and that is they were given the royal
blessing. It was obviously as important then as it is today to be in the right place
at the right time and know the right people if you wanted to ‘get on’, and
musicians were no exception. A snapshot of English musicians from the 16th
century through to the early 18th century shows that those who achieved a
modicum of success in their day and are remembered still, either sought Royal
Patronage and/or composed in the popular style of the times and gave
themselves and their work maximum exposure in theatres and popular venues
where society gathered. To become a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal or a
Master of the Kings Music seems to have been a sine qua non for lasting
recognition. To be appointed to the Chapel was a great honour and looked upon
as a sign of unusual musical talent. The great days of the Chapel Royal may
have been over by the 1730s but a line of organists continued and the name of
almost every one is well known to the student of English music history today. The
list of composers who have been members is almost a roll of honour of English
music. But for musicians in the provinces life took on a different meaning.
Provincial music making tended to be a specialised concern. Perhaps only two
English musician/composers of the 18th century managed to remain associated
with one particular locality and make a name for themselves and Charles Avison
was one of them. The other was Avison’s contemporary, Chilcot of Bath, but as
Bath was a Georgian city par excellence, which Queen Anne by her presence did
much to enhance, it makes Avison’s achievement that much more remarkable.
In the 18th century, Newcastle was still a walled town and it is said that the
town was contained within the walls. They stretched from the riverside to
Gallowgate in the north and from New Bridge Street in the east to Westgate in
the opposite direction and even within this confined space there were generous
areas of parkland. In the early part of the century the town walls were still being
further fortified, its defences did not lose their importance until after the battle of
Culloden in 1746 when a period of comparative peace was established. In spite
of its fortress appearance Newcastle had already established itself as an
important industrial town and was well connected to the rest of the country by
land and better connected by sea than many other sea ports. It was the
discovery of coal in the area that had led to Newcastle’s growth as a town of
industrial importance. This points to Newcastle being, if not one of the biggest,
certainly one of the richest towns in England and well connected with the capital,
yet culturally it remained isolated. Within the confines of its walls the town’s
musical culture was largely contained within and around the leading churches of
St Nicholas, St John and St Andrew, but to mention three of them. Most
provincial musicians/composers were no more than minor church worthies and
those in Newcastle were no exception, which is yet another reason why Avison
was outstanding in his time. In spite of it, however, his rewards were modest.
There were no second class royal honours bestowed upon musicians at
provincial level and little official or public recognition to mark their passing. Within
the cultures of a growing industrial society, such as that which prevailed on
Tyneside in the late 18th century, where scientific development was paramount
and the driving force was achievement, money and profit, music was only a small
(and unproductive) cog in a large wheel. Avison’s star pupil, William Shield, who
at an early age was forced to abandon his music studies and seek manual work
on the Tyne, must have been keenly aware of this situation and, unlike his
master, as soon as the opportunity presented itself he packed his violin and
headed towards London. He was content to turn his back on the North East and
look to a future elsewhere but in spite of that he is very much part of the
Newcastle story.
William Shield and his master, Charles Avison had much in common, yet
they were as different as chalk and cheese. They were both born into a musical
family, they both lived in the Georgian era and both embraced its musical culture
and style. However, in as many ways Shield was the very opposite of Avison and
the path he took brought him greater rewards and wider success within his
lifetime. The entry for Newcastle upon Tyne in Groves Dictionary of Music and
Musicians, Edition 2001, makes no reference to Shield, but that is probably
because he came from Swalwell in Co. Durham. However, Shield does have a
substantial entry under his own name, which gives his birthplace as Swalwell,
near Newcastle upon Tyne 5, which it is not, unless you peer over the river. In
Shield’s day Swalwell was a village in its own right and nothing to do with
Newcastle but given present day developments which have totally changed our
perception of the area we can turn a blind eye to all that and include William
Shield in this account of Newcastle’s musical history. He was after all Avison’s
most talented pupil and he performed at Avison’s concerts in Newcastle. It also
makes an interesting diversion to compare the career paths of these two
Tyneside musical giants.
Shield was born on 5th March 1748; he was, therefore, almost forty years
Avison's junior. He was the son of a music master and received the first
rudiments of music from his father; a singing master. At the age of six he began
to practice the violin and afterwards the harpsichord, on both of which,
particularly the former, he soon became proficient. Misfortune overtook young
Shield at the age of nine years when his father died and left a widow and four
children with very scanty means of subsistence. William, as the eldest son, found
it necessary to go out and find work and he eventually became a bound
apprentice to a firm of South Shield’s boat builders. This episode would have a
marked effect on the nine year old who had to leave his home and say goodbye
to his mother, brother and sisters. Contemporary reports say that Shield often
described this moment in his life with a heavy heart. He was fortunate, however,
in that he found in his employer a kind and indulgent man who encouraged his
love for music and subsequently he was able to continue his musical studies with
Avison and began playing the violin in local concerts and theatres. On completion
of his apprenticeship he took up musical posts first in Scarborough and then in
Durham. His big opportunity came, however, when armed with a letter of
introduction from a prominent violinist he secured a position in the Italian Opera
Orchestra at the King’s Theatre in London. In the orchestra he attracted the
attention of Cramer, the leader (a common name in music but this was probably
William Cramer, who came to London in 1772 and was also leader of the
orchestras at the Pantheon Opera House and of the Ancient Concerts) and was
promoted to the rank of principal viola, a post he held for eighteen years. Later
he replaced Michael Arne (1740-1786), son of Thomas Arne, as house composer
to Covent Garden for which over the next thirty years he turned out numerous
operas, pantomimes and afterpieces. He established a long friendship with
Joseph Ritson, scholar-republican, which undoubtedly fanned his interest in
folksong and music of the people, which he collected and used in his
compositions. He travelled to Paris and Rome in his middle age and at around
this time (1790) became a member of the King’s Music. In 1817 he was
appointed Master of the King’s Music and on his death, in his eighties in 1829, he
was buried with due ceremony in the musician’s corner of Westminster Abbey.
He left his viola to George IV and his library of books to Ann Stokes, with whom
he had either entered into marriage or taken up residence in the late 1780s.
Shield composed from an early age but it was his stage works that brought
him fame in his lifetime although they are never performed today and mostly all
but forgotten. He established himself as an opera composer and wrote around 43
works for the stage, which are said to be workmanlike if not entirely original.
Nevertheless, this popular genre of the day brought him a certain fame. His
ballad opera ‘Rosina’ for example was premiered at Covent Garden on 31
December 1782 with immediate success and within five years it was being
performed in Dublin, Edinburgh, Montego Bay, New York and Philadelphia.
Shield was very interested in preserving musical heritages and used folk songs
extensively in his stage works including those from the Tyneside region, but this
approach did not meet with everyone’s approval. Isaac Bickerstaff for instance, a
natural comic librettist, who collaborated with Thomas Arne on his most
successful opera, ‘Thomas and Sally’ (1761), who was of Irish decent and hated
English music ( and later fled to France rather than face charges of
homosexuality ) regarded Shield’s efforts as a tasteless abomination. Shield
experimented with orchestration and exotic flavours in music (string trios with
movements in 5/4 time for example) but it was his operas with large doses of
middle brow glees, strophic songs and vaudeville finales that succeeded best
with Covent Garden audiences and established his fame.
As we have seen from the success of his opera ‘Rosina’ Shield achieved what
Avison did not and that was international fame. The following extract form ‘A
History of Popular Music in America’ by Sigmund Spaeth, gives an idea of
Shield’s popularity there as a song writer:
‘Two other Englishmen who contributed substantially to the early popular
music of America were James Hook (1746-1827) and William Shield (17481829). Their careers showed a curious parallel, not only in time but in the style
and quality of their work.
William Shield played both violin and viola, was a friend of Haydn in England
and Master of the King’s Music (1817), rewarded by burial in Westminster Abbey.
He has been credited (probably wrongly) with the tune of Auld Lang Syne, which
appears with other borrowed melodies in his opera Rosina. But he was
unquestionably the composer of The Green Mountain Farmer, for which Thomas
(Robert) Paine wrote the words (1798). This was one of the most popular
patriotic songs of its day.
Other songs by William Shield to achieve success in America, as indicated by
various pirated editions, were Johnny and Mary, The Streamlet, When Bidden to
the Wake or Fair, My Friend and Pitcher and When First I Slipp’d My Leading
Strings (all published here in 1789); The Cheering Rosary, A Smile from the Girl
of My Heart and The Heaving of the Lead (1793); Ere Around the Huge Oak
(1794); Old Towler (1796) Whilst with Village Maids I Stray and The Waving
Willow (1797). The Wolf was a favourite in England, as were The Post Captain
and The Thorn, published in America early in the nineteenth century (possibly
even before 1800)’
Spaeth goes on to say that Shield’s songs continued to be sung in America
into the 1820s and 1830s.
Another American writer, Julian Mates, who was more concerned with Shield’s
stage works, wrote:
‘Two of the elements necessary to a comic opera are original music and
songs relevant to the action. As the eighteenth century progressed these
elements were added, and “If we would look for sparks of brilliance (in the late
eighteenth century) we must turn to the comic operas and the operatic farces….
comic operas is not a development of ballad opera, but “in reality a separate form
of dramatic art”
Typical of the comic opera is John O’Keeffe and William Shield’s ‘The Poor
Soldier’. It’s first performance in England was in 1783, and two years later it
arrived in America, where not a year went by until after 1800 that the Old
American Company alone did not perform it’
Shield, who in later life was comfortably off, was unable or unwilling to change
his style to a more modern one and following a dispute with the Covent Garden
manager he retired in 1797, but he did continue composing glees and songs for
use in the theatre. He also turned his talents to writing on theoretical matters,
publishing two anthology-textbooks of music; ‘An Introduction to Harmony’
(London 1800) and ‘The Rudiments of Thoroughbass’ (London 1815) which
discuss such matters as how to harmonise folksongs. Shield composed music for
popular approval not posterity. He is considered not to have been a natural
musical dramatist, his arias are static, but nevertheless his output was
consistently workmanlike. The best that writers on opera seem to be able to say
of his music today is that during his fifteen years as composer in residence at
Covent Garden he kept the standard of music at a minimally acceptable level by
his extensive borrowings from Continental composers, sometimes
acknowledged, more often not. He is remembered today for the tune ‘The Saucy
Arethusa’ that Henry Wood included in his ‘Fantasia on British Sea Songs’ and
which has become standard fare at the last night of the Henry Wood Promenade
Concerts each year. But some of us may still choose to remember him on New
Year’s Eve when we join hands and sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
The man that was William Shield is captured on five sketches, which are all in
the National Portrait Gallery. Two are in the archive but the three I have seen
show him at the ages of fifty, seventy-five and seventy-nine years. In them we
see a prosperous, portly gentleman of declining years who has obviously enjoyed
life to the full. He has a kindly face and the appearance of a successful merchant
who would be more at home in the club smoking room than in the orchestra pit.
In pursuing his career he probably never forgot his humble beginnings and early
struggles and seized every opportunity that came his way in life. He successfully
worked his way into the leading musical circles of his day and concentrated on
what he did best. In modern parlance he ‘hit the jackpot’ with his ballad operas
and trivial afterpieces. He had plenty of opportunity to learn his trade playing for
many years in the pit at the Kings Theatre in London. He would have been only
too aware that English society of the time was more drawn to vocal than
instrumental entertainment and so gave them what they wanted. It seems ironic
that Avison, who dedicated himself to serious composition and his home town,
and did not go out of his way to court popular appeal reached no further than
local parish church organist in his lifetime and was buried without ceremony in
the local church yard, whereas Shield, who took the popular road to success
achieved wealth and status, became Master of the King’s Music and was laid to
rest in Westminster Abbey. But time appears to have redressed the balance and
whilst Shield and his popular entertainments (apart from a few song
arrangements by Benjamin Britten and Henry Wood ) are today of mere historical
interest, Avison, the man and his music, continue to demand attention. Both men
were very much of their time but Avison has that elusive quality that enables him,
through his words and his music, to communicate with us across the centuries.
Arthur Milner, who spent five years researching into Avison’s background in
the 1950s, stated in his subsequent articles on the composer, that Avison was
not the only professional musician working in the area. He went on to say that the
incompleteness of local records made it impossible for him to name more than
two of Avison’s colleagues, and even this information, he admitted, was only
gleaned from a marriage report and a dancing school advertisement both in the
local press. One of them was Cornforth Gelson, an eminent music master of the
town in 1751 (formerly of Edinburgh, 1744) and the other was Walter Claget, who
ran a school of dancing and music in 1757. Milner added that there must have
been more to provide Avison with an orchestra for his concerts. There were
indeed more but many of them would have been amateur musicians, such as Dr
Rotheram and Mrs Ord of Fenham and Ralph Beilby, the engraver. There was
also Thomas Wright, a famous clarionet player, who published a collection of
tunes adapted for the Northumbrian pipes. Avison also had a good friend in
support of his musical ventures in Dr Brown, who, when he became vicar of
Newcastle in 1761, is said to have zealously co-operated with his friend, the
celebrated Charles Avison, in reviving a taste for music in Newcastle. He added
a room to the vicarage-house for the accommodation of his musical friends at his
Sunday evening concerts. There are two other Newcastle musicians of this
period, who also held the prestigious post of organist at St Nicholas’, and what
we now know of them gives an interesting insight into what might have been the
Matthias Hawdon was born in Newcastle in 1732 and died there on 19th
March 1789. His father, Thomas Hawdon, was parish clerk at All Saints Church.
Matthias Horden was organist at Holy Trinity, (Hull) (1751-69) succeeding his
teacher William Avison, at Beverley Minster (1769-76) and, from December
1776, at St Nicholas’s Newcastle upon Tyne. In Newcastle he directed the
Subscription Concerts, assuming the duties previously undertaken by Charles
Avison, snr. and Edward Avison. In 1778 Hawdon conducted performances at a
four-day festival held in the Assembly Rooms, prominently featuring the music of
Handel. Hawdon composed a number of works including six sonatas Spirituel
and Voluntary which are said to be in the style wavering between Baroque and
Galant. His responsiveness to the senior Avison's musical influences is said to
show itself in the six Conversation Sonatas, Op 2 for harpsichord/pianoforte, 2 x
violins and violoncello, announced in 1778. Although at times displaying routine
features, Hawdon’s compositions in general are said to be pleasing and his
organ music in particular reflects his admiration for Handel. His hymn tune
‘Beverley’ may still be in use today. He was buried in St Nicholas Cathedral
under the Harris-Snetzler organ. An appropriate resting-place for an organist, I
am sure you will agree.
Thomas Thompson was born in Sunderland in 1777. His father, who
excelled in the science of music, was the pupil of James Hesletine, organist at
the cathedral in Durham. In 1778 Thompson, snr. moved to Newcastle, where his
son, Thomas, at the early age of nine years was initiated into the practice of the
violin and French horn under the tuition of his father, and performed on the horn
at the theatre and at concerts when only twelve years of age. It is stated in an
historic account of the city of 1827 that at about this time, i.e. 1789, young
Thompson had lessons on the pianoforte from Hawdon, son of Matthias, who
was the organist at All Saints from 1789 to his death in 1793. It is also stated that
Thomas Thompson had lessons on the organ and pianoforte from Charles
Avison, the son of the celebrated Avison, and at the beginning of 1793 he was
placed under the tuition of Muzio Clementi (Italian pianist, conductor, publisher
1752-1832) and also received instruction from Frick in thorough-bass and
composition. Apparently he was so keen on his violin studies that he practised for
ten hours a day. He returned from London, however, in 1794 as the chosen
successor to Hawdon at All Saints and the following year he succeeded Charles
Avison jun., at St Nicholas Cathedral. He continued his studies and in 1801 and
1803 he had lessons from G. B. Cramer (German pianist, teacher, publisher
1771-1858) and occasionally visited London to receive lessons from Ries
(German pianist, violinist, cellist, conductor 1784-1838), Kalkbrenner (German
pianist and teacher 1785-1849) and other eminent masters. He performed at the
Newcastle subscription concerts and a contemporary report states that the
brilliancy of his finger in rapid passages and the still more striking feeling,
expression and taste displayed in the cantabile parts of the performance never
failed to call forth great and merited applause. He also played the organ at the
Newcastle festival of 1796 (under the patronage of Prince William of Gloucester)
and again at the festivals of 1814 and 1824. He taught music and in this respect
he would have visited the wealthy homes of his clients as he is recorded as being
punctual and his behaviour was kind and conciliatory. He composed mostly
songs and duets which are said to be elegant and pleasing and marked by a
simple and flowing melody. He also published two airs with variations; ‘Cease
your Funning’ and an original ‘Thema’, which it is said would do credit to any
Newcastle’s musical heritage is not only comprised of those who were born
on the banks of the River Tyne but must include those who for one reason or
another chose to come to Newcastle and devote their lives (or at least some of
them) to the furtherance of music within the town. Later still we need to give
consideration to all those internationally famous instrumentalists and singers,
who were prepared to brave the north-eastern climate and share their art and by
example raise the standards and expectations of those who were fortunate
enough to hear them. One of the earliest and most interesting of the outsiders to
come to Newcastle was William Herschel (1738-1822). He was the son of a
military musician in Germany and when young became an oboist and violinist in
the regimental Hanoverian band and was posted to Durham with the band in
1755. He later returned to England and led an active life as a composer of
symphonies, concertos, chamber music, organ pieces and sacred works
including many anthems. His own writings show that he wanted to establish
himself in Newcastle, but for reasons that have not been recorded, it was not to
be. However, in 1761, whilst in the town he conducted a band of thirty musicians
to honour the King’s coronation day and also over a seven months period
between June 1760 to January 1761 he directed weekly orchestral concerts in ‘a
garden after the style of Vauxhall’ in Newcastle. This would probably have been
Spring Gardens, at the far end of Gallowgate, which at that time were a favourite
summer resort of the townspeople. He became a British citizen in 1802 and was
knighted in 1816. In addition to his many other talents he was a keen
astronomer, a member of the Royal Society, and in 1780 or thereabouts he
constructed the ‘Herschel’ telescope, which led to his discovery of the planet
18th century Newcastle may have been a small compact town enclosed within
its walls but it had a thriving musical life. Today we might look upon Charles
Avison as a bit of a social climber and a cultural snob given his humble
beginnings and after all he did raise the subscription charge for his concerts
thereby consciously or otherwise excluding all but the wealthiest in the town from
attending. It is an unfortunate truth that some form of intellectual snobbery has
always attached itself to ‘classical music’ and has worked to its disadvantage and
against its acceptance by ordinary folk. It permeated concert life and in a similar
way was evident in leading theatres, where it took the form of social rather than
intellectual snobbery. This did not go unnoticed in the 1830s when the Theatre
Royal, Grey Street was built and the new building was suitably provided with
distinct box, pit and gallery entrances to isolate the ‘nobs’ from the ‘plebs’. But
going back to Avison’s subscription concerts we must keep in mind that they
were an innovative idea so far as Newcastle was concerned. There were no
public concerts as such and the greater public concert audience did not exist.
Concerts were usually informal gatherings and the music was often incidental or
something audiences could enjoy and take part in whilst they were eating and
drinking. No doubt the majority of ordinary folk were happy making their own
music elsewhere in boozy togetherness. I would image, however, that Avison’s
concerts were more formal affairs, where the music was taken seriously, but, if
as claimed, he was devoted to introducing his audiences’ (the public) to new
music then it would only have been the select few who stood to benefit from this.
Nevertheless, by the end of the 18th century there seems to have been a
growing interest and awareness of music in Newcastle. There were dancing
schools, instrument makers and instrument dealers. By 1838 there were twenty-
two music academies listed in the Directory for Newcastle and Gateshead. Until
1778 there were no directories in Newcastle, the first was drawn up and
published by William Whitehead, musical instrument maker and turner of High
Bridge. He went on to publish a number of further directories until his death in
December 1792. Another aspect of musical life that was to take hold in the
second half of the 18th century in Newcastle and flourish in the following century
was the theatre. The first Theatre Royal opened its doors on Mosley Street in
1788 and until 1836 presented between straight drama, comic opera and other
musical events. The story of Newcastle’s theatres and their music is both
interesting and amusing and I shall return to them in a later chapter.
There were many other musical activities taking place in the town involving
people from all social classes. People who did not give a fig for Mr Avison’s art
music but found melodious strains necessary as an accompaniment to their
entertainments. Formal balls and dance evenings were held in the Old Assembly
Rooms, which stood on the opposite side of the street to the present building,
until 1736 when the New Assembly Rooms in the Groat Market were erected.
Forty years later, In 1776, the present Assembly Rooms in Fenkle Street were
built, and they in turn saw many happy hours glide away to the magic sound of
gay dance music ‘in the good old time when George II was king. Periwigs,
powder and patches, full skirted coats, ample hoops and silver buckles’. There
would also have been select gatherings of gentlemen in their exclusive clubs or
homes as well as half starved and unwashed bodies from the lower classes in
bawdy taverns and quayside haunts singing amongst other things popular rounds
and catches. The catch was a type of comic round for male voices, which had
been popular in England from the late 16th century. All social classes of men
sang them. How and where the catch came from is not entirely clear but it is
thought to have started as an amusement for the moneyed and privileged and
then spread to the lower social groups. The words were often obscene and
usually on such subjects as drink, tobacco and sex. One cannot imagine Charles
Avison turning his hand to catches but Henry Purcell was not above doing so
when he wrote “Once, twice, I Julia try’d / The scornful puss as oft deny’d”. When
William Jackson, organist of Exeter Cathedral in the 1790s stated that catches
were three parts obscenity to one part music, Purcell’s verse was cleaned up to
read “One, two, three our numbers right / To sing our song tonight”.
Also sung in 18th century Newcastle, but more acceptable in general music
circles, would have been the glee. The main inspiration behind the 18th century
glee was the English madrigal of 1590 – 1630 and to a generation whose
experience of partsong was largely limited to obscene catches, the flowing lines,
sensuous textures and poetic seriousness of the Elizabethan and Jacobean
madrigal came as a revelation and a challenge. Again, as with the catch the glee
started in the upper social classes and grew in popularity until by the 19th century
it had even spread to the lower social groups when an increase in the popularity
of choral singing brought together the different social classes with the common
aim of making music. The vocal groupings in glees called upon women to sing
the soprano parts and reflected a social acceptance of women into choral clubs
and singing groups of the day, which had been exclusively male dominated.
There is no record that I can trace of any glee club in Newcastle in the 1700s, but
I think we can accept that there must have been a Glee Club as they continued
meeting through the 19th and 20th centuries and so far as I know may still be
harmonising their way through the 21st.
Further down the artistic and social scale, but at the very core of Newcastle’s
musical heritage, are the Tyneside songs that are as much alive today as they
were centuries ago. The North East or Northumbria was unique in that it had a
corpus of folksongs, pipe tunes and sword dances that were not found elsewhere
in Britain. There were distinct racial factors that set Northumberland apart from
the rest of the country and gave it a unique identity in its music of the people in
its various forms No less an authority than Dr W.G. Whittaker (1876-1944)
strongly affirmed the singularity of Northumbria as being neither English nor
Scottish but both and neither. The early songs reflected the hardships and
deprivations of working class life and one of the earliest, ‘Come you not from
Newcastle’, can be traced back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Other
contemporary dialect songs reflected aspects of the poorer people’s lives. ‘The
Keel Row’ was popular as long ago as 1760. Later songs celebrated popular
sports such as horse racing, prize fighting and rowing and a song called, ‘The
Toon Improvement Bill’ lamented the loss of playing space which resulted from
the building of the Central Station. Newcastle being a port gave rise to songs
about the Press Gangs, which officially ceased in 1815 but were still active in
Newcastle as late as 1839. Captain John Bover, who seems to have been feared
in this respect has a memorial tablet in the Cathedral. A local verse, in answer to
the question, ‘Where es ti been, maw canny hinny? addressed to a sailor,
included the lines ‘Aw’ve been ti the norrard, Cruising back and forrard, But
daurna come ashore – For Bover and his gang’. On a sadder note a song of
around 1842 reflects the feelings of those who saw their friends sentenced to
fifteen years penal servitude by a judge on the Northern Circuit for stealing;‘Oh! ‘tis a cruel sentence for a man to leave his wife,
His children, and his dearest friends, all dearer than his life;
To leave the land that gave him birth, to see it p’haps no more,
And drag a wretched life in chains, upon a distant shore.
The rich have no temptations, they have all things at command
And ‘tis for pleasure and for health, they leave their native land;
But a starving wife and family, makes a poor man’s heart to break,
And makes him do what brings a blush of shame upon his cheek.’
The audience for these songs would not have been receptive to high art, which
was shown when Paganini (1782-1840) the virtuoso violinist, made a tour of the
North East and the following was written;“Hats off, smash your brains, here comes greet Baggy Nanny”
An ootlandish chap seun appeared on the stage,
And cut as odd capers as wor maister’s flunkey.
He skipped and he fiddled as if in a rage –
If he had but a tail he’d a passed for a monkey,
Deil smash a gud teun could this bowdykite play –
His fiddle wad hardly e’en please my auld granny –
So aw weun joined me marrows and toddled away,
And wished a good neet to the greet Baggy Nanny.
So far as any higher musical culture was concerned this shows up the general
ignorance that predominated at the time but it is redeemed here by the absence
of malice and its unique humour, which captures, in local dialect, the open and
generous spirit of the North East. The distinction between Northumbrian folk
song and the more esoteric Tyneside songs has over the years become blurred
and the origins of some of the older ones are lost in the mists of time. Typical of
the earlier attitude taken by the North East towards its musical heritage is the
speed of the response to the warning given by Cecil Sharp, folk song collector,
who pointed out that the tradition was rapidly dying following the Industrial
Revolution and by the time the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne
attempted, in 1885, to collect the old Northumbrian ballads, they had to sadly
record that they were “Half a century too late”
One of the most beautiful melodies to come down to us today is the song ‘The
Waters of The Tyne’, which has appeared in many songbooks since 1793. To
hear this sung by a lonely unaccompanied voice in a hall packed with
Tynesiders, sitting in absolute silence, can be a very emotional experience.
Perhaps this form of song has been the most enduring aspect of Tyneside’s
musical culture and it will never die so long as there are people on the banks of
the River Tyne. Even today, in the 21st century, the bells of the Civic Centre
chime to the tune of Blaydon Races - hailed as Tyneside’s national anthem.
We seem to have drifted away from Avison’s Newcastle, but before we take
our leave of Charles Avison and Georgian Newcastle I must mention that other
great personality of the period, Blind Willie. He is generally regarded as
Tyneside’s most outstanding character. William Purvis was blind from birth and
unlike Avison he drifted into music as a means of earning a living. His fiddle, his
voice, his flying hair and his talent for simple compositions ensured for him a
ready audience in the taverns around the Cloth Market. He was to become
closely associated with one particular tavern known as Hell’s Kitchen. They say
that Blind Willie never ever saw the dawn break over Newcastle. I have a mental
picture of these two legendary musicians performing within a few hundred yards
of each other, one soberly sitting at the organ in a house of God accompanying
good citizens at their devotions and the other franticly scraping at his fiddle with
the Devil at his elbow, improvising his own tunes to a grotesque drunken crowd
tottering at the gateway to Hell itself. This exaggerated picture could well be an
omen for the future when the self styled, sober, prosperous and pious would see
in ‘good’ music a means of saving the lower classes from the temptations of
alcohol and the error of their ways.
One of the prominent features of musical life across the country during 18th
and 19th centuries was the Grand Music Festival. The occasional event when the
big choral works of Handel were presented by augmented choirs with orchestra
in the church and lighter instrumental and vocal entertainments were laid on in
the evenings with perhaps a ball or some other social event to round off the
festival. The most famous of these festivals was the ‘Three Choirs’ at Worcester,
Gloucester and Hereford in turn from around 1715. Birmingham started their
festivals in 1768, Norwich in 1770 and Sheffield in 1786. Newcastle’s first Music
Festival took place in 1778 and they continued at irregular intervals until 1842.
