|Opening of Leeds Town Hall|
The fashion for larger and larger scale oratorio performances fuelled the demand for a magnificent public hall befitting the rapidly growing borough. The proposed new Town Hall, originally intended to accommodate a standing audience of 8000 people for public meetings, was also designed for musical performances. The monumental building opened by Queen Victoria on 7th September 1858 actually accommodated an audience of 4000 with orchestra and choir seating for over 400 performers. A musical festival conducted by Sterndale Bennett marked this auspicious event.
Plans for a second event in 1861 were eventually abandoned and the next festival did not take place until October 1874. That was conducted by the anglicised Italian born composer/conductor, Sir Michael Costa.
Composers at the Triennial Festivals
The 1880 Festival was the first of seven Triennial festivals conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan. The event acquired international stature during Sullivan's stewardship on account of the superb festival choruses and the new works commissioned for them by Raff, Dvorak, Massanet, Humperdinck, Parry, Stanford, Elgar and Sullivan himself. The orchestras for these festivals were generally imported from London.
The tradition of composers conducting the premiere of their own works in response to Festival commissions was always a major feature beginning with Sterndale Bennett's cantata, 'The May Queen' in 1858. Arthur Sullivan conducted his cantata 'The Golden Legend' in 1886; a work incidentally revived 100 years later in Leeds Town Hall with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting.
The oratorio, Saint Ludmilla, for soloists, chorus and orchestra was the composer's response to the Festival Committee's commission for the 1886 Triennial Festival. Dvorak charged £100 for conducting the work's premiere in Leeds Town Hall. Although rapturously received and acclaimed by the Daily Telegraph critic of the day for "Its gorgeous harmonies and resplendent, ever-changing orchestral colours", Saint Ludmilla has maintained only a foothold in the choral repertory. The work will be revived by the BBC Philharmonic with the Leeds and Sheffield Philharmonic Choruses, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, as the closing event of the 2003/04 Leeds International Concert Season in May.
The Russian pianist and composer appeared in three roles at the 1910 Festival: as composer and conductor of his Second symphony in E Minor, composed in 1907 and as soloist in his much loved Second Piano Concerto.
Ralph Vaughan Williams
1907 was the year in which Ralph Vaughan Williams scored his first major public success with the premiere at that year's Leeds festival of 'Toward the Unknown Region'. Three years later he followed this by conducting the first performance of his 'Sea Symphony', a setting of Walt Whitman Poems for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra.
Charles Villiers Stanford
Irish composer and conductor, Charles Villiers Stanford, who had replaced Sullivan as principal conductor since the 1901 Festival, conducted his own 'Songs of the Fleet' for chorus and orchestra in 1910.
Sir Edward Elgar
Elgar appeared in the dual roles of composer and conductor in the first performance of his dramatic cantata 'Caractacus' at the 1898 festival, and the overture 'In the South' (Alassio) in 1904. He conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in the first performance of the symphonic study 'Falstaff' and (with the Festival Chorus) 'The Dream of Gerontius'- both at the 1913 festival. Distinguished soloists in The Dream of Gerontius were contralto Muriel Foster, tenor John Coates and bass Robert Radford. Elgar regarded Foster as "without equal" in the role of Gerontius's guardian angel and he wrote the contralto part in his later oratorio, The Apostles, especially for her.
Elgar's thrilling orchestration of Hubert Parry's great choral unison song Jerusalem, a setting of inspirational verses by William Blake, was first heard at the 1922 Festival. Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted Jerusalem, orchestrated by Elgar, at the Last Night of the Proms in 1953. It has been an indispensible tradition of the Last Night ever since.
Two of his choral and orchestral works have been premiered at the Festivals: The Ode to Death, a Walt Whitman setting, received its first performance at the 1922 Festival. The Choral Symphony - settings of poems by Keats - was commissioned for the 1925 Festival and performed by soprano Dorothy Silk, with the Festival Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates. Holst's setting of Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn, considered to be the the Choral Symphony's most successful movement, was revived by the Festival Chorus with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Simon Wright at Leeds Town Hall in 2006.
Thomas Beecham conducted Walton's Facade at the 1928 Festival. Three years later Beecham delegated to his assistant conductor Dr Malcom Sargent, the premiere of that most enduring Festival commission, the biblical cantata Belshazzer's Feast. The work (it had originated as a BBC commission for chamber orchestra and choir) was scored for enormous orchestral and choral forces with extra brass bands to the right and left of the orchestra. Sargent conducted the 300-strong Festival Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra with baritone soloist Dennis Noble in the sensational Town Hall premiere. He conducted Belshazzer again at the 1947 Festival, and to great acclaim at successive seasons of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts until 1966. Walton's cantata In Honour of the City of London was premiered at the 1937 Festival.
Britten had been taking the final rehearsals of his Spring Symphony which he was due to conduct at the 1950 Triennial Festival. Just before the performance, the composer succombed to bursitis, a painful condition affecting his arm movements. Britten's place on the conductor's podium was taken by Festival Chorus Master Herbert Bardgett. The Spring Symphony was not however, a festival commission but had been premiered in Amsterdam during the 1949 Holland Festival.
Britten's Nocturne for Tenor was premiered at the 1958 festival by Peter Pears with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Schwarz. At the same festival, Britten (piano) Pears, and Norma Proctor (contralto) performed his Canticle No 2, Abraham and Isaac, at Temple Newsam House.
The Italian composer was introduced to the 1922 Festival with a performance of his symphonic poem The Fountains of Rome, composed in 1916. Respighi returned three years later for the premiere of his most spectacular symphonic poem The Pines of Rome, completed in 1924 and published just prior to the 1925 Festival.
The young Manchester-born composer's choral and orchestral piece The Seasons was premiered in the same 1931 Festival concert as Belshazzer's Feast. Unlike Walton's masterpiece, it has rarely been heard since. The Festival Chorus and BBC Philharmonic conducted by Simon Wright revived The Seasons at Leeds Town Hall in 2006.
Festival Commissions But Rarely Heard Since
A majority of festival commissions failed to establish a toehold in the repertory. Among these one would include Otto Goldschmidt's 'New Ode' (1898); George Dyson's, 'The Blacksmith's', a fantasy for chorus, pianoforte and orchestra (1934); Peter Racine Fricker's, 'A Vision of Judgement' (1958); Alexander Goehr's, 'Sutter's Gold', a cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra (1961); Richard Rodney Bennett's 'Epithalamion', a setting of verses by Robert Herrick for chorus and orchestra composed for the 1967 Festival.
Successive festivals attracted some of the greatest interpreters of their day to conduct masterworks of the choral and orchestral repertory. These included the mercurial Hungarian-German, Arthur Nikisch; Thomas Beecham, Malcolm Sargent, John Barbirolli and Josef Krips. Carlo Maria Giulini reigned supreme during the 1960s. Otto Klemperer was scheduled to conduct two concerts at the 1958 Centenary Festival. Sadly, the ailing maestro was forced to cancel his engagements. Few could complain about the calibre of Klemperer's replacements - Jascha Horenstein and