After a lapse of thirty-five years, following the 1842 Festival, an article appeared
in the local press which began as follows; ‘It has been a surprise to some who are in the habit of lamenting the inferiority
of Newcastle to such towns as Leeds and Birmingham in the matter of triennial
Musical Festivals, to find that more than a century ago the capital of Tyneside set
the example to many towns that have since wrested the palm of musical preeminence from her. It may be interesting, in view of the proposed resumption of
our local Musical Festivals, to recount, so far as existing chronicles permit, the
cardinal incidents in regard to those great occasions when, according to current
criticisms, “an immense concourse” of the nobility and gentry came together from
the “neighbouring counties” and “a crowd of beauty and fashion thronged the
streets”: when special steam-packets were run on the river, and inns and
lodging-houses were so hard pushed to provide accommodation that a single
night’s rest could not be obtained for less than four guineas.’
To some extent the above introduction to the 1877 newspaper article captures
the essence of what these festivals were all about. Grand music spectacles, laid
on to impress; employing large forces of mainly imported talent at great expense
and attended by the upper crust of local society. Initially, they appear to have
been largely self sponsored by those organizing and performing in the festival,
but later it was thought that local businesses and tradesmen, who together with
local landlords had welcomed the influx of people into the town for obvious
reasons, should contribute part of the profits they made from the festival to the
cost of the festival. Some of these Grand Music Festivals held in Newcastle
made a profit and where they did part of it went to charitable causes. Why the
Grand Music Festivals ceased to be held in Newcastle is not recorded (the
festival referred to in the above newspaper article would have been a lower key
local affair) but I suspect they outlived their appeal and the initial enthusiasm of
the 18th century for the uplifting choral works of Handel waned. The Three Choirs
Festival lived on through Edward Elgar and its ability to adapt to more modern
choral works by contemporary British composers but in Newcastle; music in St
Nicholas’ was frowned upon by a certain section of the community. In other
words, religious bigotry, which showed itself at the last of the festivals in 1842,
proved hard to overcome.
The first Music Festival took place in October 1778 and was held in the
Assembly Rooms. Four days were devoted exclusively to the performance of
choral works by Handel. These included ‘Alexander’s Feast’, ‘Judas Maccabeus’,
‘Acis and Galatea’, and ‘The Messiah’, and the whole thing seems by all
accounts to have been a great success. The artists appear to have been local, as
was the festival’s conductor, Mr Hawdon. A comment in the press pointed out
that ‘between acts attention was relaxed by an organ concerto by Signor Rush’,
which if nothing else proves what wonderful staying power the audiences who
attended these festivals had back in 1778. City records show that the next Music
Festival was not until 1791, which saw a move toward the ‘Grander’ Music
Festival. The 1791 Music Festival boasted ‘a grand selection of music as
performed in Westminster Abbey’ and the programme was again made up almost
entirely of works by Handel; ‘Joshua’, ‘Israel in Egypt’, ‘Jephtha’, ‘Samson’,
‘Omnipotence’, ‘Solomon’, ‘Athalia’, ‘Theodoro’, ‘Saul’, ‘Nabal’ and the ever
popular ‘Messiah’. There was also an extensive selection of pieces from Handel
compositions given in St Nicholas’ but to list them all would run the risk of giving
the reader musical indigestion. Nor shall I list all the artists, but I must make
mention of Madame Mara, the star of the festival. Gertrud Elizabeth Schmeling,
born 1749, spent her childhood touring the Continental and British provinces as a
sort of Wunderkind on the violin, to keep her father out of debtor’s prison. After
some vocal training she got herself accepted at the court of Frederick the Great.
Thereafter she led a highly colourful life and by 1784 had established herself in
London, where for the next eighteen years she remained unsurpassed in the
oratorios of Handel and Haydn. She left London in 1802 and sang her way to
Moscow, where she hoped to retire but lost her home and all her belongings in
the siege of 1812. She died in 1833 at the age of eighty-four. The festival, by all
accounts, seems to have been a great success, which was not the case of that
held five years later. The 1796 Grand Music Festival, under the patronage of
Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, and the management of Messrs. Meredith
and Thompson, was a financial disaster. Again the music was almost wholly
Handelian with performances in St Nicholas’ and the Assembly Rooms. The
band which comprised professional and amateur musicians was lead by Mr
Cramer from London. It was said that the failure of this festival might be partly
accounted for by the fact that other attractions in the town during the week
divided the patronage of the public. Incledon’s production ‘Fascinating Notes’
was drawing all the ‘gay, the tasteful and the polite to the theatre’. It being assize
week, the ‘assemblies were numerous and brilliant’. These do not sound to me
like the sort of people who would want to sit on hard wooden benches and listen
to Handel Oratorios and I suspect the real reasons lay elsewhere. But the local
press was in sympathy with the festival organisers. They ran a piece which in
summary said that along with other admirers of the friendly and estimable
character of Mr Meredith and of his wonderful powers they were sorry that he
had suffered so considerably by an undertaking calculated to produce delight and
universal gratification.
The pecuniary failure of the 1796 Music Festival perhaps paralysed private
enterprise, or the exciting events connected with the long, weary Peninsular War
(between Wellington and Napoleon in the Iberian Peninsular) may have
engrossed all attention, but it was not until the year peace was proclaimed in
1814 that another venture was made – this time under the patronage of a
committee of influential noblemen and gentlemen. It was agreed that one fifth of
all the money taken during the festival was to be handed over to the funds of the
Newcastle General Infirmary. This whole event seemed to be well organised and
although the standard of the orchestra and the choral singing came in for some
criticism the singing of the two principal artists, Madame Catalani and Mr
Braham, was outstanding. Angelica Catalani dominated her period, in her early
years, as no other singer had done since Mara. She was a sensation at her
London debut in 1806, therefore, I think we can safely say that Newcastle heard
her at her best at the 1814 Festival. The local press reports are glowing but the
truth is she was of the old school and took great liberties with the composer’s
music adding trills whenever it suited her. She was a forceful woman and (for
political reasons) once told Napoleon to his face that she would not sing for him.
She eventually went into opera management, about which her husband said that
to run an opera house all that was needed was his wife and four or five puppets.
Her tenor on this occasion, John Braham, was very popular with English
audiences as a singer and a songwriter. He was born in London of Jewish
parentage and made his stage debut at the age of ten. In his time he was one of
the few singers this country had produced that could hold his own with the
Italians and was consequently a great favourite at Covent Garden. He became
so rich that he bought the London Colosseum and built the St James’ Theatre in
London, both unsuccessful speculations as it turned out. The usual formula was
followed throughout the festival with sacred music in church and secular in the
theatre. As a grand finale a ball was held in the Assembly Rooms, ‘undertaken at
the instance and for the benefit of the Chevalier de Valibregue’, who was none
other than the husband and business agent of Madame Catalani. Significant of
the times was a letter to the editor of the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle from an
outraged Timothy Plain, in response to a performance by a lady solo violinist,
Madame Gerbini. The irate Mr Plain said ‘It is unseemly as well as uncommon to
behold a female playing the violin and prejudice will operate, along with her other
defects, to prevent her retaining the good opinion of the public’. But in spite of the
Timothy Plains the festival was well attended and the receipts exceeded £2,300,
of which a clear fifth was given to the Newcastle Infirmary.
The last two Grand Music Festivals were held in 1824 and 1842, the first
being a resounding success, musically and financially but the second only
musically. The vocal contributions at all of these festivals was considered the
most important aspect, purely instrumental music never commanded the same
attention. It was ever thus in English music making up to the 20th century. It still is
if one considers that the most popular night of our greatest music festival today,
The Promenade Concerts, is the last, when everyone is allowed to join in and
sing. At the 1824 Festival, Catalani and Braham appeared once again to great
acclaim although one dissenter complained that her rendition of ‘I Know that My
Redeemer Liveth’ from the ‘Messiah’ was not as good as the German lady,
Madame Mara. He was probably right, Catalani had returned to England in 1824,
when Lord Mount-Edgcumbe exclaimed that he found ‘her powers undiminished
but her taste unimproved’. Nevertheless, the total receipts amounted to £5,846,
which left £769 4s for the several charities the festival committee had agreed to
support. No doubt, looking back on this festival, the organisers of the 1842
Music Festival considered that they could do even better and assembled an
impressive list of patrons, who included The Duke and Duchess of
Northumberland, Duke and Duchess of Roxburghe, the Marquis of Bute, the
Marquis and Marchioness of Londonderry and a whole list of Counts, Earls and
Lords. Came the day and it was admitted that the singers were not such great
singers as at the previous festival but they were only ‘triflingly their inferiors’.
Potential stars they may have been in their time but today they are long
forgotten. Handel’s music predominated as usual but there was a wider selection
of choral pieces by other composers including Beethoven, Haydn, Hummel,
Mendelssohn, and Rossini. The chorus was largely drawn from local choral
societies supplemented by those from Durham, Carlisle and Lincoln, and the
band of sixty-four performers was, it was reported, ‘The best there has been, or
has ever been heard in Newcastle’. The festival was deemed a success from the
musical point of view, but ‘notwithstanding the goodly array of noble patrons and
the influence and energy of the working committee, the pecuniary result was very
disheartening’. Many years later, strong religious feeling was blamed for the loss
as it had been regarded by many at the time of the festival as an act of sacrilege
to hold a musical ‘performance’ in a place of worship, and the festival had been
denounced even from the pulpit. There were other music festivals of sorts held in
the town, but the days of the Grand Music Festivals, which continued to survive
in other parts of the country, were dead to Newcastle.
In the second half of the 18th Century there was a shift in cultural authority
away from the church and monarchy to the state and private associations. The
reasons for this sea change lay partly in the fact that the funds for church music
schools fell into decline and the growth of cities and the rise of Parliamentary
Government brought about new kinds of leadership that reshaped musical life in
general. There were also changes in the way music was being perceived, less as
an accompaniment to more pleasurable activities and more as a science in its
own right. The rapid growth of industrial towns such Newcastle in the 19th
Century led to their attempts at emulating London’s amenities in the arts and not
least in music. Initially town halls, especially those with an organ began serving
as concert halls. This period also saw the rise of all manner of amateur musical
establishments, often led by local professionals, ranging from Harmonic and
Choral societies to dance schools, musical academies and schools of music.
This belated recognition of the importance of music within society could not be
ignored by those outside musical circles and as early as June 1798 permission
was given to the Music Society in Newcastle to use the rooms of the Literary and
Philosophical Society of Newcastle, once a fortnight, for private concerts. The Lit
and Phil, as it is affectionately known, was founded in 1793 as a forum for the
exercise of intellectual thought aimed primarily at improving society as a whole,
with only Religion, the practical branch of Law, Physics and Politics, being
deemed prohibited subjects of conversation within its rooms. In the following
century it hosted lectures on the Science of Music as well as allowing piano
recitals and talks on all manner of musical subjects from the Northumbrian pipes
to Wagner’s operas. The subsequent flowering of musical life in Newcastle
during the 19th Century is fascinating and revealing and justifies a book in itself
but we shall have to content ourselves with only the briefest summary of this
Charles Avison is credited with introducing the first public concerts given in
the town, and these coincided with the setting-up of the Newcastle Music Society
around 1737. Regardless of which came first Avison’s public concerts were
among the first of their kind in any provincial town and the Newcastle Music
Society was one of the first of its kind in the country. It was well ahead of its time
and put Newcastle on a par with London. The idea of the subscription concert,
enabling the organisers to assess the size of the audiences for accommodation
purposes, and settle matters of finance before the concerts took place, proved
very popular with promoters in those early days. From 1800 onwards there
seems to have been a proliferation of self sponsored concerts bearing the name
of the promoter/performer in the title; the Volunteer Band Concerts, Cliffords’
Concerts, Mrs Bramwell’s Concerts and Count Boruwlaski’s Concerts. There
was, however, a sameness about the programming of these concerts with
Handel, Haydn and Pleyel prominently featured along with a string of other
composers whose names would mean little to the average music lover today.
Ignaz Joseph Pleyel’s music was very popular with Newcastle audiences in the
1800s. He was born in 1757, the 24th of 38 children in an impoverished family of
mixed Austrian and French parentage. A one-time pupil of Haydn, with whom he
lived for a while, he wrote forty symphonies, nine concertos, eighty-nine quartets
and amongst other numerous quintets, trios, duos and masses, he also wrote
two operas. As well as being a composer he was a concert pianist, piano and
harp manufacturer and music publisher. Truly a man of many talents. The first
music society formed in Newcastle in the 19th Century was the Harmonic Society
and we are fortunate in having many of its programmes preserved for us in the
archives of the Newcastle City Library. As the Harmonic Society’s concert
meetings were typical of many of those that followed it is worth looking a little
closer at the make up of its programmes over the first two seasons, which gives
us a feel for the period.
Their first concert in 1815 opened with an Avison concerto, which was
followed by a glee for four voices by William Horsley, born 1774, composer and
organist. Next came a Grand Pianoforte Concerto by Viotti. Giovanni Battista
Viotti was then considered the greatest violinist of his time and wrote 29 violin
concertos but arranged some of them for piano. A duet by Braham (the same as
appeared at the Grand Music Festivals) followed and Act I (concerts were then
still thought of as theatrical performances) ended with an air for violin and piano
by Beethoven. Act II opened with a concerto by Corelli. Arcangelo Corelli had
died in 1713, therefore, his music would have been looked upon as ancient
music in 1815. Unlike today much of the music performed at these concerts was
by living composers. The Corelli concert was followed by one of William Shield’s
songs and then a vocal duet by Stevenson. Sir John Stevenson was an Irishman,
who composed songs and glees. He collaborated closely with Thomas Moore,
the Irish poet, who exerted a strong influence on English song making at the
time. Then came a quartet by Pleyel, followed by another glee, this one by
Clarke, who could well have been the same Jeremiah Clarke, of Trumpet
Voluntary fame, who became a victim of unrequited love and blew out his brains
with a pistol. The evening’s entertainment was rounded off with a catch by
Samuel Webbe, the foremost composer of this sort of thing. He was a
carpenter’s apprentice who had studied music on his own, between 1766 and
1792. He carried off twenty-six prizes for his glees awarded by the Noblemen’s
and Gentleman’s Catch Club in London. He was also an organist and composed
a good deal of sacred music.
We can see immediately from the above programme that the late Georgians
went to concerts for entertainment rather than intellectual stimulation. The
audience would have been small by today’s standards; ten members of the
Society with invited guests some of whom may well have performed. There
would also have been audience participation. There would certainly have been
eating and drinking. My research leads me to suspect that at these early
Harmonic Society concerts the audience would have been all male, rather in the
nature of an exclusive gentleman’s club. Their concerts continued on a regular
basis through 1815 and 1816 and may well have gone on. The demise of these
societies is usually lost in local history. The content of future programmes was
based on what the members wanted to hear and the glees and catches of
Webbe and Calcott’s were very popular. The following is an example of a catch
by John Calcott that was much requested at concerts in those early days; Aldiborontiphoscophonio, where left now Chrononhotonthologues?
Fatigued within his tent, by the toils of war,
On downy couch reposing;
Rigdumfienidos watching near him,
While the prince is dozing.
Before we scoff at our forefathers for being amused by such childish wordplay,
we would do well to remember the amusement afforded to so many of all ages,
one hundred and fifty years later, by the song ‘Supercalafragilisticexpialidocius’,
with its ‘umdiddlediddlediddle umdiddleaye’ chorus, written by an American, who
was so fascinated by this kind of early English song that he used the film ‘Mary
Poppins’, set in London in 1910, as an excuse to write one.
At the third Harmonic Society concert music by Handel, Mozart and Haydn
was introduced and the sixth concert comprised mostly excerpts from ‘The
Messiah.’ The seventh concert featured another concerto by Avison but songs,
glees and catches were to the fore. One in particular by an unnamed composer,
performed at the fifth concert, is worthy of inclusion in the Tyneside songbook; Which is the properest day to drink?
Saturday, Sunday, Monday?
Each is the properest day, I think,
Why should I name but one day?
Tell me but yours, I’ll mention mine,
Let us but fix on some day;
Bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo!
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,
Saturday, Sunday, Monday.
However, these Harmonic Gentlemen from Newcastle were nothing if not
patriotic and this was clearly demonstrated at the end of the last concert of the
second season in 1816 when the assembled audience rose to their feet, puffed
out their collective chests, proud Englishmen all, and sang:
My pockets low and taxes high,
Ah! I could sit me down to cry;
But why despair? The times may mend,
Our loyalty shall us befriend.
Propitious fortune yet may smile
On fair Britannia’s sea girt isle.
Then poverty shall take her flight,
And we will sing by day and night,
God save great George our king,
Long live our noble king, etc.
After the last concert, in 1816, a piece appeared in the local press. Among
other things it identified the venue of the performance as Saville Row, and the
house of Mr Thompson, the organist of St Nicholas’. It then went on to say; ‘The exertions of this society have proved a most agreeable treat to a great
portion of the musical amateurs in the town. Many of the best works of Haydn,
Handel, Mozart, Viotti, Beethoven, Avison, Correlli &c. &c. have been executed
during the season and the unbounded approbation which has been bestowed
upon the several performances is the best proof of the satisfaction they have
afforded to the most crowded audiences. We know not whether it is the intention
of the gentlemen forming the society to resume their meetings against another
season but we can assure them they have the grateful thanks of their auditors for
the amusement they have already bestowed: and hope they themselves have
received gratification equal, at least, to that which they have so liberally imparted’
Fine words indeed but unless the author of the piece had attended all the
concerts in the seasons he would not have known which works by the composers
listed were played and it is unlikely anyway that he would have been so musically
well informed at the time as to be able to make such a statement. Having
perused the programmes for the season and with the benefit of hindsight I would
say that apart from Handel the claim is an exaggeration. The bulk of the items in
these programmes were of a lighter nature and would have provided the
audiences with – as the reviewer correctly states – some amusement. However,
we must not forget that were it not for the ‘exertions of the society’ none of the
music of any of the composers listed would have been heard at all in
performance by anyone and so we owe a small debt of gratitude to these early
music societies that were in their own way helping sustain some form of musical
culture within the town.
Following the success of the Harmonic Society in 1815 a number of societies
with amateur in their title came into being; the Amateur Harmonic Society (1824),
Amateur Music Society (1825), Newcastle and Gateshead Amateur Choral
Society (1828) and the Amateur Glee Club in 1837. But there were also others
that did not broadcast their amateur status such as the Phil-Harmonic Society of
1826. According to Mackenzie’s 1827 historical account of Newcastle this society
consisted of 100 ordinary members, who paid 4s each every month, and
received three tickets of admission, and 36 honorary members, or performers,
who were presented with two tickets. The audience usually consisted of about
340 persons, excluding performers and with the ladies all dressed to pleasing
effect. The band was made up of amateurs and performed gratis. Concerts were
held in the Turk’s Head Hotel, Long Room in the Bigg Market. A press review of
their first concert on 29th November 1826 firstly introduces the society ‘a society
of gentlemen in this town who entitle themselves the “Phil-Harmonic Society”,
and goes on to say that the music was both vocal and instrumental but it was not
a concert on which criticism could be employed with the same freedom which
would be called for in a public exhibition but it was justice to say that as a whole
the singing and the oratorios were such as to reflect great credit on the
respective parties. The reader is then informed that it was emphatically a dress
concert and attended by upwards of 300 persons of respectability. The review
ends with the following paragraph, which both points to the exclusivity of these
concerts and to the entirely different approach our forefathers had to concert
‘A correspondent suggests the propriety of having a ball at the end of the PhilHarmonic Society‘s concerts. We have ourselves repeatedly suggested the
establishment of tradesmen’s dancing assemblies in this town and we should be
happy to see this affair taken up by the subscribers to the Phil-harmonic Society,
or by a distinct set of gentlemen. Assemblies for the trading part of the
community are certainly much wanted, and if properly conducted could not fail to
meet with adequate support.’
The Phil-Harmonic Society concerts and their after-concert entertainments
became very popular and continued into the 1850s. Some twenty years earlier
they had had to move into the Large Assembly Rooms to accommodate the
growing numbers and in 1851 a letter to the Gazette suggested the society
rename itself the Terpsichorean Club. However, their success did not go down
well with everyone as a letter to the Editor of the Tyne Mercury in April 1837
The Standard newspaper has been made the vehicle of an attempt to ridicule
the Concerts of this Society, the leader and the committee knowing well and
thoroughly the contemptible little catiff from whom these puny dribblings of tap
house wit have emanated. The committee can laugh at his puny malice, and
even afford to wish that he may be able to muster a more numerous list of
subscribers when he brings forward his threatened opposition, than he did the
last time he failed in this creditable manoeuvre. But his brutal attack upon a
talented amateur deserves and will receive from every right-minded person the
most unqualified reprobation. Had it been in his power to injure his own lost
character in this town, this would have furnished the coping-stone to the column
of his besotted folly. It is lucky the gentleman in question is not so fierce in his
manner as he is described to be in his flute playing, otherwise the reptile might
again have received the chastisement, unhappily too much neglected by his
infatuated parent, and which he has more than once before received from
persons he has insulted; but, alas! you may bray a fool in a mortar and his folly
will not depart from him. Should he persist in his past and present courses, he
may find that the public opinion will force him again upon his travels.
I am, Sir, &c
Although this exchange of insults between rivals makes for interesting reading
it is not typical of the period and where concert meetings were commented upon
in the press they tended to be self-congratulatory. The Phil-Harmonic was not of
course the only society giving concerts at this time. There was a series of
Miscellaneous Concerts also being given in the Turk’s Head Long Room in 1825,
the Amateur Music Society were doing the same at about the same time and by
November 1826 The Amateur Harmonic Society was giving its twenty-sixth
concert (all songs) in the Joiners Hall. Further down the social scale the
Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Society were giving what they termed as
public exhibitions. The Society proudly boasted that its members came from the
humbler walks of life but in talent and perseverance had set an example worthy
of the highest imitation. It was the choral societies perhaps more than any other
that brought together people from all walks of life with the one aim of making
music. A Mr Ingham was giving concerts in the Music Hall on Blackett Street in
November 1830, under the patronage of the Town Mayor and a Mr Richard Carte
did even better during the period 1839 – 1843 in securing the patronage of Her
Grace, The Duchess of Roxburghe, The Hon Lady Williamson, Lady Blackett,
The Right Worshipful Mayor of Newcastle and The Sheriff of Newcastle for a
series of Grand Subscription Concerts in the Assembly Rooms. So the musical
life of Newcastle went on through the 1840s and the 1850s with the Newcastle
Sacred Harmonic and Choral Society giving performances of the ever popular
‘Messiah’ in the Music Hall, Nelson Street and the Temperance Choral Society
(one imagines not very well supported in Newcastle) announcing a Musical
Soiree on Boxing Day 1849 with the words ‘TEA ON THE TABLES AT 5
O’CLOCK’ prominently printed on their leaflet.
In the 19th Century concerts also took place in the theatres of Newcastle,
which with the opening of the first Theatre Royal in Mosley Street on the 26th
January 1788 became a great attraction for the growing pleasure seeking society
of the early 1800s. That is not to say that the concerts put on in the theatres were
all froth, far from it. The Theatre Royal, Mosley Street presented a grand concert
of selections from Handel’s sacred oratorios on 3rd March 1819, between two
plays and seven days later repeated the formula. In August 1840 a series of
Promenade Concerts were tried in the Theatre Royal, Grey Street but proved to
be a dismal failure. However, other performances seem to have proved more
successful, such as (once again!) Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in April 1843 and
performances of Mozart’s 12th Mass and Haydn’s Creation Part 1, two days later.
But the real impact of the theatre upon the town’s musical heritage lay in the
stage productions with music, which I shall deal with in more detail in a later
chapter. Many of these early musical concerts were in aid of charity such as
those given in October 1834 in the Large Assembly Rooms by a body calling
itself, the Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle Amateur Concerts. The press
review following the concerts talks of the instrumental band consisting of 50 and
60 performers – forming altogether the largest band ever heard in this town – but
then goes on to raise the often to be repeated statement, ‘ the opportunity of
practice only is wanting to rescue Newcastle from the reproach of being the only
large town in England, in which an efficient band cannot be got together’ I doubt
whether that was entirely true as early as 1834, bearing in mind that the
Manchester and Liverpool orchestras were amongst the first in the 1840s and
1850s. but the words did have a prophetic ring of truth about them.
There does seem to have been a flurry of musical activity in the town around
this time but it has to be said, not of a very high standard. I refer here more to the
content than the performers, who were mostly amateurs anyway. Reading
through the many programmes from this period it becomes apparent that there is
a sameness about them all. I have already mentioned the predominance of
Handel and audiences’ penchant for glees, catches, ballads and songs of every
kind but what of the instrumental pieces programmed and who were the popular
composers of the time? I noticed that Bach’s name was listed once and Mozart a
couple of times but most of the others are long forgotten. Who today knows
Anfossi, Davaux, Mahor, Mazzinghi, Rigel, Rofetti or Rohde to mention but only
seven of them. On the other hand the cognoscenti might just be familiar with
Kozeluh, (1747-1815) a Czech, who was contemptible of Mozart and had no time
for Beethoven (Beethoven called him Miserabilis) and who was considered the
greatest composer in Europe in 1800 but by 1830 was forgotten. Or, Krumpholtz,
(1742-1790) who, in his day was considered the world’s greatest harpist. All his
musical compositions are said to have included the instrument. Alas! He was
destined to a certain musical obscurity in this world when he threw himself into
the icy River Seine in Paris after his young wife and favourite pupil, eloped to
London with an Adonis-like concert pianist, but no doubt he achieved immortality
in the next world having wisely chosen the right instrument in this one.
The trouble with concerts in Newcastle at around this period seems to have
been that no one was setting critical standards and popularity was dictating
demand. The Phil-Harmonic Society is a good example in that its original
objective was ‘the refinement of the public taste, by the performance of classical
music’ and it ended up the most popular ball in town. It could be said that
Newcastle was lapsing into a sort of musical provincialism, run by local
musicians. But then Charles Avison had been a local musician. The difference
was that he had kept his finger firmly on the musical pulse of his day and this
was reflected in his compositions. He had also endeavoured to set high critical
standards in his writing and had exercised some influence over his local
contemporaries. In addition he had sought to educate his audiences through his
subscription concerts and not simply entertain them by pandering to popular
public taste. For ninety years following the death of Charles Avison no other
musician had any effect on the musical life of the town until a very talented
professional musician from London took up an appointment as Council Organist
and revitalized the town’s flagging musical life. His name was William Rea.
I had not heard of William Rea before I began researching Newcastle’s musical
history and, I am sad to say, nor had anyone else I spoke to in Newcastle. All my
inquiries met with a complete blank, it were as though he had never existed. Yet
it would be no exaggeration to say that after Avison he did more to promote a
higher musical culture in Newcastle than anyone else did. As I thumbed my way
through collections of old programmes his name kept reappearing. It seemed at
various times he fulfilled the role of council and church organist, pianist,
conductor, choir master, arranger, organizer, lecturer and many other things
besides. The man’s energy astounded me and very soon I found Dr Rea
demanding my full attention. Unlike Avison, Rea was not a native Tynesider and
I very soon found myself puzzling again over what made this man with such
musical potential decide to bury himself in an organist’s post in England’s most
northerly outpost? I don’t profess to know the answer even now and may never
know but I can say that the town’s musical history would have been the poorer
without him. In the same way as Charles Avison had done he did much to
promote Newcastle as one of the leading provincial music centres in the country
and much more than Avison he worked hard at bringing music of a high standard
to the ordinary people of the town.
William Rea was born in London on 25th March 1827. From being young he
showed a remarkable aptitude for music and at an early age was placed under
Mr Joseph Pitman, an eminent musician, who invented the pedal organ and
introduced Bach’s fugues into England. Rea made such rapid progress that
before he was in his teens he was acting as deputy to his master, who held the
appointment of organist at Spitalfields. In his eagerness to study harmony under
Schnyder von Wartensee, Rea took himself to the Continent. At sixteen years of
age he was studying piano, composition and instrumentation under Sterndale
Bennett (1816-75) and by 1843 had secured an appointment as organist at Christ
Church, Watney Street. Two year later he appeared as soloist in a piano
concerto at a concert sponsored by the Society for British Musicians, formed in
1834 with the objective of advancing native talent in composition and
performance. Shortly after, he was appointed organist at St Andrews Undershaft
but soon vacated the post to go abroad again. In 1849 he went to Leipzig, where
he studied under Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870), a brilliant pianist and head of the
Piano Department at the Conservatory, and also under Ernst Friedrich Eduard
Richter (1808-79), Cantor of the Thomas School and a master on harmonic
theory. It was here he achieved the highest estimation of his art, which for the
rest of his life remained one of his most prominent characteristics. From Leipzig
Rea went to Prague and studied under Alexander Dreyschock (1818-69), pianist,
teacher and composer and considered a rival of Liszt in technical dexterity. In all
Rea spent three years on the Continent. On his return to London he gave a
series of chamber concerts in the Beethoven Rooms and in 1853 was appointed
organist to the Harmonic Union, which had Julius Benedict (1804-85) as its
conductor. In 1856 Rea founded the London Polyhymnian Choir, comprising all
male voices on the same lines as the Cologne Minnersanger Verein in Germany,
which was a great success. Around this time he was also conductor of an
amateur orchestra. In 1858 he took up what was to be his last London
appointment as organist at St Michael’s in Stockwell. In 1860 the Newcastle
Council advertised a post for Council Organist and Rea applied. Although there
were many applicants for the post Rea was so outstanding the others were
immediately dismissed and he got the job.
A brief summary of Rea’s contribution to the history of music in Newcastle,
such as that given in his obituary notice (see below) does not do full justice to the
man but it is impressive nevertheless. As council organist he gave weekly organ
and piano recitals in the Town hall. In 1867 he began a series of choral and
orchestral concerts – over a month at a time- every season for nine years.
Eminent artists were engaged and the most famous works were well performed.
After the collapse of these concerts he gave three subscription concerts annually
that were well supported by leading musical amateurs. At various times he was
organist at St Andrews, St Mary’s (Tyne Dock) and Elswick Road Chapel. He
published a few compositions but they were said to show reserve. His life’s work
was principally educational; he had a music academy on Pilgrim Street where he
taught piano, organ and harmony. In 1886 Durham University conferred upon
him a FCO & Musical Doctorate and in May 1889 he received a public testimonial
in recognition of his services in the cultivation and spread of music in the North of
England. The idea originated with members of Newcastle Amateur Vocal Society
in recognition of his many years as their conductor but it afterwards assumed a
more widely representative character owing to a desire of many friends outside
the circle of the Society to participate in doing honour to an eminent musician
who had done so much for musical culture in the district of his adoption. The
presentation was made by Alderman Jonathan Barker Ellis, who had worked
closely with Dr Rea, as Chairman of the People’s Concerts Committee.
William Rea must have met with some opposition when he first came to
Newcastle from London, not least perhaps from the Phil-Harmonic Society. I can
find no evidence of this but its members would not have taken kindly to this
Londoner with his preference for German music hustling in on their territory,
giving lectures at the Literary and Philosophical Society on Mozart, Beethoven
and Weber, and recitals of modern piano music. The thought of Wagner ringing
out over the Bigg Market must have filled them with horror. Their concerts were
exclusive civilised affairs, with the right people attending and now here was this
London fellow starting up something called Promenade Concerts in the Town
Hall with an orchestra made up of musicians from Her Majesty’s Theatre, the
Royal Italian Opera Covent Garden and the London Popular Concerts, and any
Tom, Dick or Harry was being admitted at the door for just sixpence. Not only
that but he was doing all the organising, conducting, playing the piano and
managing to get late running trains laid on to places like Sunderland and South
Shields to coincide with the finishing times of his concerts. As though these
evening concerts were not enough he was proposing additional Morning
Performances on Saturdays at 2.30 pm for workers and tradespeople, who are,
by the very nature of their working hours unable to make the evening
performances. Here was a man who was determined that everyone in the town
should enjoy music and it should not be the exclusive preserve of the ‘better off’
citizens in the town as it had been up to the point of his arrival.
These Grand Classical and Promenade Concerts and later Weekly Popular
Concerts, held between 1867 and 1873 were financed by subscriptions and a
notice in one of the early programmes gives a clue as to their organisation. It
reads as follows:
‘A committee of gentlemen are desirous to initiate a weekly series of concerts
in the New Town Hall during the months of November and December. In order to
produce these in a manner which shall be worthy of Public Patronage it is
proposed to issue subscription tickets for a series of six concerts at the following
moderate charges;
Family Reserved Seat Tickets, to admit Four Persons to the Serie..£1 1s 0d
Single Reserved Seat Tickets, for the Series….£0 7s 6d
As soon as sufficient number of subscribers shall be obtained the committee will
be prepared to make engagements with the very best available talent.
The entire musical arrangements will be under the superintendence of Mr Rea,
Organist to the Corporation. The promotees of these concerts urge upon all
interested in the culture of Music in this town, and the moral and social elevations
of the masses, to support this endeavour to provide a First Class Musical
Entertainment, that shall be within reach of all classes of the Public.’
The first of the Promenade Concerts held in 1867 had an early 19th century
flavour with the usual mixture of song and orchestral pieces but as the season
progressed Rea introduced, between the ballads – symphonies, by Mozart,
Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and other works by Gounod, Meyerbeer, Auber etc.
These concerts proved very popular and the programme for the last concert of
the season had to include a notice to the effect that it was ‘Positively the Last
Night!’ In 1871 he instituted an all Beethoven night and an all Mendelssohn
programme and to balance it he had an Offenbach/Strauss evening. In 1872 he
introduced Wagner for the first time in Newcastle. And so these concerts
continued until 1873 with Mr Rea taking a leading role and continually introducing
new works into his interesting and varied programmes.
Some idea of the occasion when Dr Rea introduced his Promenade Concerts
in Newcastle can be gleaned from the press report of 4th February 1867,
following the first concert.
(Dr Rea held the) ‘First of a series of orchestral promenade concerts in the
Town Hall inaugurating a project which he has long had at heart and taking a
step deserving of every encouragement and success and to say the least of it,
most courageous. A strong well-balanced company of artists have been
engaged. His intentions are to give concerts nightly for one month and it remains
to be seen whether there is in the district that taste for high-class music, skilfully
and harmoniously rendered to repay the necessary trouble and anxiety –
Whether in fact there will be such audiences as to make financially successful
what, in itself may be predicted a thorough success and whether the immediate
effect will be the establishment of an orchestral society consisting of a picked
number of our local musicians. Nothing of its kind could have been better and
certainly nothing of its kind would have given greater relish and satisfaction than
did the concert of last night.’
The review went on to say that there was an audience numerous and fashionable
and anything if not appreciative and they did not scruple in the bestowal of their
applause. The hall was tastefully decorated with flags, banners and trophies
bearing the names of the great masters and a refreshment stall had been
Following a later concert in the autumn of that same year the press reported
that from the moment the doors were opened there was a constant stream of
people. Mostly season ticket holders but the demand had exceeded the supply
and there had been a limit put on them so that some parts of the hall could be
available to the general public. These areas were the gallery and the rear of the
area, presumably downstairs. It was reported that the limited number of tickets
available caused disappointment ‘but the mortification they at present experience
will not be without its advantages if it teaches the danger of procrastination and
lead them on a future occasion to take time by the forelocks and secure their
tickets at an early period’.
I am sure that many reader’s will have already latched onto the fact that Rea’s
Promenade Concerts were thirty years ahead of Henry Wood’s and further
comparisons would disclose many similar features between the two. I would
hesitate to suggest, however, that Promenade concerts were Mr Rea’s idea, they
were not, and the concept had been around for some time. One outside force
that influenced change in this direction was Johann Strauss, senior, when he
visited England with his orchestra in 1838 and toured the country widely,
although I can find no evidence that he performed in Newcastle. However, his
influence together with that of his French equivalent, Philippe Musard (17931859) who introduced Promenade concerts into Paris in 1833 and Louis Antoine
Jullien, must have been instrumental in the introduction of Promenade Concerts
in general. Jullien and his orchestra did perform in Newcastle in January 1857 at
the Theatre Royal, Grey Street, billed as ‘Mon. Jullien and his Unrivalled Band’.
Jullien was a sort of 19th century pop idol. He had about two dozen Christian
names having been named after all the members of the local philharmonic
orchestra in his hometown of Sisteron. He introduced the Polka to England and
Queen Victoria was not amused, but she should have been flattered in 1845
when Jullien and an orchestra of five hundred played ‘her tune’ at Covent Garden
with a cannon shot in each bar. Jullien made a fortune from music but died in
poverty and lunacy. Notwithstanding all this, Mr Rea had some original ideas and
they did not go unnoticed outside the town, as the following contemporary
newspaper report testifies:
‘It may be perhaps gratifying to the subscribers to learn that the Annual Series of
Orchestral Concerts in Newcastle are now exciting considerable attention in
musical circles in London, and that Glasgow, Edinbro’ and Greenock are
beginning to avail themselves of the services of the Orchestra organised by Mr
Rea, and are following in the wake of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Mr Rea has no
hesitation in affirming that better concerts than those which have been given
during the last month have seldom been heard either out of or in the Metropolis.
In confirmation of this he begs to refer his patrons to the list of works performed,
and to remind them of the highly finished performances of such excessively
complicated works as the Power of Sound (Spohr), the Scotch Symphony, the
Pastoral Symphony, &c., &c.’
The article concludes with a list of the orchestral works performed in the third
series of these concerts which includes Beethoven symphonies 1,2,4,5 and 6,
Haydn’s ‘Surprise’, Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’, ‘Reformation’ and ‘Scotch’ and many
overtures, marches, waltzes and operatic selections by other leading composers.
William Rea had literally overnight, and single handedly, changed the concert
scene in Newcastle.
William Rea died shortly after 11 o’clock on 8th March 1903 at his home at No
7 Summerhill Grove at the top of Westgate Hill and was laid to rest in Jesmond
Old Cemetery. On his death the following appeared in the Newcastle Daily
Journal: ‘When William Rea came to Newcastle if could hardly be said that it was a
musical town, and indeed it would be scarcely the truth to say that the arduous
labours on which he entered with enthusiasm and with persistent effort met with
such appreciative response they deserved. In those days it was a common
matter of reproach that Newcastle cared so little for music that no high-class
concert paid and consequently that accomplished artistes fought shy of the
place. If in the last quarter of a century there has been a distinct change and if
Newcastle has now, to a large extent, thrown off that record, much is due to the
talents and the energy of Dr Rea ... He came to us, work-a-day community,
distinctly behind-hand in the appreciation of the fine arts, because we had not
had time, in the busy, bustling middle of the century, to think much about these
things. He set himself the task of teaching the people to understand and
appreciate good music, and assuredly, his labours have, in no slight degree, met
their reward’
Three years after his death, his two sons, Charles Herbert and William Cecil,
had a memorial headstone erected in memory of their father and the occasion
was marked by a piece in the Newcastle Daily Chronicle on February 3rd.
‘There has just been erected by his sons in the old Jesmond Cemetery a very
interesting memorial to the late Dr William Rea, the eminent musician. This is a
beautiful headstone 7 feet in height with a bronze medallion, life size surrounded
by a wreath very artistically treated followed by an inscription in memory of Dr
Rea and Mrs Rea and their 2 children who died young. The stone, which is a fine
block of hard Portland limestone and which will retain its whiteness has been
designed by Mr Rob North architect of Cliffords Inn and is based upon 18th
century work. The relief in bronze is by that eminent and distinguished sculptor,
Mr Frank Derwent Wood, the aim being simple in design. The work was executed
in London and sent in finished state. The memorial of Dr Rea will interest and will
be much admired by his many friends and pupils who benefited so largely from
his earnest and unselfish labours to cultivate a taste for classical ideas in music
and to whom so many in the city and surroundings owe a great debt of gratitude
for much of the advanced interest in the divine art.’
The piece went on to give a description of the details engraved on a memorial
head stone, which are as follows:
In Loving Memory of
Who devoted more than 40 years to cultivate a love of good music amongst the
People of this City.
Born, March 25th 1827; died March 8th 1903
And of his dearly beloved wife
Daughter of Wesley Stoker Woolhouse F.R.A.S.
Born April 7th 1835; died May 6th 1893
Also their dear children who died in 1861
ELEANOR GERTRUDE on March 10 aged six years
EMMA BEATRICE on March 13 aged three years
The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God.
Wisdom, chap 3.
In a cemetery now largely overgrown and unattended William Rea’s gravestone,
lies, broken in two halves; the only memorial to this outstanding musician, who
dedicated the greater part of his life to sustaining some form of musical culture in
the North East for the benefit of everyone. His overall contribution to the cultural
life of the city has not yet been acknowledged by the City of Newcastle and I feel
this is long overdue.
William Rea was anything but a musical snob. If we take his Weekly Popular
Concerts, which were held amongst other reasons for the moral and social
elevation of the masses we can see that his aim was to bring music to everyone
and he was given an opportunity to do this through the People’s Concerts that
were started in Newcastle in 1881. The idea of having concerts for the ordinary
people, was not Rea’s alone, concerts for the people was a concept that had
been around since the 1840s in England and Europe, but it needed someone to
stir the Newcastle Town Council into action and I suspect that that someone was
William Rea. However, the whole question of People’s Concerts remained a
controversial issue so far as the Council was concerned; whilst some members
were in favour others were not and this was best summed up in 1908 by one
member of the Council, who said that when he joined the Council, three years
earlier, he had been astounded at the ludicrous spirit in which the Council had
viewed the subject. It was a farce and seemed that the concerts were being
carried out as the fad of one individual or individuals. The Council, however, were
quick to take the credit at the early stages when the idea proved to be a success.
But for the full inside story we need to delve into the Minutes of the Council
Committee Meetings for the period 1880 – 1920.
On the 18th June 1880 a Musical Committee was convened by the Council to
consider information submitted from various boroughs where organ recitals and
other performances were held. After careful consideration it was unanimously
agreed that the present arrangements with Mr Rea were unsatisfactory and that
they should go for more popular musical performances in the Town Hall. Mr Rea
was invited to put forward his views in writing as to the manner in which the
public of Newcastle could be provided with more attractive music and how it
should be arranged. It was subsequently agreed that he should have free use of
the Town Hall Concert Rooms and Organ for a certain number of evenings for
popular concerts, which the Council would control. Mr Rea would organise things
but he would still remain the Council Organist. By 1882 the concerts were up and
running. They proved successful and showed a profit. At this stage the Council
thought it appropriate to thank the Musical Committee chairman for the great zeal
he had displayed in inaugurating and carrying on so successfully the Saturday
Evening Corporation Concerts (as they were known at that time) which had
proved a source of so much enjoyment to all classes of the community. All on the
committee agreed. The concert series were subject to approval each year by the
committee but otherwise Mr Rea did everything and it all ran smoothly under his
direction. That is until 1888 when he was told in so many words by the committee
not to anticipate their approval but to curtail his enthusiasm and await the
committee’s instructions. That same month Mr Rea tendered his resignation from
the Council’ employment, which was accepted by the Council. The committee
concluded that in the circumstances he ‘could not be had’ for the Peoples
Concerts and they appointed Mr Hirschmann, who ran a piano shop in town.
Up to 1890 the concerts were still in credit, but by 1892 it was noticed that
artists fees were exceeding expenses and one Council member complained that
exorbitant prices were being paid for professional artists. (More than one
Amateur Society had bankrupted itself over professional artists fees) and the
committee became divided as to the continuance of the concert series. One
source of contention was that the Music in the Park’s Committee had creamed off
the profits made at the People’s Concerts to pay for Sunday band concerts in
public parks. By 1896 full blown committee rows were taking place with the anticoncert lobby pointing out that several large rate payers made their living out of
giving concerts and the Corporation had no right to take away their source of
livelihood by giving cheap concerts subsidised from local taxes. The pro-concert
lobby pointed out that the Council had a duty to make brighter and better lives for
the people they represented and that there were hundreds of causes in
Newcastle where they were spending money for which in one sense they got no
return. It was further pointed out that private enterprise in Newcastle had so far
done nothing for the musical education of the Newcastle people (resounding
Hear! Hear!) and it was the People’s Concerts that had stirred public enterprise
to do its duty. Parallels were drawn with Leeds and Birmingham and it was
pointed out that prior to the introduction of the People’s Concerts in Newcastle
there had been the same second-rate class of concert from year’s end to year’s
end. This was not entirely true but it was make or break time. Fortunately the
decision was in favour of the concerts continuing for another season at least.
The debt continued to rise, however, and in 1903 an unnamed public
benefactor sent a cheque for a substantial sum to help reduce the deficit but it
only made matters worse. The committee chairman accepted it but the Mayor
was livid and considered it humiliating. He said the Council could not possibly
accept and instructed the City Treasurer to give it back .to the Gentleman
concerned. Further heated discussions over finance ensued but in the end
reason prevailed with one member pointing out that the Council should provide
‘good’ music for the public to elevate and educate the people and if they didn’t
they would simply find themselves in competition with the music halls, A
dissenting voice countered with, ‘the poorer people for whom these concerts
were originally intended are no longer attending and those that are, are better off
and could afford to pay more’ And so the arguments went on and the concert
seasons continued but there was that feeling in the air that perhaps they had
outlived their purpose. However, like all public institutions once established it
proves more difficult to do away with them. Committee meetings became ever
stormier with one councillor even invoking the British Empire in his oration when
he said that in all other large centres of population in the great (British) empire,
the authorities were devoting very large sums of money to this special object;
and that they practically pledged themselves as citizens to do so. He went on to
point out that for those of them who were temperance reformers there was no
better influence that could be exerted to promote sobriety in the habits of the
people than the encouragement of music of this sort and he would like to see the
movement extended. The series did trundled on but was probably a casualty of
the Great War. I was denied access to the Council Minutes for part of the latter
period - the books are considered too fragile for handling by the public - but by
August 1918 the minutes show that consideration was being given to handing
over the south end of the Town Hall Concert Room to the Food Control
Department and the north end of the hall to the requirements of the Coal
Rationing Department. In other words it was agreed that the Town Council take
steps to make best possible arrangements for the fullest use of the Town Hall
Concert Room! By 1920, Council Minutes were beginning to reflect the
dilapidated state of the Concert Room, which it was said was unfit for public
gatherings. The magazine ‘Musical Times’ reported in one of their 1920 issues
on the lack of concert hall facilities in Newcastle upon Tyne.
We have some idea of the content of People’s Concerts, which reflects the
limited finances put initially at Mr Rea’s disposal. They quite obviously could not
stretch to an orchestra and so the early programmes mostly comprised songs,
organ solos by William Rea, glees and violin and ‘clarionette’ solos. In 1883 they
managed performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and Haydn’s ‘Creation’. In 1886
they presented Handel's ‘Judas Maccabeus’ and in 1895, Rossini’s ‘Stabat
Mater’. At other concerts there were scenes from operas. From the sparse
information available it would seem that by 1901/1902 the Corporation was
inviting good quality singers to perform at these concerts. The French/Canadian
soprano, Miss Zelie de Lussan sang and Joseph O’Mara, the Irish tenor, both
outstanding artists of their day. In 1902 the American soprano, Miss Ellen Beech
Yaw, came and was billed as the ‘Highest Soprano in the World’, which was no
idle boast as she could skyrocket an octave above high C. She was also known
as Lark Ellen, or the Californian Nightingale and said to have the highest vocal
range in history. How all this went down in the Bigg Market at these People’s
Concerts we are left to imagine. Perhaps press reports hold a clue as to the
behaviour of audiences at these concerts in Newcastle. In Leeds for instance,
behaviour was not of the best, where there was shouting from the gallery and
resounding calls of Hear! Hear! when some well known soprano sang the
sentimental Victorian ballad ’Home Sweet Home’ with its throat catching line
‘There’s no place like home’, guaranteed to reduce any audience to tears. In
1903 the Meister Glee Singers entertained and then there was the London
Concert Party featuring Leslie Harris' Society Entertainers and so the concerts
continued with the emphasis remaining firmly on song. Whether or not Rea
resigned his position because of differences with the Music Committee over the
concert arrangements we may never know but what we know of the level of
entertainment at these concerts it may well have been that they fell below his
acceptable standards and he got out before he was called upon to entertain the
gallery by playing popular tunes on the Town Hall organ. Whatever the reason it
hardly matters now, the main thing is that in their day these concerts broke down
musical barriers. Although they were called People’s Concerts they were never
intended for the working class only but more to bring together difference social
classes in the same building if not in the same seats. The better off still occupied
the better seats and the working class were stuck in the gallery, but the concerts
did symbolise community and shared experience, which after all was very
important for the towns imagine.
Before exploring the musical aspect of Newcastle’s theatres let us pause again
to consider what sort of town Newcastle had become by the 19th century. It was
the dawning of the Industrial age and outstanding personalities such as George
and Robert Stephenson, William Armstrong and the Hawthorn brothers amongst
others were making their mark. John Dobson and Richard Grainger a new breed
of architect and builder were transforming Newcastle from a town of half timbered
and brick construction into a modern city of classic proportions that would rank
with the most handsome cities in Europe. Industry was flourishing and between
1800 and 1850 the population of the town doubled – within a century from 1793
the population of Northumberland and Durham expanded from 300,000 to
1,800,000. The principal cause of this was the growth of industries such as
mining, shipbuilding and other engineering occupations. This hurricane pace of
growth created evil living conditions far beyond the capacity the public authorities
or private enterprise or the workers themselves could handle. The conditions in
which the majority lived were unimaginatively sordid. At the other end of the
social scale were the industrialists and the commercial classes who by reason of
their wealth and their control of economic life came to dominate local society and
culture. They wanted to be seen to extend their creations to the poorer classes
but it too often came across as patronising and moralizing and their attempts to
promote art and classical, or high class, music under their terms largely failed.
Another factor was the growing perception by the general public of classical
music being not so much enjoyable and entertaining as the preserve of
longhaired eccentrics. The well-known image of the maestro of this period with
his wild hair and unpronounceable foreign name did little to dispel this view. The
idea that ‘serious’ music was something to be listened to in wrapped silence and
then analysed and discussed in the most knowledgeable terms was not for
uneducated man. Later still in the Victorian era the nature of many of the choral
compositions with their ponderous music, semi-religious overtones and heavy
moral messages seemed to be in opposition to the often irreverent and bawdy
songs of local music halls, which were so popular with the larger body of ordinary
folk. It was thought by the ‘enlightened’ members of society that music of the
‘right’ kind had a certain moral value and even outside church it could be a
means of inspiring the workers towards virtuous and productive lives. But this
only served to widen the gap. In spite of all this the 19th century saw a growing
appetite for music amongst the public in general and in the early part of the
century at least the divide between serious listening and popular entertainment
was not so marked; there was not yet a wide gulf between the two. The same
people, on the whole, enjoyed both and this would perhaps have been nowhere
better reflected than in the early theatres of Newcastle.
Harold Oswald in his book ‘The Theatres Royal in Newcastle upon Tyne’ said
in the introduction that the first theatrical presentations in Newcastle were at the
Moot Hall and then at the Turks Head Long Room, known as the Theatre in the
Bigg Market. It became the headquarters of drama for forty years but there would
have been music also as the following extract from the Newcastle Chronicle of
2nd April 1774 shows:
‘At the theatre in the Bigg Market on Friday it being April 8 will be
performed a concert of music…
Between the parts of the concert will be presented (gratis) a
tragedy called “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”’
The Theatre Royal, Mosley Street opened its doors to the public in 1788 and
presented comic opera together with straight drama and the occasional concert.
In March 1819 there was a grand miscellaneous concert of selections from
Handel’s sacred oratorios interposed between the play ‘She Stoops to Conquer’
and ‘The Innkeeper’s Daughter’ and seven days later another concert of sacred
music was sandwiched between ‘The Stranger’ and an operetta, called ‘The
Rendezvous’. Earlier the theatre had mounted a performance of ‘Guy
Mannering’; a play with music. The handbill for the performance states, ‘To
conclude with the favourite Scotch AIR. “Auld Lang Syne”. These plays with
music, which served as English opera at this period were very elastic, usually the
singer taking part, who probably also had a hand in the acting, introduced or cut
out musical numbers according to his own individual requirements and thought
nothing of suspending the dramatic action of the play and interpolating a few
ballads of his own choice. There is a story associated with the tenor, Braham, in
a performance of ‘Guy Mannering’, where having reached the last dramatic
scene, set in a cave, he discovered a grand piano in there, and exclaimed "A
piano! That reminds me of a delightful aria I heard at La Scala the other night” –
A cue for a song if ever there was one. In 1813 on 30th November, a Grand
Concert was held at which Signor Rivolta ‘exhibited his wonderful performance’
on the Pandean Pipes, Spanish Guitar, Triangle, Harmonica, Tabor, Chinese
Crescent, Cymbals and Bass Drum. The audience were reassured in writing on
the notice advertising Signor Rivolta’s concert that ‘The Theatre will be well aired
during the previous week’, probably essential in those ‘pre-deodorant’ days. A
later handbill tells us of a forthcoming performance by Miss Rose of Dublin, who
will – ‘exert her distinguished talents in the vocal department’. On 19th February
1823 tragedy struck and seven people were crushed to death in the ensuing
panic following a false fire alarm during a performance. But the theatre soon
reopened its doors to the public on 15th December 1824 with a performance of
the opera, ‘Der Freischutz’ by Weber. This performance was only three years
after its premier in Berlin and only five months after its premier in London, where
that same year the opera had resulted in a Freischutz craze with four, possibly
five, different versions being given. We cannot be sure which version reached the
Theatre Royal, Mosley Street and might even have been the English version by
‘Septimus Globus’, which was entitled, ‘Der Freischutz, a new muse-sick-all and
see-nick performance from the new German uproar by the celebrated
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the musical stage in Newcastle would
have comprised mostly light-hearted plays shot through with musical numbers.
Marital mix-ups, rustic romances and mythological subjects were favourite topics.
The music performed in these productions may not have been original; there was
a tendency to use popular musical numbers. William Shield was making an art of
this in his successful productions at Covent Garden in London. There were
various names for this sort of entertainment; burlesques, burlettas, comic operas
etc.; in 1837 at the newly opened Theatre Royal on Grey Street, one
presentation was advertised as a lightly popular mythological, operatical classical
burlesque Burletta! Italian opera did not come to Newcastle theatres until the mid
century but when it arrived it proved very popular as did the rather risqué French
musical farces of the time. These performances of opera and lighter fare would
have been of a high standard for the times as there was no stinting on the artists
presented. Particularly in the performances of Italian Opera the world’s greatest
singers were often to be heard. In the latter part of the 19th century the great
singers in opera were idolised as footballers and pop stars are today. Generally
speaking standards improved when London touring companies began taking
over from the old stock company system of presentations and by the late
Victorian Era the musical side of Newcastle’s theatre life would have been the
equal of anywhere in the country outside the capital.
The Theatre Royal, Grey Street, opened on 20th February 1837 (Mosley
Street theatre closed 25th June 1836) and the production mounted on 1st March
could be said to have set the pattern for what was to follow; two performances a
night with a play followed by a musical item and then an afterpiece – a farce with
music. On that opening night the play was ‘Pizarro’ or ‘The Spaniards’ with a host
of characters playing Spaniards and Peruvians and a bevy of young ladies as
Virgins of the Sun. A Grand Overture followed and then the musical farce
‘Rosina’. This was the story, based upon Charles Simon Favart’s ‘Les
moissoneurs’ (1768). on which William Shield had based his opera ‘Rosina’ and
probably this was a production of the same but no mention is made of Shield on
the handbill. By the 1840s there were oratorio performances taking place in the
theatre and a series of promenade concerts, as previously mentioned, was
mounted without success. It is interesting to note, however, that these concerts
preceded the visit of Mon. Jullien and his unrivalled band, and Dr William Rea by
many years. In spite of the disinterest Newcastle always appears to have shown
in matters cultural, its musical history shows that in some respects it was the
equal of many larger provincial towns in the country. In 1848 Newcastle heard
the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind in Bellini’s, ‘La Sonnambula’. Those who
attended were fortunate as Lind’s affair with the theatre lasted only a few
seasons. She quit the theatre for religious reasons. This was followed in 1854 by
a season of Italian opera featuring the famous Italian soprano, Giulia Grisi and
her tenor husband, Giovanni Matteo Mario. Grisi once got a backhanded
compliment from Jenny Lind, who never spoke well of any singer, but then she
never acknowledged any powers superior to her own. Mario was for thirty years
the world’s ranking tenor. He was an aristocrat and the son of an army general.
He trained for a career in the military academy and had such misgivings about
the proprietary of becoming a singer that he forever only signed himself Mario.
There was more than one London based Italian Opera at this time and these
performances with Grisis and Mario would have been with the Royal Italian
Opera, Covent Garden, then under the direction of Mr Gye.
The 1870s saw a blossoming of musical productions at the Theatre Royal with
all manner of touring companies presenting the full range of musical theatre from
opera to musicals. Ladies companies were to the fore with Miss Emily Soldene’s
Celebrated Opera Co., Madame Selina Dolaro’s Comic Opera Co., Miss Kate
Santley’s London Opera Co., and Madlle. D’Anka and her Specially Organised
London Opera-Bouffe Co. and Miss Florence St. John and her Comic Opera Co.
They presented, together with Mrs Liston’s Celebrated London Opera Co. light,
frothy, naughty French operettas such as Lecocq’s ‘Girofle Girofla’. ‘La Fille de
Madame Angot’ and ‘Les Pres Saint Gervais’. The plots usually dealt with young
French sexual problems or as one reviewer put it ‘in which the lady of the title
went through the pursued damsel routine with libidinous gallantry’. By the end of
the 1860s Opera-Bouffe had caught on in England, having had its best days in
France. More first rate Italian opera was being presented with further
performances by the Royal Italian Opera of Covent Garden that included ‘Faust’
(Gounod), ‘Dinorah’ (Meyebeer), ‘Fra Diavolo’ (Auber), ‘Don Giovanni’ (Mozart)
and ‘Il Trovatore’ (Verdi). Another opera company was presenting twelve nights
of operettas by Offenbach and apiece called ‘POM’, a new and original comic
opera with peasants, Indians and bridesmaids, by P Buealossi (since confined to
obscurity). The most interesting aspect of this production is that it was conducted
by E.W.D. Goossens, a Belgian, born 1845 in Bruges. He settled in England and
founded the Goossen’s Dynasty. The printed programme informs us that ‘In the
grand Incidental ballet in the second act of ‘POM’ Madlle SIDONE, Premier
Danseuse from the principal Continental Theatres, will have the honour of
making her First Appearance in Newcastle’. Madame Sidone was the conductor’s
wife and would later become the grandmother of Eugene III; conductor and
composer, Leon; oboist, Sidonie and Marie; harpists and Adolphe; horn player,
who was killed in the Great War.
Still more musical productions took place during the course of the 1880s
including yet another performance of William Shield’s ‘Rosina’, described as a
pastoral opera. This is obviously the production referred to in Charleton’s
‘Newcastle Town’ (1885) when he says, ‘The latter (Rosina) is his (Shield)
masterpiece and was lately performed in Newcastle under very interesting
circumstances. The scene of it is laid at Swalwell, his (Shield) native place, and
its music is most charmingly simple and pastoral in character. Many of the songs
will live as long as Englishmen love music, in proof of which we need only
mention the names of “Old Towler”, “The Heaving of the Lead”, “The Wolf” and
“The Thorn”. They rank with the songs of Purcell, Bishop and Arne, as being so
thoroughly endowed with the spirit of English life and feeling’. Mr D’Oyly Carte’s
Opera Co. began giving performances of Gilbert and Sullivan and he also joined
Charles Wyndham in presenting other operatic works under the banner of the
Olivette Opera Co. Miss Kate Santley, already mentioned above, the daughter of
the famous English baritone, Sir Charles Santley (1834 – 1922), was an enduring
favourite and her company appeared over many seasons. Light opera continued
to pull in the crowds through 1888 and 1889 and there were ever new opera
companies presenting new comedy operas and burlesques such as ‘The Nauch
Girl’ (or ‘ The Rajah of Chutneypore’) On a more serious level there were the
one-off performances such as the Grand Complimentary Concert for Mr
J.H.Beers (one of the towns leading musicians) put on by the elite of the Musical
Circles of Newcastle and Neighbourhood, On the whole though, Newcastle’s
theatres were geared up to the best in musical entertainment (I have always
considered opera to be a theatrical entertainment) In 1886 two hopefuls Van
Biene and Horace Lingard, under the guise of the Comic Opera Co., put on an
opera they had composed called ‘Falka’, which the theatre bills claimed, had
notched up 1000 performances by 8th April 1886. Such claims were common
place in the theatre and reading the old handbills can be a great source of
amusement as well as interest. ‘Powerful’ was a favourite adjective in Newcastle
theatre handbills and posters – usually applied to the chorus, as though there
were some need to reassure audiences that they would be able to hear them.
One company went so far as to reassure theatregoers that the orchestra would
play efficiently – giving the impression that most pit orchestras of the day were a
shambles. By 1883 theatre programmes were beginning to point out to patrons
that the Electric Bell would ring in the Royal Bars 3 minutes before curtain up.
That was progress. The 1890s began to see a change in the kind of musical
show put on in the theatre; a new look appeared on the playbills of the Theatre
Royal, which was due largely to the fact that English language musicals were
beginning to make an impact on the world of musical theatre, not only in England
but across Europe.
The impact came from London and mostly from the theatres run by that
legendary producer, George Edwardes, known to all as ‘The Guv’ner’. The basic
plots and scheme of things in his musical shows were not so different from those
that had been presented before but instead of fictitious and mythical characters
from the past he peopled his shows with up to date characters, recognisable
modern types who spoke in up-to-date language and wore clothes that were the
height of fashion in the early years of the decade. The first of Edwardes’
presentations at the Theatre Royal in 1893 was ‘In Town’ It was nowhere as
sophisticated as these shows were to become, but it was the beginning of
Musical Comedy as we came to know it and proved a success in Newcastle as
did the London Gaiety Co. itself, which was to return over many more seasons.
Opera seasons appeared to fall off slightly as the century closed but before we
leave the Theatre Royal of the ‘Naughty Nineties’ and make our way to other
theatres in town we might allow ourselves a peak into the next century, when a
dashing young man, whose father had made a fortune from selling Beecham’s
Pills, came in October 1910 with his Opera Comique Co. and an orchestra of
forty musicians and one hundred artist under the direction of a young conductor,
Hamish MacCunn, and presented for the first time in Newcastle, two brilliant
musical productions; ’Tales of Hoffmann’ by Offenbach and ‘A Viennese
Masquerade’ by Johann Strauss. No, not a forgotten Strauss gem but an English
version of Die Fledermaus.
The Journal for November 18th 1910 reported:
‘The Beecham Season at the Newcastle Theatre Royal has fulfilled our highest
expectations and the public has displayed so much enthusiasm over the two
charming examples of opera comique that I think we are justified in calling upon
Mr Thomas Quinlan to redeem his promise and pay us a return visit. Perhaps it
will be found possible to extend the repertoire on a subsequent visit, this weeks
audience have certainly proved the demand for light, dainty, tuneful music when
it is capably presented’
This reflects the enthusiasm of the town’s theatre goers and music lovers, who
had probably been smitten by the George Edwardes presentation, two years
earlier, of the sensational play with music (as it was then described) ‘The Merry
Widow’ by Franz Lehar. This was to prove the most famous of all operettas. First
produced in Vienna in 1905 and only one year after its first presentation in
Newcastle it would chalk up 18,000 performances worldwide with 1,365 of them
in England. It would have been translated into thirteen languages and produced
in thirty countries including Turkey, Persia, Japan, China Hindustan and Serbia. It
should come as no surprise, therefore, to read that it was repeated at the Theatre
Royal for the next two seasons and probably more, and was the first of a spate of
plays with music, from the Continent, that would become known under the
generic title, Viennese Operetta and provide the music world with some of the
most beautiful melodies ever written. Italian Opera, however, was not entirely
dead and at The Royal in April 1912, Sig. Cavaliere Castellano and his Italian
Opera Co was presenting a short season. But what might be generally regarded
as the home of opera in Newcastle was not The Royal but the Tyne Theatre and
Opera House on Westgate Road.
The Tyne Theatre opened its doors on 23rd September 1867 and for half a
century thereafter would serve as the town’ Opera House. In a general survey of
opera theatre, limited as it is here to a few paragraphs, it is difficult to decide
which is the more important - the opera or the singers. In the case of the Tyne
Theatre it was both. Within a few years of the theatre’s opening the world
famous Opera Impresario, Colonel J. H. Mapleson was presenting his Italian
Opera Co featuring Therese Tietjens, possibly the greatest dramatic soprano of
her time, Christine Nilsson, the Swedish soprano, the French mezzo, Zelia
Trebelli and the Italian tenor, Allesandro Bettini, in a wide selection of operas
including, ‘Norma’ and ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ (Bellini), ‘Il Trovatore’ and ‘Rigoletto’
(Verdi) and ‘Faust’ (Gounod). Other singers and operas performed were Charles
Santley in Wagner’s ‘Flying Dutchman’ (first Newcastle performance) and
arguably Santley’s greatest operatic role, and Sims Reeves in Donezetti’s Lucia
de Lammamoor, with Mde. Belle Cole, the noted Tyneside contralto. . There
were also performances of ‘Les Huguenots’ by Meyerbeer and Audrans’s ‘Black
Domino’. In February 1895 there was a performance of Arthur Sullivan’s comic
opera ‘The Chieftain’, which had only had its premier in London some four
months earlier. The Carl Rosa Opera, who had presented Charles Santley in the
Flying Dutchman also, gave a first performance of The ‘Jewels of the Madonna’
by Wolf-Ferrari. This violent story of jealousy and revenge in Southern Italy had
only been given its first London performance a year earlier, which is another
example of how well Newcastle was served with opera in the period up to the
First World War. Carl Rosa was a German violinist and a gifted combination of
musician and businessman. He started his first touring English opera company in
1872. Three main elements contributed to Rosa’s success as an operatic
impresario; his ability to spot embryonic operatic stars, his inspired programme
building – mixing old and new, classical with popular - and his introduction of
subscription tickets at all prices. He died in 1889 but his company carried on.
During this period Italian opera was the craze and was what the ‘fashionables’
wanted to hear. English opera on the other hand, came and went – venture after
venture failed. The truth of the matter was that there was no comparison between
the works produced by British composers of the time and the operas of Bellini,
Donizetti, Rossini, Weber and not least, Verdi. There was also the fact that the
Italian singers (although they were not all Italians) were excellent and it was not
possible for any English singer to enter their ranks. It was this that made the two
English singers mentioned above, Charles Santley and Sims Reeves, so
outstanding in their day; They refused to adopt phoney Italian stage names and
through sheer determination broke into the field of Italian opera and continued to
hold there own amongst their Italian counterparts. Both singers appeared often in
Newcastle but Sims Reeves must have had a special affection for the town, as it
was in Newcastle that he made his stage debut in 1838 or 1839 at the Theatre
Royal, Grey St., in the musical play, ‘Guy Mannering’. As previously mentioned,
singers doubled as actors in these early days and the other way around, and a
very young Reeves possibly got the part because he could sing as well as act.
However, it was as a singer that he would triumphantly return many times and on
one of these occasions in 1865/66, at a time when he was in such great demand
in the provinces, Newcastle showed its delight on his arrival by greeting him with
‘a merry peel of bells’ from the steeple of St Nicholas’.
In 1887 Augustus Harris took over the lease of the Tyne Theatre and managed
it until his untimely death at age forty-six years in 1896. He had a Knighthood
conferred upon him 1891. He brought with him from the Theatre Royal Drury
Lane, where he had been manager for eight years, many of his stars including
those of the Royal Italian Opera Co. During this period under Harris’
management the theatre thrived. But the local amateurs were not denied the
theatre and in 1897 The Newcastle upon Tyne Operatic Co put on a performance
of the comic opera ‘Dorothy’ by Alfred Cellier. This was another of those musicals
billed as having clocked up one thousand performances in London and a
staggering three thousand performances in the provinces. But, in Dorothy’s case
it was no idle boast because the lady turned out to be London’s longest running
19th century musical ahead of each and everyone of the Gilbert and Sullivan
works and ahead of anything that would be presented in the last fifteen years of
the century. Peering into the 20th century as we did with the Theatre Royal, the
pantomime of 1906 starred Harry Lauder and Jose Collins, two of the great stars
of the early years of the century. The Moody-Manners Opera Co were paying a
return visit in October 1905 with their production of ‘Tannhauser’ and ‘Faust’ with
the well known Irish tenor, Joseph O’Mara. The Quinlan Opera Co. in a
marvellous piece of timing gave a complete performance of the Ring Cycle by
Wagner in March 1913. It was the first and only time it had been done in
Newcastle – a year later and it might never have taken place, as Wagner
became persona non grata. Quinlin was putting on The Ring Cycle following the
expiration of the rights that had previously prevented Wagner’s dramas being
produced and performed outside Germany without payment. As a result of this
there was talk of the cost of tickets being from as little as 6d (two and a half new
pence) upwards. This resulted in a piece in the press that read ‘Mr Quinlan has
promised to give the best performances within his power at the lowest prices but
could not see his way to clearly ruining his reputation by cutting down the cost of
the presentation so that he could charge from 6d upwards’ The Tyne Theatre,
itself, was to become a victim of the First World War period and its doors were
finally closed in March 1919.
As the wealthier patrons made their way in their carriages to the Theatre Royal
and the Tyne Theatre to hear the Italian Opera or see the latest musical from
London they would hardly have noticed the poorly dressed faceless creatures
shuffling along the pavements under the yellow glow of the gas lamps, their
heads bowed against the freezing wind and rain, wending their way to one or
other of the Geordie Music Halls situated close by in what is today fashionably
called Grainger Town. These unfortunate creatures at the bottom of the social
scale would have been in search of a night’s enjoyment in the comparative
warmth and comfort of the Music Hall. Greater part of the working class
population at this time would never have attended a formal concert, except
perhaps the Corporation People’s Concerts in the Town Hall, and although some
would have gone to the Theatre Royal and the Tyne Theatre, to see the latest
shows they would have formed a separate audience isolated from the well to do;
admitted via the side street door, directed up an endless stone stairway, and then
herded together on hard wooden benches under the roof of the theatre in what is
(or was) called ‘The Gods’. My granny, a typical Victorian, used to sit and sing to
herself after a sip or two of beer. Unwittingly she introduced me, as a child to a
number of Music Hall songs; ‘Come, come, come and make eyes at me down by
the Old Bull and Bush, tara-la la la’ and ‘My old man said follow the van and don’t
dilly dally on the way’ and a song called, ‘A Bicycle Made for Two’, which went,
‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do, I’m half crazy just for the love of you. – It
won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage, but you’ll look sweet upon
the seat of a bicycle made for two’. I was too young to understand the
significance of the words, but I liked the tunes – they had immediate appeal; like
most working class children of the 1920s it was my introduction to the world of
Prior to 1850, in the back rooms of public houses customers provided their
own amusement and some, encouraged by their fellow drinkers, proved more
entertaining than others. Enterprising publicans realising the potential for
increased business in this sort of entertainment, paid professional entertainers
and so Music Hall was born and flourished in the second half of the 19th century.
An alternative scenario is put forward in ‘Allens Tyneside Songs’, originally
published in 1862, which might well be more relevant to the origins of the
Geordie Music Hall. He states that working men were well organised and that in
1827 there were 121 clubs for men and 44 for women in Newcastle and
Gateshead, which acted as mutual insurance societies. There were another 50
with a Christmas Club sort of function and in all over fifteen thousand people
belonged to one or other of these clubs. Apart from the financial benefits each
club had its head-meeting day at which a local musician or singer entertained in
between the payout and the serious drinking. He goes on to say that in the
previous century musicians had gone out to entertain their public and now the
public began coming to them. It was the beginning of what was to become the
Music Hall, and it also saw the birth of many Tyneside songs that would become
known as Folksongs of The Tyne.
Music Hall represented the very opposite of what those dedicated to the
spread of musical culture (and not forgetting those dedicated to saving souls)
were trying to achieve. As we have seen there had been a certain entertainment
element in early concerts but taste and standards were being raised all the time.
Music Hall, however, was a working class culture and as such it was jealously
guarded. Those who embraced it were not looking to raise their cultural
standards and improve their minds; they sought escapism and enjoyment. It was
a safety valve for the lower classes, they could, and did, openly mimic the upper
classes, as well as laugh at their own misfortunes and hardships and escape
from the realities of life for a few hours. It was entertainment that asked no
thought on the part of the spectator and he received his amusement without any
effort to himself. It furnished variety with nothing lasting very long, therefore, it
made no demands on the spectator’s ability to concentrate. It provided a
comfortable seat in a classless environment at a low price and it was possible to
eat, drink or smoke whilst the entertainment was going on. Also it was not
necessary to be there when the show started, nor stay to the end and when in
the hall it was often possible to walk about freely without interference. Lastly
there was audience participation and they left the theatre feeling happy in the
knowledge that they had been part of the proceedings.
There were a number of Music Halls in Newcastle town centre, the earliest of
which seems to have been the Old Wheatsheaf in the Cloth Market. It was a pub
with a singing room and it was there in 1862 that George Ridley wrote Blaydon
Races. The first performance of Ridley’s song was allegedly at a benefit for Harry
Clasper, who was born in Dunstan in 1812 and was the inventor of a racing skull,
which won the world championship in 1845 with his two brothers. Boat races
between the High Level Bridge and Scotswood Bridge were the most popular
sport in the area during the middle of the 19th century. The Old Wheatsheaf
became the Oxford music Hall between 1858 and 1865. Another early palace of
delights was the Victoria Rooms at the head of Grey Street, which became the
Victoria Music Hall. On Grainger Street stood the Vaudeville but it was burned
down in 1900. In 1877 the Oxford and the Victoria were joined by a third Music
Hall, the Westgate Hall of Varieties. The Hippodrome on Northumberland Road
also became a Music Hall, this one having been a conversion, as so many were,
out of Ginnett’s Circus. By the eighties and the nineties Music Hall was also
attracting the middle classes and the true working class spirit of the old halls was
beginning to wane. The older halls began to fade out; reverting back to public
houses, grills and billiard halls and in their place newer theatres appeared. There
were several Newcastle Empires, the first in 1878 on the site of the Scotch Arms.
It was rebuilt in 1890 and again in 1903. Grainger’s Music Hall in Nelson Street
became the Gaiety Theatre of Varieties and the Percy Hall and Cirque in Percy
Street became the Palace Theatre. These later variety theatres also served as
general purpose halls and change was in the air. By the turn of the 20th century
Music Hall had lost much of its distinctive atmosphere as it became bigger and
more opulent. Individual halls were incorporated in big chains such as Moss
Empires and whereas the core of the old Music Hall programme had been comic
songs and choruses with everyone joining in it became less of a communal
experience in bigger theatres that were more respectable, and participation
became more restrained. Music Hall had started as an almost defiant expression
of working class culture but it became ‘Big Business’ until eventually it was just
another branch of the growing entertainment’s industry catering for passive
It is said that by the second half of the 19th century Britain was awash with
music and certainly in Newcastle there were a growing number of societies
devoted to the promotion of good music and an audience who wanted to hear it.
Looking back it does seem to have been a sort of Golden Age in the town’s
musical history. Having discovered this I find it difficult to understand a remark
made in a local history book of the 1950s, commenting on Newcastle’s growth
and achievements, that ‘Music, like art, won little public support during the pre1914 period’. It is not surprising that with this kind of remark in local history books
Newcastle is still generally regarded as a town without any musical history to
speak of. It is true that the Victorian upper classes adopted an essentially
Philistine attitude towards music, which extended to the Church, colleges and
schools and there can be no doubt that this attitude worked against the town
establishing a sound musical culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Music as
a profession was rated low on the social scale – it was more ‘Downstairs’ than
‘Upstairs’ so to speak, but having said that many Victorians were deeply musical
and there were the heroic few who in the face of such ignorance, devoted time
and effort towards establishing a form of higher musical culture within the town
and they received a good deal of public support. Choral singing was a
tremendously popular activity with all classes of society, which is not surprising
given the English preference for song and bearing in mind that in Victorian times,
big was beautiful, especially when it came to Handel choruses. However, public
performance was not always the raison d’etre for starting up these choral
societies. They were usually started by eager amateurs who under the guidance
of one or more professionals sought to bring together like minded people
interested in making music for the pleasure it gave them. The public concert was
simply the icing on the cake for those that had worked hard during the course of
the year. There were other organisations more devoted to the practise and
performance of instrumental music to a high standard and whilst I understand
there was considerable rivalry between these two factions I found no evidence of
this in Newcastle’s case.
The most famous of the choral societies at the end of the 19th century was
probably the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union, which was formed in
1896. It had originally been the Gateshead Choral Union, founded in 1889.
Mainly for reasons of accommodation they amalgamated with the Newcastle
Choral Union (founded by William Rea in 1860) and became a formidable body,
claiming at one point to have 400 voices. It began to attract leading singers and
English composers, who conducted the choir in performances of the big choral
works, such as Gounod’s ‘Messe Solonnelle’, Spohr’s ‘Last Judgement’,
Schumann’s ‘Advent Hymn’ and Cowen’s ‘St. John’s Eve’. They had at their
disposal a substantial orchestra under the leadership of Mr J.H. Beers. An
1895/6 programme sets out the objectives of the Society; ‘Cultivating and
diffusing the knowledge of and taste for high-class music’ and goes on to say that
the Vocal Members must be nominated in writing and elected by the Committee
after being approved as to musical fitness by the Conductor. Members were
called upon to practice every Tuesday from September to March. They gave two
concerts a year, mostly in the Town Hall Concert Room. These started out as
Invitation Concerts but by 1896 Subscription concerts had been introduced. The
full flavour of these concerts can be sampled from an announcement in The
Musical Times for October 1911 under music in Newcastle-on-Tyne and District,
which reads:
‘A Cowen concert – to include ‘The Veil’ and the Overture ‘Phantasy of life and
love’ both conducted by the composer – will be given by the Choral Union on
November 29. Sir Frederic’s old orchestra, the Scottish, will play, and there will
be included Elgar’s ‘Go, song of mine’, to be conducted by the chorus-master, Dr
Coward. On March 27, our premier choral body will give Dvorak’s ‘Spectre’s
Bride’, Parry’s ‘Blest pair of Sirens’ and Bantock’s new unaccompanied choral
ode in twenty parts, ‘Atlanta in Calydon’
Twenty-one years earlier, in 1875, William Rea had launched his Newcastle
Amateur Vocal Society with great success. It had over 200 members, who paid
10/6 (50p) for the privilege of joining and had to practice every Monday evening.
He was very strict and made it clear that those who did not turn up for practice
would not be able to take part in the concerts. The concerts covered a wide
range of composers from Cherubini through Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert,
Schumann and Mendelssohn to Neils Gade 1817-90 (A Danish composer very
popular with the Victorians – not to be confused with Jacob Gade, 1879-1962,
the author of the popular tango ‘Jalousie’). In 1886 Dr Rea joined forces with the
Northumberland Orchestral Society and for the five years of the collaboration his
programmes began to include symphonies and other large orchestral works The
Vocal Society continued into the 20th century but in 1897 Dr Rea was replaced as
conductor by J.E.Jeffries, FRCO, possibly for health reasons. On 26th March
1896 the following complimentary piece appeared in the local press:
‘To many people present in the Town Hall on Tuesday night it would be quite a
pleasure to see Dr William Rea once more occupying the position which, in days
gone by, he filled so frequently and with such advantage to the cause of music in
the North of England. It is impossible to see Dr Rea occupying the rostrum in the
Town Hall with baton in hand, without recalling a host of successful
performances of great works which he was the means of introducing to this
locality, and recording our sense of the great services he has rendered to the art
of music in this locality. Such services are, unhappily, soon forgotten in the rush
and high-pressure of the present day world but their effect is lasting and many
amateurs willingly acknowledge their indebtedness to Dr Rea for giving them
their first taste of the delights of music’
In 1892 the Newcastle upon Tyne Harmonic Society got off to a flourishing
start in the Town Hall with a performance of the cantata ‘St John’s Eve’ (Cowan)
and they ‘topped’ that the following year by getting Dr Joseph Parry to conduct
the cantata, ‘Saul of Tarsus’, with special soloists. Parry is usually credited with
heading the Renaissance in English music in his excellent literary choice and the
way in which he set the subject to music. The Society’s annual concerts
continued, somewhat erratically it seems, until the First World War, but from the
programmes I have seen they were fairly ‘run of the mill’ affairs, although they did
perform some works by contemporary English composers, which in some small
way was a contribution to the revival of English music. Thirteen years earlier, in
1879, Mr Albion Alderson (presumably of Alderson and Brentnall, musical
instruments, record shop and concert booking agent late of Northumberland
Street) formed what seems to have been a successful amateur choir. He
conducted his choir in a series of Invitation and Private concerts in the Town Hall.
From a note in one of his programmes he was also desirous of forming a small
orchestra. Whether he realised his orchestra or not I am not able to say but his
concerts presented works by Cowen, Schumann, Gade and Brahms. The
performances remained somewhat exclusive with evening dress only and a note
on the programme instructing the audience to arrange their carriages for 10.15
The General Post Office, my first employer, was a very musical organisation.
Long before my time, in 1896, the vocal element formed themselves into the
Postal and Telegraph Choral Society and according to contemporary press
reports their programmes were always of interest. In 1911 the society reorganised its constitution and became known as the Newcastle Musical Union.
Looking back across my Post Office years, I am conscious of a strong bias
towards music amongst many of my colleagues. I worked alongside a violinist,
who encouraged me to go to my first concert. I was on nodding terms with a
trumpet playing postman, who played in various amateur orchestras and became
very friendly with a more than competent pianist, whom I used to spend my lunch
hour listening to whilst he practised his Chopin on a piano in the basement air
raid shelter. (His father, a Newcastle man, had been a flute player with the
Boston Symphony Orchestra in America.) I suspect also that my chief in the
Head Office at St Nicholas’ had been an original member of the Musical Union.
He would occasionally call me into his office, close the door and without warning,
much to my embarrassment, burst into song – usually a bass ballad such as
‘Rocked in the cradle of the deep’ or ‘In Cellar Cool’, ending on a low note that
made me instinctively look down at his boots. As the last note was absorbed into
the office carpet there would be a moments pause for appreciation, then he
would clear his throat, and ask, “How’s that Joe?”
One of the most seriously committed of the many societies at this time was the
Chamber Music Society formed in 1880. Even today it is mouth-watering to look
through the societies programmes; chamber concerts for the connoisseur with
only the finest artists. The printed programmes themselves were exceptional and
included musical examples of the leading themes of each movement and texts of
songs plus extensive notes. The Bohemian Quartet, The Rose Quartet, The
Brodsky Quartet and the St Petersburg Quartet are only four of the many
chamber groups that appeared at these concerts. Up to the time of the First
World War the Society presented four concerts a season rising to six. The
standard was presumably incredibly high with world-renowned violinists, Joseph
Joachim, Eugene Ysaye and Pablo Sarasate appearing often. This level was
maintained, and arguably exceeded, right through until the 1940s but we shall
return to the post WWII period later. Georg Henschel (later Sir George) concert
baritone, composer and conductor of Polish birth, gave a song recital and other
singers, David Bispham, Liza Lehmann, Blanche Marchesi, and Plunket Green
also appeared in concert. Charles Halle accompanied his wife, Wilma Neruda,
violinist, as did Henry Wood his first wife, the singer, Olga Hillman, the former
Princess Olga Michailowna Ourousoff. In 1912 the composer/pianist Eugene
d’Albert made an appearance and was presumably acknowledged by the select
audience for the artist he was. Had I been there I would willingly have given an
old penny coin to each member of the audience on that evening to know what
they were really thinking as they listened to this turncoat of a piano player.
Eugene d’Albert was born in Glasgow on 10th April 1864 but was raised in
Newcastle. His father was of mixed German/French parentage from Hamburg
and his mother was a resident of Newcastle – some reports say of Russian
extraction. According to another version, his parental ancestors were Italian and
his father was a dancing master and composer. In the circumstances, Eugene
Francis Charles d’Albert, as he was baptised, was technically English. He
received his early musical training from his father and at the age of twelve he
was elected Newcastle scholar in the since defunct National Training School of
Music in London. At one point he studied with Sir Arthur Sullivan but drove Sir
Arthur ‘up the wall’. He made his debut as a pianist at sixteen and premiered his
first piano concerto at seventeen before being awarded a Mendelssohn
Scholarship and going to Vienna to study with Hans Richter, the
Hungarian/German conductor. Before d’Albert was twenty years old he had
established himself in Germany and proclaimed his contempt in the Press for
England and everything English. Surprisingly, he returned to Newcastle a
number of times and gave recitals. He had appeared at the Olympia on
Northumberland Road on 2nd October 1896 and must to some extent have
redeemed himself to be invited back in 1912. Perhaps it was not until after this
that he openly made it known he supported the Kaiser. Whilst we have no way of
knowing the audiences’ individual thoughts and opinions on this diminutive piano
player we do have the benefit of the following morning’s press review; ‘Musical England may not have appreciated Mr d’Albert at his proper artistic
value but no opportunity is lost nowadays when the eminent pianist condescends
to revisit his native country – to make reparations for the early sins of omission.
Newcastle last night added its voice – a voice that should have proved
particularly sweet and satisfying to the popular pianist – to the paeans of praise
with which musical England is at present resounding in appreciation of his merits
and although “he is now German” to quote his own words. We hope and think
that he will still be sufficiently English to remain not indifferent to the undivided
voice of contemporary opinion. Possibly the cordiality and unanimity of last nights
crowded audience may do something towards removing the reproach which
former generation is supposed to have offered.’
The reviewer then went on to pay d’Albert a backhanded compliment by saying
‘The programme was interesting but not engrossingly so!’
The Chamber Music Society held their concerts in the Old Assembly Rooms
on Westgate Road but there were also chamber music concerts taking place in
the New Assembly Rooms at Barras Bridge although, it has to be said, not of the
same standard. Mr J.H.Beers, whom we left conducting the Newcastle and
Gateshead Choral Union Orchestra, was presenting his own series of chamber
concerts. He seems to have managed one concert a year and it was a family
affair with a S.H. Beers on violoncello and the daughter Mimi providing the
vocals. The New Assembly Rooms at Barras Bridge (now the University of
Newcastle Centre for Physical Recreation and Sport) appear to have lent
themselves well to small-scale performances and were a centre of musical
activity in the town between the 1880s and 1914. Ladies’ string orchestras were
a prominent feature of the period largely brought about by the fact that women
were denied entry into orchestras. Miss Hildegard Werner mounted a number of
concerts with the Mignon String Orchestra and her lady pupils at Barras Bridge
and another ladies string orchestra under the leadership of Miss Knocker seems
to have been very popular.
Yet another Society, that started up in 1907, but probably had its roots in the
19th century was the Classical Concert Society. It proved, by the content of its
programmes, genuinely committed to presenting a better standard of chamber
music and raising the standards of its audiences. The notice advertising its 190708 Season outlines four concerts although it makes reference to a total of eight.
These were Subscription concerts but there was admission at the door for nonmembers and a special rate for children, which was to the Society’s credit and
shows a commitment to educate the young at a time when poorer children were
still being freely exploited as cheap labour by Industry. Having said that, what
any child would have made of the music played I cannot imagine as it was an
esoteric mix of mostly French and English composers from as far back as the
17th century. Avison’s Concerto in G, Op 9, No 1 for two violins, viola, violoncello
and pianoforte was played in a programme of music by English composers on
6th January 1910. Other programmes featured professional musicians and
singers from Vienna, Paris, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Copenhagen and one of the
highlights was a concert on 20th January 1911, given by the Parisian String
Quartet with the thirty-six year old Maurice Ravel, not quite yet at the pinnacle of
his fame, playing his own music together with that of Faure, Saint-Saens and
Cesar Franck. One novel feature introduced by the society for subscription
members was a combined concert and rail ticket available on Special West
Trains to most stations on the way to Hexham - composed of First Class
accommodation only!
There was a wide variety of music to choose from in pre 1914 Newcastle;
something for everyone so to speak -. from Music Hall to high art. Between these
two extremes (the one intolerant of the other) thrived a whole world of musical
culture and entertainment that provided a certain amount of common ground.
Even the streets must have echoed to the sound of music in the late 19th century
if we accept the following general plea from 1895, ‘If we must not hope to put
down the noisy vulgarities of street music, let us at least strive to make them as
little mischievous as possible. Even if barrel-organs and church bells were only
required to be in tune a very great advance would have been made’.
The Northumberland Orchestral Society formed in 1877 was the earliest
dedicated to the instrumentalist. The object of the society was to give amateur
instrumentalists of the district every possible facility to cultivate a taste for highclass orchestral music. It was £1 1s for Gentlemen and 10/6 for Ladies to join
which entitled them to be present at rehearsals and concerts. The Society gave
one concert a year and the orchestra could comprise anything up to one hundred
players. Their programmes were interesting sometimes; in 1910 they introduced
‘Praeludium’ by Jarnefelt, 1859-1958 (Swedish composer, whose sister married
Sibelius) to Newcastle, which subsequently became very popular, and in 1913
they gave the Newcastle premier of Svendson’s Symphony No 2. After Grieg,
Svendson was the most important nineteenth century Norwegian composer. This
was ground breaking stuff and we should not forget that the orchestra comprised
mostly amateurs. Following the 1911 concert the press was prompted to write,
‘We, ourselves, entertain little fear that Newcastle will yet bring itself into a more
satisfactory position with regard to orchestral concerts than at present obtains’. It
was wishful thinking as war loomed up ahead and even the Northumberland
Orchestral Society was obliged to suspend its activities. But to its credit and
against all odds it started up again in 1921 and is, or so I believe, still going
today. I read somewhere that it has adapted to a different role. It enables
amateur players to study and rehearse orchestral music, of which it has a large
library and it gives orchestral concerts for friends at which both classical and
contemporary works are played’
All manner of events gave rise to some form of musical entertainment in
Newcastle in the period leading up to the 1914-18 War. Although when His
Majesty King Edward VII visited the town with Queen Alexandra on 11th July
1906 it seems to have been a dull affair musically. Perhaps the whole thing
would have been better left to the Durham Northumberland and Newcastle on
Tyne Horticultural Society, who laid on a lavish musical display each year,
which I imagine was quite incidental to their main purpose. There appear to have
been Spring Shows and Summer Shows, held in the Town Hall and Corn
Exchange, and Leazes Park. These shows in some form or other could have
been going since as early as 1824 if we can believe what is said in an 1887
programme that claims to be the 63rd year the event had been held. Reviewing at
random the years 1878 – 83; we see that the Spring shows were a two day event
with military bands playing all afternoon and evening. These included the bands
of the Royal Marines, Dragoon Guards, Royal engineers and the Coldstream
Guards, conducted by Fred Godfrey – father of Dan Godfrey, founder of the
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The repertoire of these bands included
pieces by many well-known classical composers. In 1879 the military bands
alternated with an orchestra under the leadership of Mr J.H. Beers (yet again)
with the addition of vocal items on the programme. It was no reflection on the
military bands but this arrangement did lend itself to a better selection and
greater variety of musical items. By 1882, in Leazes Park, the musical
programme included Highland Bands and Choral Music. In 1883 the Spring show
featured Mon. Riviere’s Covent Garden Orchestra Band in a marathon effort from
1.30 pm to 10.00 in the evening. By 1891 the Orchestral Band of Mr John H.
Amers (father of H.G. Amers) was making an appearance. This was a name that
would feature prominently not only in the Military Band culture that seems to
have flourished at around this time, but in the story of music in general.
The Amers, three generations of them, were professional musicians from the
North East. H.G.Amers, the son of J.H.Amers, started as a chorister in St
Georges’ Newcastle and as a youth he played a solo by command before the
Princess of Wales and several times before King Edward VII. He was in the
Northumberland Hussars and saw service in the 1914-18 War in which he was
wounded in action, later being given command of a prisoner-of-war camp. After
the war he became a Captain in the Reserve. He was a handsome fellow; it
seems, always immaculately dressed with a red carnation in his buttonhole and
red hair to match. Much admired by lady members of the audience it is said. He
made his name in Eastbourne where he conducted the pier orchestra, billed as
Captain H.G. Amers and his Famous Band. He had flair and a good sense of
showmanship and never arrived until the second item on the programme,
allowing his deputy to start the concert off. He appeared, as did the orchestra, in
uniform during the day but in the evening he put on evening dress and became
Captain Amers and his Famous Orchestra. Uniforms, flair, style, swagger, these
were all essential ingredients of the Military Band Concerts that had their vogue
at the beginning of the 20th century.
Military Band Concerts were part of Victorian life and when later the War
Office put a stop to army bands playing outside their regimental districts a gap
was left in the music world which was filled to some extent by civilian bands that
sought to recreate the style and swagger of their military equivalents. They
provided good quality programmes with a mix of instrumental pieces and song,
The instrumental pieces comprised specially composed items as well as
arrangements, rousing marches operatic selections, trivia, pot pouris and even
requests from the audience. Many of the great composers composed pieces
especially for these bands and they did not rely wholly on arrangements. The aim
of these concerts was relaxed informality. A series of concerts by Amers’ Band in
May and June 1901 was advertised as,’Will fill the listening air with lovely
melodies and in the words of the bard of Avon “discourse most eloquent music”.
In 1903 a Fete Champetre at the Riding School Grounds in Northumberland
Road was being advertised, to take place for one month, commencing on 5th
September. Promenade Concerts by the Northumberland Hussars Band under
the direction of Lieut. H.G. Amers. Amers and his band appears again in 1907
and in the printed programme there is a picture of the handsome bandleader
resplendent in full uniform. Another programme from the same period shows him
in a different uniform with the combined bands of the Northumberland Hussars,
featuring songs sung by Madame Norman Snowball.
In 1901 John Philip Sousa, himself, came to Newcastle with his famous band
and raised the roof of the Town Hall. Comments written on the programme in
pencil against each item played (presumably by the original owner on the night)
read, perfect, lovely, charming, grand and grandioso. The Black Dike
(programme spelling) played in 1902 and in 1911 the Ellery Band performed for
one week. The blurb on the billing for this band of fifty Italian Americans stated
that they refused to bow to the popular clamour for inferior music and had done
wonders in the way of uplifting the taste for really good music. Their programmes
were made up of music by Beethoven, Handel, Wagner, Gounod, Verdi,
Waldteufel, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Nicolai, Boito and Flotow. In 1918 more
Italian musicians turned up in Newcastle in the form of the Band of the Royal
Italian Carabiniere. They gave an impromptu performance in front of the Joseph
Cowan monument on Westgate Road, another in front of St Nicholas’ and a third
down on Sandhill in front of the Commercial Exchange. This must have been a
sight to behold - seventy-five musicians in Napoleonic costumes. Mr Sutherland
of the Exchange extended a welcome and told them that in 1854 Garabaldi was
on board a vessel in the Tyne and as soon as this was known there was a
spontaneous collection around Tyneside, limited to one penny a head, in order
that the people could present him with a sword and telescope. This must have
gone down well with the Italians as the Band of the Rome Promenade Concerts
followed hot on the heels of the Carabinieri that same year.
At one of the meetings of the People’s Concerts Committee in the Town Hall a
committee member remarked that the Police Concerts were the best concerts
being given in Newcastle at the time. I would not entirely agree with that
statement but it has to be said that the Annual Police Concert, in aid of various
charities including the Newcastle Constabulary Benevolent Fund and War Relief
Funds was always, at least vocally, of a high standard. In 1890 and 1892 Adelina
Patti (1843-1919) known as the Queen of Song, idolised in Paris, Milan,
Brussels, Monte Carlo, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid and
Lisbon, obliged the Law by appearing at their annual concert and sang a number
of operatic arias as well as the song ‘Il Bacio’ and the beautiful ‘Banks of Allen
Water’. Other singers making an appearance at these concerts over the period
1890 –1915 were, Edward Lloyd, Madame Albani, Clara Butt, Andrew Black,
Carrie Tubb, Gervase Elwes and Agnes Nicholls who was accompanied by her
husband, Hamilton Harty. Harty, listed today as organist, pianist and conductor
was one of the first conductors from the British isles to win international fame and
in 1920 rescued a floundering Halle Orchestra and turned it into a first class
ensemble, although at the turn of the century he was only a concert accompanist.
These well-attended annual concerts took place mostly in the Town Hall and The
Olympia on Northumberland Road, a general purpose hall opened in 1893.
Open air band concerts where a prominent feature of Victorian and Edwardian
life and continued up to the outbreak of the Second World War. Two early
examples were the concerts put on by the Electrical and General Engineering
Trades Industry and Art in 1897 featuring the Royal Marines Light Infantry
Band that played music by Sousa, selections from Gilbert and Sullivan operas,
and Wagner and in 1906, The Northern Counties Trades/Arts and Industries
Exhibition in Leazes Park that went on for two months and had music performed
by the String Band of the Royal Artillery every afternoon and evening. It seems
odd that Newcastle City Council haggled over spending money on the People’s
Concerts in the Town Hall but seemed to have no problem with allocating money
for music in the parks. Many of the town’s parks had bandstands (a beautiful
example is still to be seen in Exhibition Park) and on Sundays and Bank Holidays
they attracted large numbers of people, who sat around on chairs or benches,
dressed in their Sunday best – men in their dark serge suits with starched collar,
tie and waistcoat – ladies wearing fashionable hats - enjoying the colourful
spectacle of the bandsmen in their pseudo-military uniforms, and the selections
they played of well known operatic airs and popular pieces of light music. From
1900 until the 1930s .the Council presented Parks’ Promenade Concerts in the
City’s main parks. Large format programmes provided the audience with a list
from which the concert selection would be chosen.
Military Band style concerts were a colourful phase in the history of music in
Newcastle but appeared to go out of fashion with the Second World War.
However, Brass Bands, which initially had a much lower profile and attracted less
attention were an important development in the social as well as the musical
history of the town. Like the Music Hall they were part of working class culture
but unlike Music Hall the movement was never infiltrated and remained solid
working class to the core. It grew from strength to strength over the years. Today,
whilst these bands are fewer in number it is now a national movement. How it all
started no one is really sure and like the Tyneside Music Hall its origins are
vague. It may have been that these bands were founded as an imitation of the
many army, militia or volunteer bands that were around during the period of the
Napoleonic Wars, 1793 –1815. And/or they may have come about when ex
military bandsmen took their musical skills home with them from the army. On the
other hand, they may simply have arisen from a desire to make a sound on crude
locally manufactured instruments. But what seems fairly certain is that with the
introduction of valved wind instruments in the 1840s, which facilitated their
playing, coupled with the means of purchasing these instruments and perhaps
the greater availability of printed sheet music, the Brass Band Movement took off
in a big way. Some of the first Brass Bands were established in the North East.
Most collieries, factories, shipyards and other industrial concerns, although
reluctant to become involved at first, eventually took a pride in their band and the
movement generated a great deal of healthy competition subsequently giving rise
to not only local but regional and national band contests. The Brass Band
Movement was popular by definition but made a contribution to art music in that it
created the first mass involvement of working class people in instrumental ‘art’
music. It has always been an awkward union; many classical composers were to
write pieces for brass band ( Gustav Holst was the first in 1928 with his Moorside
Suite) but ‘arty’ musical establishments and serious music lovers kept them at
arms length. They suffered a bit from an image of ‘comic book’ northerness’
although they spread across the length and breadth of the British Isles. However,
brass band contests have raised playing standards, and as well as keeping the
Brass Band Movement alive, have also helped to produce some of the country’s
best orchestral brass players. The movement still survives today even if it has
suffered from the raised standards of the working classes and the many other
preferred ways the younger members now have of spending their leisure time
rather than standing in some draughty hall, dressed in a ‘uncool’ uniform and
doing hours of tedious practice.
There was a feast of music to be found in Newcastle in the late Victorian Era and
whilst much of it was generated within the town by enthusiastic amateurs
standards were gradually being raised by an increasing number of visiting
orchestras and solo artists on national and international tours. The Town Hall in
the Bigg Market was the main concert hall and from all reports it was an
inadequate building for the purpose. Unlike some other larger provincial cities
Newcastle not having shown any great civic interest in music (beyond bands in
the park) and as a consequence presumably had never considered a purpose
built concert hall a priority or a necessity for that matter. Concerts were held in a
variety of rooms and halls around the town. Mr Hares, who owned a pianoforte
and harmonium warehouse on Grey Street, was advertising his 300th Grand
Concert to be held in the Town Hall by 1881. These concerts comprised mostly
the usual vocal and solo instrumental pieces but in 1892 he did manage to tempt
Pablo de Sarasate, world famous violinist, to come to Newcastle and play.
Eleven years later he presented (as they used to say in those far off Musical Hall
days “Our very own”) Marie Hall, violinist, age nineteen. The North East has
given birth to many fine singers and musicians but few more famous than Marie
Hall, who was born into poverty but rose to become an international artist. At an
early age she was befriended by Edward Elgar and his wife, who wrote in her
diary in 1895, when Marie was only eleven years old, ‘(Elgar) gave the little girl
Hall a lesson and some chocolates’. Years later Marie Hall was to make the first
recording, with the composer, of his violin concerto. Immediately prior to her
appearance at Mr Hare’s concert she had made her debut in Prague (1902),
Vienna (1903) and London at St James Hall on 16th February that same year.
She appeared in her home town many times thereafter and at one of her
concerts in 1905 she had printed programmes listing eighty-six pieces numbered
1 to 86 and a note at the top of the programme that read ‘Items will be selected
from the following and the number displayed at the side of the stage’. But
perhaps the best known European woman violinist of her time was Madam
Wilma Norman-Neruda, who appeared in concert at the Town Hall in December
1883. Few of these early instrumentalists, however, could have claimed a
reputation to match that of Anton Rubinstein, who at the peak of his fame played
a recital in Newcastle’s Town Hall on 20th March 1877. He had performed before
Chopin and Liszt and left a deep impression on Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.
He founded the St Petersburg Conservatoire and established what is even today
recognised as the Russian school of piano playing.
With the growth of the professional symphony orchestra and the rise of the
Impresario Newcastle began to enjoy an unprecedented period of music making
that continued until 1914. One of the first orchestras to come to Newcastle was
from Manchester, the Charles Halle Band, which had been founded in 1856/57
by Halle from Germany, who was knighted in 1888 for his services to music.
Through the good offices of Alderson and Brentnall, subscription concerts were
arranged throughout 1876-1889 and regular series’ of concerts were given by the
orchestra. In 1886 Hans Richter and an orchestra of eighty-five musicians visited
Newcastle for the first time and in 1888, Augustus Manns, of Crystal Palace
fame, with his orchestra played in Newcastle, as they were to do for many
seasons after that. Richter had a ‘bee in his bonnet’ about Manns, who, he was
convinced, was trying to do him down as they followed each other around the
country on tour. In 1904/5 Henry Wood and the Queen’s Hall Orchestra played
in town for the first time and the following season had the London Symphony
Orchestra conducted by Edward Elgar playing three of his own compositions. He
returned again in 1916 with the LSO and after the war on 8th May 1920 as
conductor of the Leeds Choral Union in a performance of his oratorio ‘The
Apostles’ in St Nicholas’ Cathedral. On this occasion, which was a time of
bereavement for the composer following the death of his beloved wife, Alice, he
noted in his diary ‘Our wedding day 1889’
Much earlier on 24th November 1900 Richter returned to Newcastle with the
Halle Orchestra and gave the first performance in the town of Beethoven’s Ninth
Symphony. That same year he gave Newcastle their first performances of
Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations. Hans
Richter, who had known Wagner well and conducted the premier of his Ring
Cycle, was very pro-English – although his spoken English was reportedly poor and he did a good deal for English orchestras and orchestral music in the
provinces in those early days. On 20th March 1901 Richter and the Halle
Orchestra joined forces with the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union in a
concert performance of ‘Faust’ by Hector Berlioz that took place at the Olympia
on Northumberland Road. The Musical Times reported afterwards that concerts
recently given in Newcastle by the Choral Union and the Halle Orchestra
surpassed anything previously heard in that town at that time. In the 1903/4
Season the Choral Union invited Dr Richter and the Halle Orchestra to Newcastle
and took the unusual step of a vote amongst its members as to what items
should make up the programme; based on a list of a number of specified works
suggested by Dr Richter. Of the symphonies the Eroica of Beethoven topped the
list with 137 votes, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony came second with only 81
votes and Brahms Second Symphony, third with 47 votes. Wagner came out on
top in the overtures and only Cherubini got no votes. In the other sections
Wagner romped home with 240 votes for his ‘Walkurenrittand’ and Richard
Strauss was second with his ‘Tod und Verklarung’. The whole exercise proved to
some extent that Newcastle audiences did not just want to hear the old and
familiar and were not afraid to try the new. In the press review following the
concert the audience was complimented on its advanced taste, although, the
review went on to say:
‘The effort of listening to such a continuous succession of strongly emotional
highly coloured pieces was exhausting and one felt the desirability of a few
moments of repose, but for those who could thrive on such highly spiced meats it
was indeed a lordly banquet’
Dr Richter, true to his name, judged the Newcastle music lovers to have excellent
taste in their choice of music.
In 1908 the newly formed London Symphony Orchestra played in Newcastle
under Artur Nikisch, one of music’s all-time great conductors. One of his LSO
players said of him ‘He simply looked at us, often scarcely moving his baton and
we played as those possessed; we made terrific crescendi, sudden commas
before some great chord, though we had never done this before. He shows us
how to attain to the most beautiful and the highest in art, and we endeavour to
realise his ideals’ Jan Kubelik, the renowned Czechoslovak violinist played at a
Celebrity Concert in 1900. It was said of his playing –though not specifically on
this occasion, that it was the climax of technical perfection, his tone was noble
and full and his expression, whilst distinguished, was not very deep. In 1912 Fritz
Kreisler, whose name became a household word for violin playing, and John
McCormack, the Irish tenor and greatest of ballad singers (although unfortunately
sang everything with an Irish accent) gave a concert together. and the touching
beauty of their combined art can still be recaptured on the acoustic recordings
they made together. Paderewski, pianist, composer and later eminent Polish
statesman, was a frequent visitor to Newcastle playing in the Town Hall, Barras
Bridge Assembly Rooms and even in the Palace Theatre. It was common for
such great artists to appear in concert at the Palace, which I remember, from the
1940s as a rather seedy second-rate variety theatre presenting ventroloquists,
juggling acts and other touring acts, long since past their ‘sell by dates’. Nellie
Melba and Anna Pavlova, the famous ballerina noted for her performance of the
Dying Swan, both performed there following the 1914-18 War in a series of
International Subscription Concerts. The theatre was also used by the
(Newcastle) Philharmonic Orchestra but we shall return to them later.
Between 1897 and 1914 Percy Harrison, the Birmingham concert manager,
presented a series of Ballad Concerts in Newcastle. These concerts featured
outstanding artists singing and playing popular pieces. The formula was a
guaranteed moneymaker given the weakness of the average Victorian for
sentimental ballads. They proved popular enough in Newcastle and the
attendance was generally good but it did fluctuate. They were heavily criticised in
the press for pandering to public taste and presenting music that was worthless
from the artistic standpoint. Worthless or not, one hundred years on, the list of
soloists makes the head spin; Adelina Patti, Edouard de Reszke, Tetrazzini,
Maggie Teyte, Clara Butt, Aino Ackte and Nellie Melba. All of these names speak
for themselves and need no comment from me. The instrumentalists included
Artur de Greef, Paderewski, Busoni; pianists – Kreisler, Ysaye, Zimbalist and
Elman; violinists and Pablo Casals, cello. What these eminent string virtuosi
thought of performing with a bunch of singers, no matter how fine, is not recorded
but the following comment attributed to Ysaye following a similar tour in England
in 1891 might give a clue to their thoughts in general. ‘If I do not say more about
the tour it is simply because there is nothing to say. I travel with two emptyheaded singers- they sing like cockatoos- with whom one cannot exchange a
single idea’. One of the artists Harrison presented at his celebrity concerts
around this time, 23 November 1910 to be precise, was the outstanding Russian
concert pianist, Vladimir De Packmann. De Packmann was an eccentric, or he
cultivated eccentric behaviour when performing (he was not alone in this) in a
way that is unknown today amongst ‘serious’ artists. He would start playing a
piece – say by Chopin – suddenly stop – and directly address the audience with
“That is not how Chopin should be played, this is how he should sound”. I
suppose audiences went to his piano recitals hoping to witness a moments
eccentricity and give them something to pass on to their grandchildren, which is
confirmed to some extent by the following excerpt from a local press review of
the time:
‘Indeed his admirers now look for them (platform eccentricities) as a matter of
course and as a legitimate part of their entertainment and were he to discard
those peculiar mannerisms which are his own exclusive stock in trade, the
Russian pianist would doubtless disappoint many of his audience’
Once asked for his opinion as to whom he considered the greatest living pianist,
De Packmann piously rejoined, after due reflection, “Godowsky is the second
greatest”. He was nevertheless an outstanding Chopin interpreter and had the
distinction, when he died, of being one of only two pianists born in Chopin’s
lifetime who lived long enough to make gramophone recordings.
Harrison’s Ballad Concerts took place in the Olympia, Northumberland Road,
until 1899 and then in the Town Hall. Percy Harrison and his uncle Thomas
entered into concert management it is said, to educate the musical tastes of the
people, but they were also a couple of astute business men and when I noticed a
note in one of the Harrison programmes, cancelling the intervals at future
Newcastle concerts, my interest was aroused. It was the 6th October 1899 when
a notice appeared in a Harrison concert programme that read: ‘Mr Harrison begs respectfully to announce that at the suggestion of many of
his Subscribers and supporters he has decided to abolish the interval in the
programme of his concerts for the forthcoming season.
Experience and observation have shown that very few persons (and
constituting a very small percentage indeed of the audience) leave the Hall at the
Interval, and it is not an unreasonable complaint on the part of the larger number
who remain in their seats, that there should be a waste of time in the middle of
the programme, for which there is no apparent necessity.
Having therefore experimentally eliminated the Interval from his programmes on
one or two occasions, and being very pleased with the results, Mr HARRISON
begs to announce his intention of now experimentally abolishing it for an entire
Even in 1899 the call of nature could not be ignored but as any such reference
to bodily functions was taboo in polite Victorian Society I found myself intrigued
as to how the matter would be resolved. A notice headed ‘THE INTERVAL’ in the
next concert programme held the answer.
‘The question as to the abolition of the Interval, which (at the request of a
number of Subscribers) has been realised this season by Mr HARRISON, is
evidently one which will not secure unanimity of sentiment, whichever way it is
eventually decided, since the opinions of the general body of the Subscribers, so
far as they have been at present expressed, vary very much.
Some Subscribers dislike the change because it does not give the opportunity for
meeting and chatting with friends in other parts of the Hall, whilst on the other
hand, a number of Subscribers welcome the change for exactly the same reason,
since they contend that an interval sufficiently long for this purpose, either means
a curtailment of the Programme which might otherwise be presented, or else that
the performance of the later items of the Programme is interfered with by the
necessary exodus of many persons leaving before the end of the Concert, in
order to catch their trains.
Other Subscribers have remarked that although they do not desire a long
Interval, they would like just a short Interval, or break, in the middle of the
programme, and this is the view which will probably be taken by the majority of
the Subscribers.
Mr HARRISON has a perfectly open mind upon the question, his only desire
being to carry out such arrangements as will best conduce to the comfort, and
meet the wishes, of the audiences, and with a view of ascertaining this, he
proposes to limit the experiment of no Interval to the present concert (instead of
continuing it through the entire season as originally announced) and to then take
a plebiscite of his Subscribers as to the arrangements to be made for the future’
Needless to say nothing further was heard of this cost cutting exercise.
I have attempted in this chapter to include as many as possible of the more
famous musical personalities that appeared in Newcastle during this musically
fertile period but there will be others, who for one reason or another have been
left out. Some of those I have mentioned paid repeated visits to the town, others
may have appeared only once. Such as the French composer, organist, teacher
and critic, Charles Widor (1844-1937), a name well enough known today but for
one piece only, the Toccata movement from his fifth symphony, played at all the
best weddings often as an alternative to the Mendelssohn or Wagner wedding
marches. He performed in St Nicholas’ in 1891 at the opening of the Grand
Organ. Tamara Karsavina, one of the greatest Russian ballerinas, who left
Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, gave a flying matinee (there and gone
within hours) performance at the Hippodrome, Northumberland Road, in 1919.
She danced a full programme of well-known short ballet extracts. Adelina Patti,
who had appeared a number of times in the town made her last appearance in
the Town Hall on 18th October 1907, where she appeared with the baritone,
Robert Radford. Possibly inspired by all this musical activity Newcastle decided
to make one last effort to emulate the Three Choirs Festivals that were still taking
place regularly in Leeds, Worcester and Birmingham and mount a three day
festival of their own, inviting, as was customary at theses showcase events,
musical forces from outside town. The festival took place on the 20th – 22nd
October 1909 and seems to have been a success. The organisers dispensed
with the old Grand Festival formula, ditching Handel and his oratorios to make
room for the big Romantic works of Brahms, Liszt, Strauss, Busoni and
Tchaikovsky. Another innovation was the inclusion of a number of British works
conducted by their composers and these included two first public performances
by composers active in Newcastle.
The newly formed London Symphony Orchestra was hired together with the
famous Russian conductor, Wassili Safanoff, renowned for his Tchaikovsky
performances and also for conducting without a baton (a struggling young wouldbe conductor from London was later to adopt Safanoff’s batonless style and turn
it into an art – his name was Leopold Stokowski) Edward Elgar, Granville
Bantock, and Rutland Boughton conducted their own works and the titanic
pianist, composer, conductor, teacher, writer and first rate musical thinker,
Ferruccio Dante Michaelangiolo Benvenuto Busoni (1866-1924) played his own
five movement piano concerto. Following its premier, Professor Dent, respected
writer and critic, said that it provoked extremes of reaction; rapture and outrage
and between these two the silent majority simply shook their heads in
stupefaction. It was noise, more noise, then eccentricity and licentiousness
provoked yet more noise. The five movements were submerged in a flood of
cacophony painting the joys of lusting barbarians, the orgies of absinthe drinkers
and common prostitutes. One of the more interesting aspects of the festival was
surely the two first public performances of works written by composers who were
closely associated with the town, itself. The first of these was Edgar L. Bainton, a
London born musician (1880), whose orchestral work ‘Promethius’ was given its
first performance. Bainton was at this time teacher of piano and composition at
the Newcastle Conservatoire. We shall leave him for the moment and take a
closer look at his interesting and unusual career in a later chapter. The other
composer was Adam von Ahn Carse, born in Newcastle on 19th May 1878. It
would seem that he changed his name for professional reasons. At age fourteen
he was being educated in Hanover in Germany but later attended the Royal
Academy of Music and appears to have spent most of his active life teaching
music at Winchester and the RAM. His Symphony in G minor was given its first
public performance at the festival and as with Bainton above he conducted his
own work. As well as his own compositions he edited many classical symphonies
by Abel, Arne, J.C.Bach, Dittersdorf, Fils, Gossec, Stamnitz among others and
wrote extensively on music including a book on The Life of Julien, whom he
refers to as the ‘Establisher of the Promenade Concerts in England.
Of all the celebrities to appear in Newcastle during this Golden Age, none of
the names quite conjures up the magic as that of the world famous Italian tenor,
Enrico Caruso, who, on 10th September 1909 came to Newcastle and sang
before an audience in the Town Hall. Caruso was no stranger to England; he
maintained a flat in Maida Vale in London, which he visited when he could to see
his son who was being privately educated there. Although he had appeared in
opera at Covent Garden he had never sung in the provinces and this was to be
the one and only time brought about by circumstances rather than design. In
1909 Caruso suffered throat trouble and cancelled the last part of his Met.
Season in New York to receive treatment. Following the operation on his throat
he tested his voice at a couple of concerts at the Kursaal in Ostende. As these
concerts went well he decided to test his voice further in the English provinces
taking the view that it was perhaps wiser to face the audience and critics of
Newcastle and other provincial towns before facing those of London. He decided
to break his voice in gently and sing three numbers only on each programme.
According to the programme he was to sing ‘Celeste Aida’ (from Aida by Verdi),
‘O Paradiso’ (from L’Africaine by Meyerbeer) and the duet ‘Solenne in quest’ ora’
(from Don Carlos by Verdi) with Sig. Lacomte, baritone, but on the night Caruso
lived up to his generous reputation and gave the audience what they wanted to
hear. Let the Journal for Saturday 11th September 1909 take up the story; ‘Although Newcastle did not follow the example of Glasgow and other large
towns by crowding the Town Hall to overflowing last night, when Sig. Caruso
appeared for the first time in the city, it was nevertheless a large audience that
welcomed this distinguished tenor, and their enthusiasm was something to be
long remembered. What blank spaces there were, were due, no doubt, not to any
lack of desire to make acquaintance with the singer but rather to inability or
determination not to pay the price – the heavy price which the possession of a
seat required. Last nights concert proved that Caruso is just as fortunate in his
voice as he is in those clever people associated with him, who help to keep his
name before the public and that is saying a great deal. No artist, perhaps, has
been “boomed” to the same extent as this one, and those who had the pleasure
of hearing him last night will agree that it is difficult to recall one who more
thoroughly deserves the many kind things that have been said of him. In other
words great expectations were more than realised.
It is no reflection on the famous tenor’s artistic colleagues to say that Caruso
was first and the rest nowhere’
The review goes on to list the programme Caruso sang, which in addition to
the three arias scheduled, included the songs, ‘Ideale’, ‘Euand io ti Guardo’ and
Pour un Baiser’ by Tosti, ‘Musica Proibita’ by Gustaldon, and ‘Lento Chat t’Amo’
by Latuo. As a final encore he sang – what else – but ‘Vest la Giubba’ (On with
the Motley) from I Pagliacci by Leoncavallo.
The appearance in Newcastle of Enrico Caruso was something more than just
another recital by a man who one hundred years on is still called ‘The Great
Caruso’ and has inspired generation after generation of tenors, none of whom
have quite matched him in excellence. It was a landmark concert not only in the
context of Newcastle’s musical history but also music in general. Caruso would
have been the first artist to appear in Newcastle whose voice and art would
already have been familiar to some of the audience even though they had not
previously heard him in person. They would have heard his voice on the latest
invention – the phonograph or gramophone, still considered by many people then
as a toy – a passing fad. The question ‘Did Caruso make the gramophone or did
the gramophone make Caruso has never really been answered but one thing
was certain on that September evening and that is the audience were listening to
the man who more than anyone else helped establish recording, which
eventually, but inevitably was to change how the world would experience music.
The word Conservatoire, from the Italian, Conservatorio, which can mean any
number of things, was used not so long ago as a synonym for a school of music.
It sounded just that bit more impressive and so when two Newcastle music
teachers decided to pool their talents and open a school of music in Claremont
buildings, Barras Bridge they hit on the idea of calling it, rather pretentiously, the
Newcastle Conservatoire. This was a period when music schools were being
established in a number of the larger provincial towns in England. Birmingham
founded its School of Music in 1854 and Manchester followed with its College of
Music in 1893. There had never been any shortage of music teachers in
Newcastle but these teachers were limited in scope, usually teaching one or two
instruments at which they, themselves, were proficient. In the early 19th century
many music teachers had their names posted in the local directory under the
heading ‘Academies’. In the Newcastle Directory for 1894, a list headed
“Professors” included 66 who taught music, seven teaching languages and six
dancing. One of these professors was Mr W McConnell Wood and it was he, who
with Miss Maud, a pianist, joined forces and founded the Newcastle
Conservatoire of Music in 1898
The new establishment obviously thrived and by the turn of the century it had
an impressive list of patrons, including the Countess of Ravensworth and Lady
Ridley, as well as five musical knights namely Charles Grove, A. Mackenzie,
Walter Parratt, James Stainer and Frederick Bridge and the Mayor of Newcastle.
Information on the Conservatoire’s early years is hard to come by but it seems
that Mr Wood left and went off to teach on his own, but not before he had started
a tradition of modest concerts by the pupils. These concerts comprised chamber
music of substantial content with a variety of vocal and instrumental music by
both classical and (then) contemporary composers and were given in the Grand
Assembly Rooms, Barras Bridge, Connaught Hall and sometimes in the King’s
Hall at Armstrong College. Many of the programmes have been preserved for us
in the City Library Archives and show that these concerts continued until at least
the year 1929.
In 1901 Miss Maud was the Principal and the Conservatoire had a known staff
of two but there were probably others. In 1906 it moved its premises to 22 St
Mary’s Place and by 1912 the Conservatoire was obviously in full swing and the
future looked very promising. The newly appointed Principal was Edgar
L.Bainton, a talented London born musician and one of the rising generation of
British composers destined to contribute extensively to the English Musical
Renaissance. His teaching staff were no less impressive and included Dr William
Gillies Whittaker, respected English choral conductor, pedagogue, composer and
founder of the Bach Choir (1915) as well as Carl Fuchs, ‘Cello Professor at the
Royal Manchester College of Music. The organisation was typical of any English
School of Music with choral, orchestral, operatic and chamber music
departments and it prepared students for the examinations of the Associated
Board of the R.A.M and R.C.M., and also for the degrees of A.R.C.M. and
L.R.C.M. One of Bainton’s first steps as Principal, at some financial risk to
himself, was to move his school to larger premises at 72 Jesmond Road on the
corner of Victoria Square. In 1937 it moved nearby to an even larger building but
the occupation was to be short-lived. Neither of these premises exist today, the
former was demolished to make way for the motorway and on the site of the
latter now stands Jesmond Metro Station.
Bainton was to be connected with the Conservatoire for more than 30 years, a
period not without incident. In 1914 whilst he was en-route for Bayreuth he was
interned in a camp in Ruhleben, where he was to remain for the duration of the
war. In his absence his wife ran the Conservatoire and even continued the
chamber concerts. His time in the prison camp turned out to be a period of great
creative and practical musical activity, not only for Bainton, himself, who was
placed in charge of all the music at the camp, but also for a number of other
musicians interned there, including amongst others Carl Fuchs (Principal cellist
of the Halle Orchestra) and Edward Clark, a colleague from Newcastle who had
been studying with Schoenberg in Berlin. Bainton formed his own Madrigal
Group, known as the Magpies, played occasional concertos and supervised the
taking of degree examinations in the camp, which the Germans sent to London to
be assessed! After the war, in poor health, Bainton returned to Newcastle, via
Amsterdam, where he conducted two concerts of English music with either the
Concertgebouw or the Amsterdam-Mengelberg Orchestra (opinions vary) and
resumed normal life as Principal of the Newcastle Conservatoire. In 1930,
however, he began touring extensively, visiting India, Canada and Australia,
where he obviously made an impression on the governing body of the New South
Wales Conservatorium at Sydney and they offered him a directorship, which he
accepted in 1934.
It is said that Bainton left behind an organization which had contributed
considerably to the musical life of Newcastle and district. He had at one time a
panel of outstanding teachers, all prominent names in the history of music in the
North East and some of whom went on to achieve wider recognition such as
W.G.Whittaker, a native of Newcastle, who left the Conservatoire in 1929 to
become the 1st Gardiner Professor of Music at the University of Glasgow and
Principal of the Royal Academy of Music in Glasgow. Carl Fuchs, whom I have
already mentioned; principal cellist with the Halle Orchestra and Professor of
music in Manchester, who also taught in Huddersfield and after a day in
Newcastle would teach half a day in York on his way home. Some few others by
name were A.M.Wall, (violin), Dr Hutchinson, William Ellis (St Nicholas’
Cathedral organist) who was awarded a Lambeth Doctorate in Music, Miss Elsie
Winstanley (piano) who did Stirling work as resident pianist at the Laing Art
Gallery Lunch Time Concerts during WWII. and Arthur Milner, (piano and choral
class) who at some time was also vice-Principal and in 1927 took charge of
music teaching at the Royal Grammar School, making the school notable for its
fine musical activity.
Why the Conservatoire failed is a difficult one to answer, it had all the makings
of a permanent school of music for the North East. The beginning of the end
seems to have been when Bainton invited Dr Leslie Russell, music adviser for
the Kent County Education Committee, whom he had probably met in connection
with his work as an examiner, to be his successor. A slap in the face for those
who worked with him at the Conservatoire, but maybe Bainton considered that
the Conservatoire needed new ideas and a new outlook, not available locally. It
would be an understatement to say that some of the staff were disappointed at
the decision. The press notice announcing the start of the summer term on 5th
April 1934 mentioned that ‘new classes included a Children’s percussion band,
Dalcroze Eurhythmics, folk dancing and pipes (both making and playing) ‘. This
clearly seemed to indicate an enterprising new broom which was confirmed by a
further announcement in September that the ‘Prospectus is completely redesigned, with particulars of many new courses’ Notwithstanding, Dr Russell,
who was a highly disciplined and competent musician went on to widen the
scope of the Conservatoire, but his efforts were of little avail and on 22nd July
1938 the Newcastle Journal announced that the Conservatoire was to close. No
reason was given but it seems likely that the Conservatoire was underfunded, it
had no influential committee of management and no subsidy from private or
public funds and at that particular time in history the national economy had
deteriorated and a career in music was rather a bleak outlook.
The Newcastle Conservatoire was a bold attempt to establish a school of
music in the town and had it succeeded it would today be on a par with those
schools successfully established in other larger industrial towns. Its demise was
a sad day for music in the North East but during its lifetime it had a stimulating
effect on musical activity in the city. However, whilst it was the most
comprehensive school of its kind in the North East it was not the only attempt to
found a musical educational centre within the town. Around the 1880s a Miss
Hildegard Werner, a Swedish lady and minor composer, living in the town, set up
the High School of Music in Northumberland Street. It appears to have been an
all ladies establishment with some notable patrons. The school had an all ladies
string orchestra that gave Invitation concerts in the Barras Bridge Assembly
Rooms, mentioned in an earlier chapter. A programme from this period dated
1892 states that it is the 10th Invitation Concert to be given in the upper suite of
the Assembly Rooms by the Mignon String Orchestra and comprises a
programme of songs, solos and string pieces. Miss Werner died in 1911. In 1894
Mr T.A.Alderson, whom we met when reviewing the choral societies, was listing
himself in the Newcastle Directory as Principal of the Northumberland College of
Music at 125 Northumberland Street, above the premises of Alderson &
Brentnall, music shop, which had opened in the 1870s. Then there was the St
John School of Music and Dramatic Art that opened with such a flourish in 1934
but made no impact, and the Sherbourne School of Music and Dramatic Art at
Swinburn Place, which taught for a number of years under Miss M.F.Sherbourne.
‘An Association has been formed in Newcastle for the purpose of giving Concerts
of the best
Orchestral Music. It is proposed that during the coming season four matinee
Concerts should
be given by the Newcastle Philharmonic Orchestra under the conductorship of
Mr Edgar L. Bainton.’
This was the opening paragraph in a notice put out in 1911 announcing a
series of concerts by the newly formed Philharmonic Orchestra comprised of
around fifty professional musicians. The movement leading to the establishment
of the orchestra began in the previous year when Mr Rogers, conductor of the
Tyne Theatre Orchestra, was asked by some members of the band to institute
rehearsals for the purpose of practising good music. As a result of these
rehearsals an invitation concert was given on Thursday , May 12th 1910. The
programme included Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Sir William Sterndale
Bennet’s Overture ‘The Naiades’, and the Hungarian March from Berloiz’ ‘Faust’
and was so successful that it encouraged the idea of placing the orchestra on a
more permanent footing. A provisional committee was formed and for the season
of 1910-11 a series of three orchestral concerts was given in the Tyne Theatre.
The first programme included Haydn’s ‘Clock’ Symphony and Mendelssohn’s
‘Hebrides’ Overture and subsequent programmes included Brahm’s Third
Symphony, Wagner’s ‘Siegfried Idyll’, Stanford’s First Irish Rhapsody and
Schubert’s C Major Symphony. The press welcomed this new venture, which the
following review testifies and I make no apologies for quoting it in full:
‘The announcement of the formation of another orchestral organisation for
Newcastle suggest the adage ‘It never rains but it pours’. Only a fortnight has
elapsed since I announced the formation of the Newcastle Symphony Orchestra
and now comes the news that the local theatre players have banded themselves
together under the title of the Newcastle Philharmonic Orchestra with Mr E. J.
Rogers as their conductor. At the annual concert under the auspices of the
Amalgamated Musicians’ Union, and also at the Good Friday concerts given in
the Theatre Royal during the past few years, these players have shown genuine
musical ability and temperament and many local musicians have expressed the
wish to me that this fine body could be brought together on more frequent
occasions. At the time of writing this paragraph I am in the dark as to the aim and
objects of the new organisation but if present expectations are realised, my
impressions of the Newcastle Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave their inaugural
concert yesterday, will be found recorded in another part of this mornings issue.
There is surely no need to insist – as I am now almost tired of doing, and as I
am afraid my readers must be getting tired of hearing – upon the necessity of the
establishment of permanent orchestras in Newcastle and other provincial
centres. The artistic value of these organisations cannot be over-estimated and
their formation is one of the signs of healthy progression of the musical art in our
midst. In a recent article, Dr Cummings emphasised the importance of this side
of our artistic development. “The multiplication of orchestras and orchestral
performances”, he said, “has educated the British public to an extent which our
forefathers never dreamed could be possible. Time was when the idea prevailed
that the voice and verse was everything; that music only filled its noblest
functions when the instrumental was restricted to the illustration of the vocal text;
but now many have come to recognise the fact that the highest music is
language not translateble into words nor confined to a programme. The waves of
sound which flow from the orchestra may be presentations of the communing of
the soul of the genius composer with the heaven from which it came and to which
it will return. “ To many of us orchestral music is the highest form in which the art
can be presented to the ear and imagination, and the formation of two new
orchestras in the metropolis of the north is a matter for congratulation. I wish
them both well.’
The press review that followed the concert is no less interesting, and revealing
in its criticism of Newcastle’s attitude towards musical culture.
‘Since the days when the late Sir Charles Halle brought his famous band to the
city and gave annually a series of orchestral concerts Newcastle has occupied an
unworthy place amongst provincial cities so far as this class of musical enterprise
is concerned. In recent years we have been indebted principally to outside aid for
the few orchestral concerts which musicians have been privileged to hear, and
while they have certainly been of superlative excellence, no one will pretend they
have been at all adequate to the needs of so large a community. The very
excellence of those which have been given has only accentuated our orchestral
poverty. Within the past few weeks, however, some interesting developments
have taken place. The formation of the Newcastle Symphony Orchestra has
been announced and yesterday saw the debut at the Tyne Theatre of the
Newcastle Philharmonic Orchestra: and if these organisations are guided by the
right sort of enterprise and supported by the musical community in something like
an adequate manner, an important step will have been taken towards wiping out
the reproach to which Newcastle has been open for a time that has been unduly
and unsatisfactorily prolonged. A first class orchestra cannot, of course, be
formed in a day, for, as George Eliot says; “The seeds of things are small.”’
The reviewer goes on to praise the orchestra but admits the recital was an
occasion for compliments rather than criticism. He expresses some
disappointment at learning that a regular series of concerts is not contemplated
and the raison d’être for the concerts, so far as the musicians were concerned
was to provide the opportunity for them to elevate their taste as members of the
theatre orchestras in the district from whose ranks all the players had been
drawn. In spite of this, the orchestra flourished and before the First World War
an orchestral committee had been formed under Sir Henry Hadow, Principal of
Armstrong College and the orchestra began a close association with the
Conservatoire. In 1910, upon the resignation of Mr Rogers, the conductorship
was taken over by Edgar Bainton (two years before he became Principal of the
Conservatoire) and he held the post for twenty four years. In October 1911 the
following notice appeared in The Musical Times:
‘An important scheme is the enlargement of the Philharmonic Orchestra and the
extension of its activities so as to include four concerts. The syllabus has not yet
been issued, but I am able to state that at each concert a symphony will be
played, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Glazounow, being represented this
season, and that at each concert one or more works by living British composers
will be included. As the additions to the Orchestra comprise some of the best
instrumentalists in the district, and a thorough plan of rehearsals has been drawn
up by the conductor, Mr. E.J.Bainton, it looks as if the tentative attempts of the
last two years to found a local permanent orchestra are likely to produce a
scheme pregnant with rich possibilities. One important disadvantage the
Orchestra labours under is that so many of its members are unable to get free
from theartres and other positions of employment in the evenings and that
concerts at present must be given in the afternoons.’
Upon the resignation of Bainton in 1934 Dr Russell took over the post as
conductor. At his debut in the City Hall. he made a speech, which was deemed in
the press to be tactless, particularly as it came from a newcomer to the musical
scene. Subsequent correspondence in the papers agreed with Dr Russell’s view
that public support for the orchestra was poor, but not with his view that some of
Yehudi Menuhin’s programme in a recent Celebrity concert was ‘a mere display
of technical skill’ (shades of Charles Avison, which makes one wonder if there is
not something in the bracing Tyneside air that inspires men to challenge giants)
Russell also said that some professional players had not been remunerated for
the previous concert which pointed to financial difficulties.
Following the 1914 War the orchestra continued giving four to six concerts a
season in the Palace Theatre. Their programmes were made up of the more
substantial classical repetoire with liberal helpings of contemporary English
music. There was variety in the rest of the programmes made up of more familiar
orchestral pieces. A press review headed ‘First Post-War Concert in Newcastle’
said that the orchestra was good enough to suggest that in the absence of any
further breaks in its continuity of practice, Newcastle would soon have a really
first-class orchestral combination of professional musicians, but regretted the
absence of a proper place in the city for public music concerts. There was some
suggestion that public support could have been better, but most people had to
work for their living or were out of work and on the dole and did not have money
to spend on tickets for symphony concerts. In any case the admission prices
alone limited attendance at these concerts to the more comfortably off.
Consequently, even as early as the 1920s the orchestra was in financial trouble.
The following press appeal spells it out:
‘It looks as though Newcastle were going to make a supreme effort to save its
only permanent orchestra. The Newcastle Philharmonic Orchestra has so far not
been appreciated at all commensurate with its merits, and no secret has been
made of the fact that it was faced with extinction because of a lamentable
languishing of public support. The committee rightly decided to take the public
into its confidence, tell them the circumstances, and give them a chance to
redeem their past delinquencies and the committee’s present deficiencies. They
embarked, as a last resort upon two experimental concerts to test, as it were, the
extent of the appreciation of orchestral music in Newcastle.
The first of these took place in the Palace Theatre last evening and everyone
with the best music at heart will be delighted to learn that the experiment
promises to prove a signal success. Almost every seat in the spacious theatre
was occupied – a condition of affairs at once inspiring to Mr Bainton and his
forces and encouraging to the committee, whose only ambition is to provide
Newcastle with a permanent professional orchestra not unworthy to be compared
to Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Birmingham. It is a laudable aim, and one
which it is hoped will succeed splendidly. Similar support for the second concert
on December 11 ought to place the orchestra on that permanent basis which will
ensure a regular series of orchestral concerts in Newcastle, a phase of music
which has hitherto been unaccountably starved.’
The orchestra survived its 1920s financial crises, however, and continued
giving concerts into the late 1930s. I was unable to ascertain whether or not the
orchestra engaged any visiting conductors or big name soloists to perform at
their concerts, but I think not. It appears to have been fairly self sufficient in this
respect. Perhaps it was a question of funds as fees for visiting artists could
mount up. Those they did engage were in the early stages of their careers and
would not have demanded large fees; Harriet Cohen, Sidone Goosens and Cyril
Smith. On the other hand it may have been that they genuinely felt it was not
necessary. Their close association with the Conservatoire gave them access to a
range of musical talents; Edgar Bainton, their conductor and Arthur Milner, were
both, in their own right, competent soloists. Milner wrote a piano concerto, which
was premiered with himself as soloist at one of the Philharmonic concerts.
The press announcement introducing the Philharmonic Orchestra in 1911 said
that only a fortnight earlier the author had introduced to the public the Newcastle
Symphony Orchestra, therefore, I think we can take it that these two orchestras
were founded at around the time. However, they were two very different animals,
in more ways than one; the Philharmonic being largely professional and male,
whilst the Symphony was chiefly made up of amateurs and most of these were
ladies. I could trace no records relating to the first twenty years of the Symphony
Orchestra’s activities but it was indeed active in 1920 when the following press
notice appeared in the Journal:
‘Now that we have got the Town Hall back to concert pitch, the Newcastle
Symphony Orchestra has no longer to suffer the indignity of going to Gateshead
to give its periodical concerts. Yesterday there was quite a good audience for
the matinee, and the programme met with generous and just appreciation.
Chiefly composed of amateurs, most of whom are ladies, the Symphony
Orchesta has reached a very creditable degree of proficiency and their playing
yesterday was marked by cultured musicianship and refinement of phrasing.
Their big number came last in the programme, Schubert’s Seventh Symphony,
and if proved a wholly enjoyable experience to renew acquaintance with this
melodious masterpiece. A commendable balance of tone was preserved
throughout and the second allegro and the fascinating scherzo were particularly
well done. The whole work is full of genuine melodic interest and despite its great
length, it was well enough played to sustain interest right to the end. The
symphony may be regarded as a fine collection of inspired tunes and Mr
Hamilton Harty and his forces deserve high praise for so musicianly a
The review continues in similar vein praising the orchestra’s playing of
Smetana and Wagner, but it is the mention of Hamilton Harty in the earlier part of
the piece that lends special interest to this orchestra’s activities and sets it apart
from its rival, the Philharmonic. In the Tyne and Wear Archives I found one of the
Societies Minute Books covering the period 1932 –38, which gave an insight into
the orchestra’s activities over the period.
1932 : 7th Sept Meeting expressed concern at the resignations from the
Society ‘In view of the prevailing depression in the district.’ Regarding booking
the City Hall for the forthcoming concert the minutes reflect on ‘the difficulty of
adequately filling the hall and what steps could be taken to increase public
Leading shops and firms could be asked to interest themselves and their
employees in the Society’s events.
Blocks of tickets could be issued at reduced prices. The Secretary was asked to
consult with Dr Sargent on the matter as it was felt that he would have had
valuable experience in that direction.
1933: 10th April. Dr Sargent arranged a Haydn, Beethoven programme
bearing in mind it did not call for additional wind instruments, which adds to the
cost. In these difficult times costs should be kept as low as possible.
1934: 24th May. The question of Entertainment tax came up and it was
decided to make the next concert an Invitation Concert to which the general
public would not be admitted.
1936: 17th June. There had been a considerable deficit for the season
owing to the Election and the Beecham Concert. Hamilton Harty and John
Barbirolli were both approached to conduct the orchestra at a forthcoming
concert but withdrew, Malcolm Sargent, who could always be relied upon,
accepted and at a reduced fee.
Malcolm Sargent was asked to come himself to
rehearsals and not send his deputy. His name was Reginald Goodall. To save
money it was decided to engage no wind but play the wind part on the piano.
The last entry concerned a meeting in the City Hall on 27th August 1941 when
it was agreed that the orchestra should remain in abeyance during the war.
The above, all too brief, but fascinating glimpse into the problems of running
an orchestra in Newcastle in the 1930s is illuminating, even though the
organisation was more in the nature of a friendly society committed to making
good music and (Entertainment Tax aside) bringing it to the public at least once a
year. What I found so interesting was the Society’s ability to involve so many
outstanding English conductors including Sargent’s deputy,
the later
outstanding, Reginald Goodall. I think the willingness of these conductors to be
associated with the Newcastle Symphony Orchestra says much for the
orchestra’s overall standard. They normally gave only one concert a year but
always under a first rate conductor. From 1917 to 1935 they had Hamilton Harty
conduct eight times, Henry Wood twice and in 1927 when the orchestra mounted
a Beethoven festival over two days they engaged both these conductors at the
same time. For a period in the 1920s they had Dr Whittaker, from the
Conservatoire as their deputy conductor and during the 1930s Malcolm Sargent
appears to have maintained a close association with the orchestra.
In addition to these two semi-permanent orchestras there were two other
occasions in the year when the musicians of Newcastle were called upon to form
themselves into an orchestra of symphonic proportions and perform at a public
concert. This was at the annual concerts organised by the Northern Musicians’
Benevolent Society and the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union . How long these
events had been taking place is difficult to say at this distance in time but the
Society concerts probably started about 1889 and the Union’s concerts around
1900. The Society had an impressive committee headed up by Sir
A.C.Mackenzie, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, and twenty-seven
Vice-Presidents including many influential names from the area. I have no detail
on the make up of the Union but they could manage to rustle up an eight-man
concert committee when it came to organising the annual event. Both
organisations were able to assemble a sizeable symphony orchestra, but
whereas the Society seems to have had a degree of success on the night, the
Union’s performances (judging by first hand comments on a programme for 26th
September 1915) were pretty awful. A crude comparison of personnel in the
orchestras assembled by the Society and the Union shows no more than a half
dozen names appearing in both orchestras. Furthermore, only two names from
the Newcastle Philharmonic appear in the list of around two hundred musicians
who went to make up the Society’s and the Union’s orchestras. No women were
included, which ruled out most of the Newcastle Symphony Orchestra personnel.
This generally serves to highlight further the general attitude towards women in
orchestras at this time but also points to the fact that there must have been a
goodly number of professional and amateur musicians in the town in the early
part of the last century. This once again prompts the question why was
Newcastle not able to form a permanent orchestra when it appears to have had
the resources. .The Northern Musician’s Benevolent Society, as early as 1896,
was proposing more frequent meetings of the orchestra members for practice,
which it considered would be a step towards the realisation of the original
intention of the promoters of the Society, viz., the establishment of a permanent
The Newcastle Conservatoire, The Newcastle Philharmonic and the Newcastle
Symphony Orchestra did not survive WWII, which is not very surprising. However
that in no way diminishes the valuable contribution of those involved in these
ventures and their pioneering efforts, in the face of general philistinism, to raise
musical standards within the town and establish a musical culture. But it was not
to be and it would take more than another half century for their hopes and
dreams to be realised.
An article in the Musical Times, published around the time of the First World
War regretted that the war had brought about a deterioration in musical tastes. It
said that there was plenty of music but what audiences sought was show and
flourish, and theatrical glitter, and were pleased to applaud when they got it. It
claimed that general taste had gone back thirty years, when the only interest in a
programme lay in the number of popular performers, not in the choice of works,
and the article concluded, ‘audiences’ had unwittingly changed’. I think the author
was probably commenting, with some regret, on the passing of the old musical
order, but it is a fact that cultural standards, if unchecked, do drop in times of
war. But then in uncertain times the general public seek escapism not soul
searching symphonic works: When separated by war what is Beethoven’s Ninth
compared to a simple tune linked to a specific time and place and memory of a
loved one. Regardless of the war, however, the many worthy music societies,
that had been the mainstay of musical life up until then were dying. Musical
interests were becoming less provincial with touring London theatre companies,
visiting professional orchestras under conductors who were stamping their own
personalities on the performances. It was becoming less a question of whose
symphony it was but more a matter of whose interpretation it was. Choral singing
was still very popular in the north but raised standards and the fact that people
were finding other ways of spending their leisure time was having its effect. The
brass band movement was surviving well although its peek had been in the
1890s, when country-wide there had been around 40,000 bands. The movement,
however, had organised itself nationally and established a centre for brass band
competition at Belle Vue in Manchester. That other mainstay of working class
enjoyment, the Music Hall, had long been on the wane, giving way to the more
stylish and comfortable variety theatres. During the war and even after it was at
the theatres that people found the escapism they were seeking, but the early
cinema, the rising popularity of the gramophone, together with the rise of popular
music and above all jazz were also claiming attention. However, there was one
Newcastle musician who successfully raised musical standards in the city at this
period and that was Dr W.G.Whittaker, Mus. Bac., F.R.C.O. In 1915 he founded
the Bach Choir, which was to claim recognition beyond the banks of the Tyne
and attract the attention of many of the country’s leading composers. By 1922 it
was taking part in a three-day festival in London and by 1927 was appearing in
Germany. The choir also performed at St Margaret’s Westminster and at Oxford.
Dr Whittaker became one of England’ leading choral conductors and an authority
on Bach. In 1914 he was already doing his bit for the war effort by mounting a
Grand War Relief Music Festival at St. James’ Park Football Ground, where a
choir and orchestra of one thousand two hundred and fifty performed favourite
choruses from ‘The Messiah’ and ‘Elijah’ as well as choral numbers by Elgar,
Parry, Villiers and Stanford plus, in what was billed as a Grand Orchestral
Immediately following the Armistice the town, musically speaking, was soon
back in business, especially the theatres that had helped keep up spirits during
the darker times. The local theatres enjoyed great success featuring London
touring musical productions, which were very much in vogue in the 1920s. The
Theatre Royal, the Empire and the Hippodrome presented continuous runs of
musical plays, song and dance shows and musical comedy reviews. The music
from many of these shows is still as popular today, whilst their original stars are
shadowy figures of the past known only to a handful of musical theatre buffs.
Titles such as ‘Madame Pompadour’, ‘Lilac Time’ and ‘The Merry Widow’ graced
the bill boards of the Theatre Royal, whilst the Empire Theatre competed with,
‘Mr Tower of London’, a musical review and The Hippodrome on Northumberland
Road attracted the crowds with, ‘Our Nell’ a musical play with Jose Collins, ‘Little
Nelly Kelly’, a song and dance show, ‘Hollywood Follies’, an American musical
burlesque, ‘The Arcadians’ with its ‘Merry Merry Pipes of Pan’, so beloved of
Drawing Room sopranos, and the spectacular musical success of its day,
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane’s production of ‘Rose Marie’. However it was not all
froth and treacle at the Royal and the Hippodrome and opera in English was also
in vogue.
Opera in English, as distinct from English opera had been attempted with a
degree of success before the British National Opera Company was formed in the
1920s. There was Moody-Manners and the Quinlan Company, who had mounted
Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle in 1913. There was also The Carl Rosa Opera that toured
opera in English around the provinces for best part of the 20th century,
introducing me, and I am sure a whole generation of budding opera lovers, to live
performances of the popular operas, and at gallery prices we could afford. But
the BNOC, as it became known, was on a much higher artistic level. It had been
founded by the conductor, Thomas Beecham, after his earlier successful
ventures into opera in English in 1909. The company engaged the finest British
singers of the time and the performances were conducted by Barbirolli, Boult,
Sargent or Beecham, himself. The repertoire was adventurous for the time and
the Hippodrome saw performances of ‘Otello’ by Verdi, ‘The Golden Cockerill’ by
Rimsky-Korsakov, with double bills comprising ‘Cav’ and ‘Pag’ and ‘Coffee &
Cupid’ by Bach with ‘Hugh The Drover’ by Vaughan Williams. In 1926 the
company brought Wagner's ‘Parsifal’ and Gounod’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to
Newcastle. The town relied on visiting opera companies, local opera enterprises
never met with any success, and even the BNOC was eventually forced into
liquidation by the want of official help, which prior to WWII was not forthcoming.
In addition to opera there was the occasional visiting celebrity and the Newcastle
Philharmonic continued to give concerts at the Palace Theatre. The Musical
Times reported that it ‘Simply rained performances of ‘The Messiah’ in Newcastle
as though no other Christmas music had ever been written’ and again lamented
the fact that the town did not have a suitable concert hall. But by the end of the
decade the town had two purpose built halls, one permanent and one temporary;
the permanent structure designed as an all purpose hall replacing the derelict
and inadequate concert room in the old Town Hall and the temporary
construction; the Festival Hall, was erected in Exhibition Park, and put up at great
expense to last no more than a matter of months.
The one big event of the 1920s was The North East Coast Exhibition, which
took place in 1929. It was not specifically a musical event but as music played
such a large part in the exhibition programme I think it deserves our attention in
more ways than one. Sir Arthur Lambert, Lord Mayor of Newcastle, 1927 –1929,
as chairman of the Exhibition Committee was responsible for organising the
musical events. Sir Arthur said that from the outset he had not the slightest doubt
in his own mind that the most promising attraction for the indoor concerts was a
string orchestra, with military and brass bands to play outside. He called together
a representative committee of experienced musical amateurs, and they agreed
that an orchestra would be essential, if it could be afforded. There was, of
course, a Concert Hall to be built, which needed a big stage, half a dozen anterooms and seating capacity for 1,400, but it would only be needed for five and a
half months. The problem seems to have been solved on the ‘old boy net’ by
peering backwards. The father of Captain H.G. Amers had been Musical Director
to the Royal Jubilee Exhibition in 1887 and it seemed appropriate, therefore, that
his son should be approached. Amers, junior, who at the time was in Eastbourne
was approached and was able to be released from his engagement with the
Eastbourne Corporation for most of the summer. Consequently he was appointed
Honorary Musical Director. He brought the Eastbourne Municipal Orchestra with
him and as they could play in the orchestral or military style it was unanimously
concluded that this was the ideal arrangement. The suggestion to engage a
permanent band was it seems vigorously opposed at the outset in certain
quarters on the grounds that there was an urgent need for constant freshness
and change of attraction and also because the engagement would mortgage
such a big proportion of the quota of expenditure estimated for music.
The musical arrangements it seems were successful and more than justified
the confidence of the Music Committee. There were no fewer than 54 orchestral
concerts in all and the programmes were arranged with such a perfect flair for
gauging the taste of the public that they flocked nightly in crowds to the Festival
Hall and on many occasions the kiosks were besieged by surging throngs
clamouring for tickets for concerts, which, it is said, were exactly similar in type to
the Queen’s Hall “Proms” in London. Of the 54 concerts some were designated
‘special’ and these included a Symphony Concert (orchestra unspecified)
conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, a concert by Mr McConnell Wood’s Choir,
performances by various other local choirs and massed choirs, the Newcastle
and Gateshead Choral Union doing Berlioz’s ‘Faust’, concert versions of ‘Tom
Jones’ and ‘Merrie England’ by the Tyneside Operatic Societies and a
performance of ‘The Messiah’ given by the Y.M.C.A. Choral Society conducted
by The Lord Mayor. In addition there were symphony concerts conducted by
Capt. Amers that featured distinguished soloists including Arthur de Greef,
Solomon and Edgar Bainton; pianists, and Marie Wilson, Sonia Moldawski and
Alfred Wall; violinists. There were eighteen military bands engaged over the
period and twenty-two colliery and works bands. Two brass band contests were
held with the generous support of the Newcastle Chronicle and proved a great
success. At the end of the contest the massed bands were conducted by the
Mayor, who said, ‘ one hundred trombones swelling out the bass line of the hymn
tune, ‘Eventide’ with the other harmonies blending in sympathetic volume,
brought a thrill to the spine of all who heard it’.
The City Hall, centrally located on Northumberland Road, became Newcastle’s
main concert venue almost from the moment it was opened, although strictly
speaking it was constructed as a general purpose hall and not specifically as a
concert hall. Musically speaking it appears to have got off to a slow start but we
do know that in 1929 the YMCA Choral Society performed Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in
the hall and in 1931 the Glasgow Orpheus Choir appeared under its conductor
Hugh Roberton. There followed a series of International Celebrity Concerts
throughout the 1930s with visits by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under
Furtwaengler, playing Bach, Beethoven, Wagner and Richard Strauss, and the
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mengleberg and Beecham. The
London Philharmonic Orchestra played also under Sir Thomas Beecham and the
Prague Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Rafael Kubelik played a Czech
programme. A young Yehudi Menhuin, before becoming internationally known
through his appearance in a Hollywood musical film, gave a recital, as did Ida
Haendel, violinist, who appeared on the same bill as a soprano called, Beniamina
Pinza, of whom I can find no trace but might have been the daughter of the great
bass, Ezio Pinza. The famous Negro singer, actor and film star, Paul Robeson,
who unfortunately blighted his career through his Communist leanings, gave a
recital and would return again. There were concerted operatic recitals by mixed
groups of singers, one of which was particularly notable with singers Eva Turner,
Sabine Kalter, Dino Borgioli and John Brownlee. Solomon, the concert pianist
appeared under the auspices of the North of England Pianoforte Society (1936)
and a few months before the outbreak of World War II Malcolm Sargent
conducted perhaps the last concert by the Newcastle Symphony Orchestra in a
programme of music by Elgar, Cesar Franck and Dvorak.
The new hall did not have the monopoly on the best of classical music in town;
however, this was to be heard at the Assembly Rooms where the Chamber
Music Society were still holding their concerts. By 1927 they had reached their
37th season, when Madam Suggia, the cellist made immortal by Augustus John,
the artist, who painted her playing her cello in 1923. gave a recital. Myra Hess
and Jelly D’Aranyi gave a violin and piano recital together in December 1937
playing sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms and Cesar Franck. They appeared
together many times as a duo pre war and were close personal friends yet whilst
D’Aranyi acknowledged the friendship and devoted a whole chapter to it in her
biography, Hess’ biographer, who claims to have had access to her private
papers, makes no reference whatsoever to D’Aranyi as though the omission
were deliberate at Hess’ request. Jelly D’Aranyi had a number of associations
with Newcastle and possibly made her British debut in the town. She came to
Newcastle first as a young woman with a friend of Sir Andrew Noble of Vickers
Armstrongs and he engaged Jelly and her sister to play at a chamber concert.
According to her biographer she never forgot the double-decker trams in
Newcastle. The D’Aranyi sisters were always willing to appear for charities. They
were neither socialists nor slummers but they were never unaware of peoples’
hardships and the deterioration of the common working man’s standards in the
1920s. This prompted Jelly to tour England giving free concerts in churches at
which collections were taken. She kept it up for years appearing in Newcastle a
number of times. The Dean of Newcastle wrote to her saying “This house and
our Cathedral have been blessed by having you”. Her tours were called a
‘Pilgrimage of Compassion’ but by 1933 the concerts in draughty and unheated
venues were taking a toll on her health and in a sense were the destruction of
Artur Rubinstein gave a piano recital in November 1938 and in the 1946/47
Season that renowned partnership ,Pierre Bernac, French Baritone and Francis
Poulenc, the composer, appeared in programme of French Song. Greatest of all,
however, was the appearance of Sergei Rachmaninoff on the 19th March 1935 in
the following varied programme of piano music.
Sonata in D, Op. 10 No 3……………………Beethoven
Sonata in B minor, Op 35……………………Chopin
Sonatas in D major and F minor……………..Scarlatti
Ballade in G minor………………………… Brahms
Moment Musical……………………………..Rachmaninoff
Prelude in G………………………………….Rachmaninoff
Oriental Sketch……………………………….Rachmaninoff
Etude-Caprice de Concert F minor…………..Dohnanyi.
There is evidence to show that the Chamber Music Society continued until
1948 reaching its 56th Season. It retained an almost 19th century quality, as
though time had stood still, even as late as 1938 a note at the bottom of a
programme reads, ‘To facilitate egress at the close of the Concert, the audience
is requested not to block the doors but to wait in the Vestibule until the Carriages
are called.’ The very last vestiges of a way of life that within a year would be
swept away forever. For those readers who care about such things I would
suggest a stroll along Percy Street to the point at which it joins Leazes Park
Road, where on the upper part of the corner building there is still to be seen,
perhaps the last remaining reference to the carriage trade, in the words, ‘T
HOWE & Co. Carriage Proprietors’
Beyond the comforts of the City Hall and the Assembly Rooms there was
opera at the Theatre Royal and the Palace Theatres. Not on such a grand scale
as before, but by companies with impressive titles such as the Universal Grand
Opera Co Ltd, and the International Grand Opera Co. Whilst a seat in the new
City Hall might cost as much as two shillings (10p) it was possible to get into the
‘Gods’ at the Palace Theatre for an opera performance for three pence (1.5p). In
the 1930s the Palace Theatre presented ‘The Immortal Hour’ by Rutland
Boughton (1878-1960), his only successful operatic work, later described as ‘one
of those excursions into escapism whose magic defied revival. ‘The Faery Song’
from this music drama remained a great favourite throughout the 1940s in a
recording by the tenor, Webster Booth. For those who demanded more colour
and romance in the theatre there were performances of ‘the Chocolate Soldier’
by Oscar Straus at the Empire Theatre and almost yearly revivals of ‘Lilac Time’
(the musical base loosely on Schubert’s music) at the Royal. For serious music
lovers there was the Bach Festival on 9th-14th April 1935 in the King’s Hall of
Armstrong College and the occasional concert by the Armstrong College Choral
and Orchestral Society. Celebrations and other special events featuring music
were also taking place during this inter war period. There was the Coronation of
the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in May 1937 when a full programme of
music was officially organised in the afternoons and evenings featuring various
local bands in all the parks, in and around the town. In 1936 and 1937 there were
Brighter Homes Exhibitions, with musical entertainment by the Royal Marines
Band under Major P.S.G.O’Donnell and F.Lionel Johns and his Broadcasting
Orchestra, which was a sign of the times.
An anonymous programme I discovered in the archives referred to a series of
concerts in October 1932 by The Light Symphony Orchestra conducted by
Percival Goffin. Goffin was a native of the town and musical director at the
Theatre Royal, but few had any idea of the colourful life he had led as a
musician. As a young man he had toured the world as accompanist to such
artists as, Melba, Kubelik, Peter Dawson, John Coates and Albert Sammons. In
the 1914-18 War, so the story goes, he ended up in Palestine, where he
arranged concerts for the troops. Lord Allenby sent for him and said, “Goffin, I
have taken the Opera House at Cairo for you and I want you to run concerts
there for the Red Cross”. Goffen replied “Sir!”, saluted, and went off to see the
opera house which turned out to be bigger even than Covent Garden.
Undaunted he set about his task and managed to find plenty of good material
among the men of Allenby’s Army. It says much for his organising ability that lady
Allenby’s Red Cross Fund benefited by £10,000. Goffin returned to Whitley Bay
and organised a series of Celebrity Concerts but in the end he was defeated by
the cinema. Live music making in Newcastle also suffered as a result of the
growth in popularity of radio, the cinema, gramophone records and improved
travel, but it was more than that. The main thrust – the musical promise and
commitment that had seemed to be there, at the turn of the Twentieth Century
had evaporated and the town’s ability to maintain its own musical culture was
slowly but surely fading.
Unlike the First World War a conscious effort was made to uphold cultural
standards in the Second and after the initial panic, when all places of
entertainment were closed, a body calling itself the Council for the
Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) was independently founded.
Through the auspices of this organisation concerts were made possible even
through the darkest days of the war and gave many people their first taste of
music and the arts. One of the ways in which Newcastle benefited musically was
through a series of lunchtime concerts held in the Laing Art Gallery. Using an art
gallery for musical events was a break with tradition but proved very popular.
This wartime concert series ran from 1941 until 1947. The story of the Laing Art
Gallery, itself, is very interesting and serves as a further indication of how little
regard the town had for the Arts in general, prior to its cultural rebirth in the
1950s. Newcastle gained the gallery not through any desire on the part of the
City Council or its citizens but because of a wealthy man in the liquor trade who
in 1904 was public spirited enough to realize what the town needed and was
unlikely to get at its present rate of progress. The gallery was largely stocked
from private sources and even by 1940 Newcastle had spent comparatively little
on its art gallery for the purchase of masterpieces. A bitter comment by an
observant newspaper man shortly before the outbreak of the war summed up the
‘This lack of dignity in our towns (Newcastle and Gateshead) has been only too
painfully obvious for years. Why they sold their well-nigh priceless treasures from
the Mansion House, and apparently thought little of what they were doing. The
castle was allowed to fall into ruin and decay. The city walls have been allowed
to melt away. It is a wonder someone has not suggested the Castle or the
Cathedral as likely site for a new Super Cinema.’
The first curator of the gallery, Bernard Stevenson, from Nottingham, who had
been appointed in 1904, was still in post in 1941. He was described at the time
as a clever man, an art expert and an authority on many things besides. It was
said that the well filled, beautifully arranged galleries were a tribute to his genius
and that the success of the Laing Art Gallery was the story of his work. It was he
who put out the notice introducing the lunch time concerts to be held at the
gallery, at the same time expressing the hope that if the series proved a success
they would become a permanent feature of life in the city. But how long is
permanent? Wartime restrictions applied at these concerts, which took place on
Thursdays (later Fridays) from 1.15 to 2.0pm. and the notice pointed out that
owing to the strictness of rationing, it would be impossible to provide a full
canteen for concert-goers, but that tea would be served, and patrons were invited
to bring sandwiches or other suitable refreshment. As with the National Gallery
concerts in London these informal weekly concerts were a wonderful opportunity
of hearing good music and were open to anyone and everyone who could spare
the time.
The mainstay of these mid-day concerts, were solo piano recitals and the list
of names of those who played over six years reads like a ‘Who Was Who’ on the
English piano circuit at the time. The one constant factor was Elsie Winstanley
from the Newcastle Conservatoire, who seems to have been the resident
accompanist, soloist and possibly many other things at a time when everyone
was ‘expected to do their bit’ In addition to the piano recitals were song recitals,
quartets, trios and even a quintet and a wide range of music was covered given
the limited resources available. Kathleen Ferrier appeared twice in 1942 and
Isobel Baillie gave a varied song recital in 1947, of works by Arne, Purcell, Bach,
Schumann, Schubert, Grieg, Delius and Hamilton Harty. In March 1946 there
was a programme (well ahead of its time) of old music on old instruments: Lute,
Viol and Voila d’Amore, at which members of the audience were invited to
inspect the instruments after the concert. The Bach Choir performed in 1942
under J.A.Westrup, Professor of Music in the University of Oxford. The final
concert in the series was a piano recital by Ella Pounder, who played a Haydn
sonata, Rhapsodies and Intermezzi by Brahms, Prelude in C by Prokovieff and a
Chopin Ballade. The recital was of no great significance in itself but it marked the
end of this experiment. It was an experiment that did not fulfil Mr Stevenson’s
highest hopes and proved unsustainable for whatever reason but I feel sure he
would have derived some satisfaction from the fact that his Lunch Time Concerts
lasted one year longer than those at the National Gallery, London.
In researching this period of Newcastle’s musical history I was amazed to find
how much music making was actually going on around me in Newcastle in those
early war years. At the time music was something I only listened to on
gramophone records, on the wireless and in Technicolor soundbytes at the
cinema. No one told me that the London Philharmonic Orchestra were
performing twice nightly at the Empire Theatre, conducted by Malcolm Sargent
on weekdays and on Saturdays by Basil Cameron, who was Basil Hindenberg
before he was advised to change his German name to Cameron. Nor did anyone
mention that the Carl Rosa Opera Co were helping maintain wartime spirits at the
Theatre Royal, as also were the visiting Sadlers Wells opera and ballet
companies. Another opera group of touring singers and musicians calling
themselves the Albion Opera Co. were also appearing at the Theatre Royal and
in 1942 mounted a wartime production of Offenbach’s ‘Tales of Hoffman’ starring
Peter Peers and Victoria Sladen with an orchestra conducted by Walter
Susskind, who had escaped from Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile at the City Hall the
London Symphony and the Halle Orchestras gave concerts with solo artists,
Clifford Curzon, Louis Kentner, Moiseiwitsch, Leon Goossens and Eileen Joyce.
If the programmes erred on the popular side, it was to be expected. Many of
them were in aid of something or other. 1942 saw the fourth series of the
‘National People’s Concerts’ and there was ‘Anglo-Soviet Week’, when the North
East Regional Orchestra gave concerts of mostly Russian pieces with Elgar’s
‘Chanson de Matin’ and ‘Chanson de Nuit’ squeezed in between them. One
programme from this series lists Grieg’s Fourth Piano Concerto - wartime disinformation perhaps? In this same year there was also the ‘Holidays at Home
Drive’ with a full programme of events in what was described as a gala week; 20
–27th June, with bowls, tennis, putting, donkey rides, beach huts and wireless
programmes. But there was also live music by bands; military, brass and dance,
featuring Wetherell’s Accordion Band, the National Fire Service Pipes, and the
Drums and Pipers and Sword Dancers of the Cameronians. . Even the
Newcastle Symphony Orchestra resurrected itself and gave a performance (one
of many during the war period) of Edward German’s ‘Merrie England’ with the
People’s Concert Chorus of 300 voices and the popular tenor, Frank Titterton as
Sir Walter Raleigh. Stirring stuff indeed. Programmes of the period clearly
displayed, ‘AIR RAID SHELTERS at Barras Bridge, Northumberland Road and
Saville Row. but one lived with danger in those days and it often took more than
a few bombs to move an audience.
The National Philharmonic – a wartime creation - came to Newcastle in 1943
for one week and presented a different programme every night with a matinee on
the Saturday. The entertainment equivalent of CEMA, known as ENSA (jokingly
referred to as ‘Every night something awful’) by arrangement with the Ministry of
Labour and National Service presented symphony concerts for war workers.
Under this banner workers were treated to concerts in the work place such as
that given by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Maurice Miles in a
programme of music by Beethoven, Elgar, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mozart. This
was indeed music for the people but it had taken a world war to make it happen. .
Meanwhile, slightly higher up the social scale from the cloth caps and
headscarves, in the Prince of Wales’ Rooms in the County Hotel, the Newcastle
Glee and Madrigal Society were continuing to meet regularly as usual and not far
away in Blackett Street at the Connaught Rooms, the Insurance Institute Music
Society were to be commended for maintaining artistic standards with song
recitals that included music by Bach, Chopin, Roger Quilter, John Ireland, Frank
Bridge and Vaughan-Williams. In 1944 there were special weeks in aid of the war
effort and April of that year saw ‘Salute the Soldier Week’, when massed bands
at the Palace Theatre played programmes to rally the National spirit with suitable
works that included the March Slav and the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky and,
of course, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. The Royal Navy had to have its turn and
consequently ‘Warship Week’ followed with daily concerts of music. The official
programme for ‘Warship Week’ carried such slogans as ‘Save for Britain or Slave
for Hitler’ – ‘They Also Serve Who Save’ and ‘£ the Enemy for all You are Worth’.
The end of the hostilities heralded a return to touring artists and eventually a
more regular pattern to the concert life in the city, but the rise of the cinema,
improved recording standards and increased record sales captured more and
more people’s interests and as a result live classical and operatic musical events
suffered; there were often vacant seats at the City Hall, even for what one would
call special musical events. It was also particularly noticeable that Newcastle had
all but died in the artistic sense. The organisations that had sought to uphold
musical standards within the town were gone, or dormant, and what was left in
their place was mostly amateurs struggling valiantly to hold on to the town’s
musical traditions. Visiting professional artists raised expectations as did radio
and recordings and music lovers began demanding and expecting only the best
and were dismissive of anything else. My introduction to concert going was
through Newcastle’s amateur organisations. My first concert was by the King’s
College Choral and Orchestral Society – it was their eightieth – I was thrilled but
the playing was probably only competent. If my memory serves me correctly,
however, it was better than my second concert a week later when I attended the
Northumberland Orchestral Society’s annual concert at the City Hall. Looking
again at the programme after fifty-six years I see that the orchestra comprised
mostly ladies in the string section; refugees from the Newcastle Symphony
Orchestra no doubt. There were also three of my Post Office colleagues on brass
and French horn. Weeks later in the City Hall I attended my first professional
concert by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under its conductor Eduard van
Beinum, when they played Wagner’s Overture, ‘Die Meistersanger’ and
Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathetique’ Symphony. This one experience was to change my
life forever.
Concert life in the city became a combination of orchestral concerts sponsored
by what had by then become the Arts Council, and Celebrity Concerts promoted
by a number of impresarios who were active at the time; Harold Holt, Harold
Fielding, Gorlinsky and two mavericks Eugene Iskoldoff and Lynford-Joel
Productions, whom we shall return to later. The big name impresarios presented,
in the immediate post war period, artists who were English or from the
Commonwealth. The BBC Northern Orchestra came to town under Sir Thomas
Beecham, back from America. Beecham would return to Newcastle often and he
could always be relied upon to entertain with his devilish wit even before he
raised his baton and frequently after. The London Philharmonic, The Royal
Philharmonic and one of those short lived wartime bands, the London
International Orchestra all played at the City Hall in this period. By the later
1940s and moving into the 1950s there was a regular flow of orchestras and
artists. The year 1947 saw visits by Claudio Arrau, the Chilean pianist, Jussi
Bjorling, Swedish tenor from the Metropolitan Opera, New York and the Czech
Philharmonic Orchestra with Raphael Kubelik. The following year, Sunday 14th
October, saw the first post war visit of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted – not by Furtwangler (politically dubious) or by Karajan (even more
so) but by Sergiu Celebidache, who had been very carefully chosen as he was
Romanian and politically ‘squeaky clean’ so to speak. Emotions were still running
high at this period and the audience must have had very mixed feelings. The
concert tour was billed as a Charity Concert sponsored by Christian Action an
organisation promoting friendship and understanding in Europe. There was much
need of it in those days. The year after, 1949, Harold Holt brought Eugene
Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra to Newcastle. It was at that time
generally considered the greatest orchestra in the world, made famous by
Leopold Stokowski and in the eyes of the record buying public the two were
inseparable. In fact Stokowski had resigned his conductorship of the orchestra in
1937. This may have had a bearing on the fact that the orchestra’s tour of the UK
was not a success. (I attended three of their concerts in the Harringay Arena,
London and there were more seats empty than occupied). Paul Robeson sang
again in Newcastle in March 1949. He was a giant of a man with a very deep and
powerful voice, but the gentleness and sincerity of the man was captured in the
voice. He had a habit of singing with one hand pressed over his ear. Beniamino
Gigli, generally considered the successor to Enrico Caruso also sang at the City
Hall. Caruso and he were as unlike each other in voice as in nature – Gigli had a
reputation for meanness matching that of Caruso for generosity. Gigli’s voice,
however, was unique, his golden tones were unlike any other tenor then or now
and to hear him live (recordings never truly captured the full beauty of the voice)
was a thrilling experience. He was generous with his encores in concert but
mastered the trick of slipping away in his car whilst his audience were still seated
and clamouring for more. As a keen young autograph hunter I once tried to beat
him at his game only to see the tail end of his car vanish down the road whilst the
audience were still cheering in the hall. Ballet lovers were also given a rare treat
during this period when in 1946 at the Theatre Royal the Sadlers Wells Ballet
presented a one week programme of one act ballets with a whole host of leading
dancers including a young Beryl Grey, Moira Shearer (the red haired beauty from
Glasgow and star of the outstanding British film ‘The Red Shoes’) and the most
famous ballerina of her generation, Margot Fonteyn.
Concert life in Newcastle by the 1950s fell into a pattern, which produced few
surprises. In the theatre there was the annual visit of the Carl Rosa Opera and
the occasional ballet company. At the City Hall there were regular seasons of
orchestral concerts by the Halle, The Liverpool and the Yorkshire Orchestras
playing the standard repertoire. Interspersed between these regular orchestral
concerts were visits by solo artists on the touring circuit, some of whom came a
number of years running, others who gave one performance and were never
seen again. The same people went to the same concerts and the size of the
audience depended upon whether the artist appearing was a star personality –
someone who had appeared in a Hollywood musical film or was a big name and
sold a lot of records – which meant that for most of the routine orchestral
concerts and more familiar artists there were often empty seats. Image rather
than merit was the criteria by which the average music lover decided whether or
not to spend his or her 3/6 (20p) on a seat at the City Hall. Oddly enough this in
essence was the very thing the writer in the Musical Times complained about
back in 1914, which seems also to have been a criticism made in the 19th
century. Hey-ho! Not all the big names that toured the country came to
Newcastle. Why some did and others preferred not to remains a mystery. The
climate was certainly a factor when it came to opera singers from the sunnier
climes. One of my greatest disappointments was when Tito Schipa, tenor, and
master of Bel Canto, cancelled his 1950s visit for reasons of climate and the
effect it might have on his voice. Poor bookings would have been another factor
– by the 1950s Newcastle’s image as a cultural town was considerably
diminished. It relied entirely on the outside world for its music. It had no orchestra
of its own and the irony of the situation was that the ratepayers of Newcastle
were subsidising the Halle Orchestra from Manchester. A leaflet announcing the
orchestra’s forthcoming 1953-54 Season reads;
‘The concerts given last Season attracted large but not “capacity” audiences.
However, the season as a whole cannot be regarded as unsatisfactory. And it is
most gratifying to record that the Newcastle Corporation has recognised whereby
the loss on the Season was kept within reasonable bounds. The Society is most
grateful to the Corporation and hopes that that body will make its grant an annual
one the better to ensure the continued visits of this world-famous Orchestra and
its equally eminent Conductor’.
The Halle’s eminent conductor, apparently not content with being subsidised by
the Newcastle City Council (and the Arts Council) used to harangue his captive
audience (who had already paid for their seat and bought a programme) from the
rostrum asking them to give generously during the interval. This used to annoy
me and I always felt that it lowered the tone of the Halle concerts considerably
and detracted from John Barbirolli’s otherwise excellent musicianship.
Some of the more unusual events of this period added to the variety of the
concert seasons and probably the biggest name to make an appearance was the
conductor, Leopold Stokowski, who made his Newcastle debut with the Royal
Philharmonic Orchestra in an exciting programme of Brahms, Villa Lobos, Del
Falla and Wagner. Unfortunately for reasons that Mr Stokowski obviously did not
appreciate, 500 of the highest priced seats in the hall remained empty, and he
left immediately after the concert without talking to anyone except to express the
fervent hope that there would be a better house the following evening in
Manchester. Five hundred (£500) was all the money Lynford-Joel Promotions
had when they set themselves up in the Concert Booking Agency business in
London at the end of the war. The name would mean little to Newcastle concert
goers in the 1950s but L-J Promotions brought some of the best Italian opera
singers to Newcastle for a number of years; Luigi Infantino, tenor, Paolo Silvieri,
baritone and the enormously popular, Tito Gobbi. According to John Joel before
a concert Gobbi would ask him to pick out the prettiest girl in the audience and let
him know where she was sitting – he would then sing to her all evening. Gobbi
would have been spoilt for choice at the City Hall in those days. On one of his
tours Gobbi had a supporting pianist to fill in the gaps between his groups of
songs, her name was Margaret McIntyre from Newcastle. Apparently she was a
pianist of considerable technical ability but her unexciting personality excluded
her from international acclaim. For the privilege of playing a few pieces on the
same bill as Gobbi, she told Lynford-Joel Promotions that she was willing to
underwrite any losses the tour may incur. Gobbi thought it a huge joke but was
so confident of his success that he rightly predicted there would be no loss. A
Russian entrepreneur, Eugene Iskoldoff, sharing John Joel’s ideas about
bringing Italian opera singers to the United Kingdom, brought quartets of opera
singers from the Rome Opera House to the City Hall. Seeing the potential in this
the impresario Gorlinsky also brought quartets of opera singers from La Scala
Milan and San Carlo in Naples to the City Hall, but Iskoldoff upstaged him by
presenting an Italian Opera Season at the Theatre Royal. The basic idea was
sound and Newcastle benefited over a number of years from the experiment but
the whole venture was a financial nightmare and troubles plagued these
enterprises. It helped bring an end to Lynford-Joel’s dreams of concert
management, and the Italian opera venture was also to be Eugene Iskaldoff’s
last enterprise in England. He did not heed the warnings of those close to him
and when the financial losses started coming in, rather than declare himself
officially bankrupt, in the middle of a nervous breakdown, he committed suicide.
Apart from these all too-brief visits of genuine Italian Opera (and a series of
Italian Opera films at the Grainger Cinema that featured some of the singers who
appeared at the City Hall) Newcastle opera lovers had to be content with the
occasional visits of the Carl Rosa Opera Co. They had been doing a worthy job
since the 19th century, touring opera productions around provincial towns, but it
has to be said that by the 1950s their standard was very much second rate.
Having said that during their 1952 Season at the Theatre Royal they treated the
Newcastle opera lover to some of the most exciting singing the town had ever
heard, when a young Maltese singer, Oreste Kirkop, appeared briefly with the
company on his way up the operatic ladder. He was everything the stock
company tenors were not: young, good looking, energetic, exciting and with a
beautiful voice that rang out on the top notes. He was a passionate Cavaradossi
in ‘Tosca’ and ably accompanied in the leading role by Victoria Sladen, but it was
in Rigoletto that he was perfectly matched with one of the most beautiful
coloratura voices of the time, the diminutive Gwen Catley. Oreste Kirkop, alas!
chose the short cut to fame and ended up in Hollywood where he was for a brief
period heralded as the successor to Mario Lanza, but he was soon to fade from
the picture and into operatic oblivion. Two years earlier, in 1950, the British
dancer, Anton Dolin, had appeared at the Theatre Royal in what was described
as a Ballet Gala. The music danced to was Les Sylphides (Chopin), Le Beau
Danube (Strauss) and the one act version of the Nutcracker Ballet by
Tchaikovsky, which comprised mainly the music from the second act of the
ballet. However the tour de force was Dolin’s solo performance of Ravel’s Bolero.
The curtain parted to reveal a crouched figure bathed in a spotlight on a stage in
total darkness and perfect silence. The music, almost imperceptible at first,
began with the tap tap of the drum and in the course of the next twelve minutes
or so both dancer and orchestra rose to a nerve tingling climax before collapsing
in a discordant heap to the deafening sound of applause. Dolin deserved all
‘Sixes’ for his performance, but that was reserved for Torvell and Dean, who
many years later performed the same dramatic scenario on ice to even greater
From this brief account of some of the highlights of the early 1950s concert
and theatre scene it would be easy to assume that the town was well catered for
when it came to live music and yet, to have lived through this period was to find it
rather dull and easily conclude that Newcastle was a bit of a cultural desert. This
was largely due to the feeling that, on the one hand, little emphasis was being
given locally to raising cultural standards and, on the other, that a
disproportionate emphasis appeared to be placed, by the town, on other activities
and pursuits that served only to bring it into disrepute. There seemed to be total
disregard for anything of a cultural nature and life was spent in the pursuit of
enjoyment. The occasional classical event at the City Hall served only to raise
expectations and increase dissatisfaction at one and the same time. It raised the
same old question time and time again - Why should Newcastle have to rely on
outsiders for its regular doses of musical culture and what prevented it from
having an orchestra of its own? There was the feeling that Newcastle had no
musical history of its own, yet half a century earlier, the town could have
considered itself musically to be on almost equal terms with other larger
provincial towns, before a combination of circumstances hastened its
deterioration into a musical backwater. What went wrong is an interesting
question and one worth looking into. It is possible to fully enjoy and feel proud of
the rich musical culture of the North East today without knowing anything about
yesterday but a knowledge of the one enriches our understanding and
appreciation of the other.
The history of music in the English provinces followed much the same pattern
in the bigger industrial towns, including Newcastle, although it was one of the
smaller ones. By the second half of the 19thcentury these towns were responding
to an ever widening public interest in music. Modern symphony orchestras of
professional standing were coming into existence, concert halls were being built
for them to perform in and music schools were being established to train future
musicians to a high standard. Each town developed at its own pace but along
similar lines. There were, however, individual factors that gave some towns the
advantage over others. Playing an important part in this was the town’s
geographical location and its accessibility. The town’s responsiveness to cultural
change, determined by the origin and cultural backgrounds of those who flocked
to these towns in their period of rapid growth. There was also the towns desire to
create a cultural environment and, of course, the willingness of rich benefactors
to support it. Up until the latter part of the 19th century Newcastle’s musical
culture seems to have survived without municipal help but its independence was
founded on shaky foundations. Notwithstanding this it seemed as though the
town had within its grip many of the essential requirement to become music
capital of the North East. Unfortunately this was not to be the case and it went
the other way. The musical life of the town, like the Castle Keep and the City
Walls, was allowed to gradually erode and crumble away over the course of the
next fifty years.
What Newcastle lacked, in musical terms, was a personality or personalities
forceful enough to argue the case for music as part of a wider campaign aimed at
raising cultural standards within the town. For example, Birmingham had an
number of strong minded individuals, the most notable of whom was Granville
Bantock, composer, versatile musician and Head of the Birmingham School of
Music. Manchester was fortunate in having Charles Halle and Bournemouth (the
exception) got more than it bargained for with Dan Godfrey, who not only singlehandedly created a musical culture in this sleepy sea-side town but helped put it
on the map by giving life to symphony orchestra still playing today. It is, however,
only fair to add that all of these people had sympathetic allies within the town
council, which made their tasks easier. That is not to say they did not have to
fight to get what they wanted but their perseverance paid off. In Newcastle, I
assume, both William Rea and Edgar Bainton had similar intentions of
introducing and developing some form of musical culture within the town. William
Rea in particular probably shared Dan Godfrey’s visions that he might instil into
the inhabitants of Newcastle the love of good music, and like Godfrey he must
have been conscious of the fact that unlike the Continent, in England there was
not the same strong support for the arts at municipal level and that he had his
work cut out convincing the local council of the need for this. Godfrey, however,
was better placed to achieve this as he had been appointed Musical Director,
whereas Rea’s appointment was as Council Organist. From all reports William
Rea was a man of impeccable character and I am sure that Dan Godfrey was too
but he was not above a bit of cunning when it came to getting what he wanted.
He composed a waltz and dedicated it to the mayor’s wife. All is fair in love and
Edgar Bainton, as Principle of the Newcastle Conservatoire and conductor of
the Newcastle Philharmonic Orchestra, was in the best position to argue the case
for music with the Newcastle Council but I can find no evidence to show that any
form of dialogue along these lines took place. Bainton must have contemplated
the idea as he allegedly stated it would cost no more than a penny per person on
the rate to support a town orchestra. William Rea, who had studied and lived in
Germany, as well as in London before coming to Newcastle, made more efforts
than anyone to make music part of everyday life in Newcastle but he stopped
short of taking on the town council, his employers, over this matter. He may have
been successful in getting the People’s Concerts started but the council probably
viewed these as a social necessity, in the same way as music in the parks, rather
than a move toward establishing a musical culture. But in any case they nipped
in the bud any ambitions Rea may have had in this direction when they retained
control of the concerts and informed him that he could run the concerts but would
remain Council Organist. Whittaker was an outstanding musician but he like his
musician colleagues was at heart a music teacher and did not have the
entrepreneurial spirit necessary to sway the town council. Within the musical
establishment generally there appears to have been a lack of managerial
direction and a shortage of organisational skills, which, I suspect, was one of the
primary factors in the ultimate demise of the Conservatoire and the Philharmonic
Comparing Newcastle with the more favourably placed towns is in some
respects comparing apples with pears. Fate dealt Newcastle a blow when it
placed it in the North East corner of England. Largely because of its isolated
position it has always retained a strong regional identity, which together with its
damp, cold climate did not do it any favours musically, except of the local variety.
It never proved a magnet for musicians from the south of the country or from
abroad. as was the case with Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and
Bournemouth. This unfortunately was to the town’s detriment. Henschel wanted
to settle in Newcastle but I think it was less to do with music and more to do with
the fact that he had lived in the area for a short while as a young solder and liked
it. William Rea, a very talented and classically trained musician, who had made
an early impression on a number of important musical figures in London and
Germany, came as Town Council Organist (who knows why?) and made an
outstanding contribution to music in his time. but one cannot help but feel he was
capable of much more. Edgar Bainton a brilliant musician was invited to join the
Conservatoire and there is the feeling here that his first allegiance was to the
Conservatoire, composing and music in general – he was a pedagogue and
probably did not want to get involved in musical politics. Rea and Bainton. were
both, technically speaking, outsiders, who were not committed to the town other
than through their respective appointments but more surprising is the case of
William Gillies Whittaker. He was a Tynesider and one of its key musical figures
with a lot to offer but he deserted the town for a musical appointment in Glasgow.
All of these musicians were essential to the musical life of the town and their
departure (William Rea in fact retired and died soon after) created a vacuum
which was never filled.
Charles Avison did not have to worry about competition from visiting
orchestras and their effect on local musicians, but one hundred years later the
town was playing host to a number of visiting symphony orchestras. Newcastle
welcomed these touring musicians but in doing so was it making a mistake. In
Birmingham for instance during its orchestra’s formative years the professional
musicians in the town objected strongly to outsiders being invited in on the basis
that it weakened their argument that what the town needed was a permanent
orchestra. There was also the threat to their livelihood to be considered. There
were literally hundreds of musicians in Newcastle at the turn of the 20th century
but of what standard we do not really know. There would have been a core of
professionals, but the majority would have been amateurs. Newcastle had never
had an influx of Continental musicians, as was the case in Manchester, Liverpool
and Leeds for instance and even Dan Godfrey started with an Italian band in
Bournemouth. These Continentals brought their culture and high playing
standards with them and stood up for their profession but in Newcastle the
amateur tradition in music thrived and whilst amateurism had always been part of
English tradition it did not help build first rate professional orchestras. Judging
only by the names of orchestral players printed in historic programmes for
concerts in Newcastle by local musicians I would say that the vast majority of
them were of English origin and more than likely, locals. From this I can only
draw the conclusion that the general standard of playing was probably not very
high. Quality orchestral musicians could have been invited into the town to boost
the standard of a local orchestra, as they had been on festival occasions, but the
town would have had to show some commitment which never appears to have
been the case. Nor does there seem to have been any compulsion on the part of
Newcastle musicians to establish some sort of artistic integrity and authority
within the town.
It is one of life’s ironies to discover that Newcastle had at the turn of the
century within its midst a ‘Dan Godfrey’ of its own. His name was H.G.Amers
(see also chapter eleven). Amers and Godfrey were so alike as to be able to
draw direct comparisons. They both came from well known musical families, they
were both disciplined musicians in the Military Band style and they were both
capable of taking a band of half decent musicians and moulding them into a fine
orchestral band. They both made their names at English Spa Resorts building up
a local musical culture that became a magnet for all the leading musicians in the
country. Amers died in 1936 and Godfrey in 1939. Amers had a first class
musical background and a distinguished military career. It was natural in his
youth that he should be attracted to the military style of bandsmanship as this
kind of music was the Englishman’s staple diet; the average Englishman had not
yet become accustomed to the modern symphony orchestra and the
cacophonous modern music it played. Amers first took himself to Scarborough in
1909 and after a season there, moved to Brighton. He conducted in Newcastle
often enough but his contribution to the town’s musical culture was superficial.
He returned to Brighton after the war but soon moved to Eastbourne where he
remained for the rest of his career and created a series of music festivals that ran
from 1923 –1939. In the same way as his rival in Bournemouth he created a
centre of English music and attracted amongst others, Edward Elgar, Ethel
Smyth, Gustav Holst, Granville Bantock, Roger Quilter, Balfour Gardiner, Percy
Grainger, John Ireland, Vaughan-Williams and even the famous Russian
composer, Alexander Glazounov. He spread his net even further and recruited
the assistance of Hamilton Harty, Thomas Beecham, Malcolm Sargent, John
Barbirolli and Albert Coates to conduct his concerts. He slowly educated his
audiences by slipping in odd movements from symphonies between popular
items until by the 1930s they were getting full-blown symphonic programmes. His
death coincided with the end of an era in Eastbourne and the kind of music he
had presented, and by 1939 music hating councillors were proposing to pull
down the Winter Garden and build something useful like a country club, which
everyone could enjoy!
Why could Amers not have done this sort of thing in Whitley Bay. The simple
answer is that Whitley Bay catered only for the locals and Scots factory workers
and the Spanish City provided all their needs. At about this time there was a
thriving musical culture in many of the leading spas around the country but none
of the wealthier set came to the North East for the good of their health. To create
a musical culture, in addition to commitment there is a need for an audience
educated to listen to good music. Given the right opportunities Newcastle might
have created such an audience but as we have seen from the Laing Art Gallery,
the haggling over funds for the People’s Concerts and apparent lack of interest in
having a purpose built concert hall for musical performances, the Council was not
interested in Art or Culture in any form. It was not even interested in local
musicians or music per se for that matter unless it served some subsidiary
purpose. For example when a decision had to be made regarding music at the
1929 North East Coast Exhibition, an event intended amongst other things to
show off the regions achievements and boost local moral it turned to Capt Amers
and his South East Coast musicians. A slap in the face for Newcastle
professional musicians – or had the state of music making locally deteriorated
that much by 1929. Perhaps not, but the signs were imminent and by the 1950s it
had reached its lowest ebb. This generally coincided with a period of hardship
and change on Tyneside. The city was perceived by many people as being a
grey town and a cultural desert. The majority preferred to spend their hardearned cash on the cinema, beer and football and as a consequence Newcastle
and the North East was viewed from outside as ‘Andy Capp’ country. The truth of
the matter was that Newcastle was not an uncultured city but a city deprived of
Culture through apathy and ignorance. However, that was about to change. A
regional ferment to improve the quality of life was beginning to take place and an
essential part of this was the need to give the town a cultural facelift.
The instigator of change was not a leading personality in the music world with
plenty of clout but a young music student in Newcastle University who, for no
other reason than he fancied some conducting experience, decided that the only
way he was likely to get it was by forming his own band. His timing was perfect
although he, himself, could not have been aware of it then. But his action was
about to give birth to the Region’s biggest artistic success and his creation, the
Northern Sinfonia, would ultimately prove to be the biggest single influence in
Regional Music. However, we should not overlook the fact that the Sinfonia did
not change everything overnight, it was a gradual process. Nor was the Sinfonia
prepared to concede its total commitment to Tyneside even fourteen year after it
was founded in Newcastle if its General Manager’s remarks to me were anything
to go by. During a conversation with Keith Statham, just before a concert in
Germany in the early 1970s I told him how proud I was of the orchestra and all
that talent from Tyneside. He looked at me aghast and replied, “Good God! none
of them actually come from Newcastle” Whether that is true today hardly matters
as the Sinfonia, itself, is now as much a part of the North Eastern as Bessie
Surtees, Blaydon Races and the Millennium Bridge..
The world has moved on and Newcastle Gateshead is making a bid for
European Capital of Culture 2008. A recent glossy leaflet I received was proud to
acknowledge its 2,000 year history making specific reference to its past and
present engineering achievements but not its past cultural history. The bid for
Capital of Culture is based on the region’s vision for the future but the operative
word is Culture. I believe it is now time that Newcastle acknowledged its long
buried musical background. Its Cultural achievements in the past may not have
changed the world but its Cultural plans for the future aim to. As the leaflet said
‘A European Culture staged here will be regarded as the best ever.’ I am looking
forward to the future.
Author’s Note
Since completing the main part of this book it has become known that
Newcastle lost the bid in the runner-up title of European Capital of Culture, 2008
and Liverpool was chosen. The decision was made by a panel of eleven
independent judges chaired by Sir Jeremy Isaacs, former director of the Royal
Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Their decision revealed that Liverpool
was already brimming with culture and was at the leading edge of the visual arts.
It housed the largest collection of modern art outside the capital and it promised
a strong musical programme, which was to include opera and ballet. But a most
potent factor in the judge’s decision was that the whole city had involved itself in
the cultural programme.
Following the decision of the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowett, said that every
one of the six short listed cities would have been a worthy nomination for the title,
but I would go further and say there can be little doubt that of the five semifinalists Newcastle was the strongest and would have been equally worthy of the
award. Having said that, I think it would be foolish to ignore the concealed
message in the panel’s findings and that was to establish a cultural ethos within a
city calls for the shared participation interests and enthusiasm of the people and
the city authorities.
Newcastle in my opinion, is a city also brimming with culture and all the more
fascinating for the fact that it has taken centuries of pioneering effort to reach its
current unprecedented cultural status. Newcastle may not have won the bid, for
whatever cultural or political reasons, but in the attempt it changed the face of the
city presenting a new image to the outside world. Musically speaking it is the
cultural capital of the northeast and the spirit of Charles Avison lives on. In the
circumstances I canonly see things getting better and better and see no reason
to backtrack on the sentiments I expressed over a year ago.
JWP July 2003
This book would not have been possible but for the untiring patience and
unstinting good natured assistance of the staff of the Local Studies Section of
Newcastle Central Library and the Tyne and Wear Archives, Blandford House,
Newcastle. Piecing together the town’s musical history was made doubly difficult
by the fact that it has been ignored for so long the general thread of the story was
lost ages ago. Retrieving and assembling the facts needed to compile anything
like a presentable chronological sequence of historical events proved very
difficult in that they are mostly fragmentary and littered about all over the place
and often catalogued under some other subject. All the relevant information held
by the two archive sources mentioned above, which is a great deal, but by no
means all if the aim were a definitive work on the regions musical history, has not
been catalogued and it was in this respect that the staffs of the archives were of
invaluable assistance often making helpful suggestions off their own bat or
painstakingly searching somewhere out of sight and then producing from
‘goodness knows where’ valuable documentary material, with a smile and a
cheerful comment . I am also obliged to Kay Eason, Chief Librarian of the
Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle for her interest in my project and
in making available for my perusal copies of Burney’s ‘History of Music’ (1789),
Avison’s ‘Essay on Musical Expression’ and William Hayes’ ‘Remarks on Mr
Avisons Essay’ (1753), as well as Browning’s ‘Parleying with Certain People’
(1889). To others who took the trouble to reply to my letters or were kind enough
to e-mail replies or return my telephone calls, including Kieran Fitzsimons,
Director of The Fitzsimons Choir, Gordon Dixon of the Avison Society and Ian
Ayris, who was kind enough to enlighten me on historic plaques in the city and
give me leads in other directions, I am most grateful.
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-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Also consulted were various Newcastle newspapers, and collections of
newspaper cuttings of musical interest covering the 18th and 19th centuries,
Extensive collections of concert and theatre programmes from 18th to 20th
century, The Musical Times, Journal of the British Music Society, Gentlemen’s
Magazine and original minutes and published records of Newcastle Council

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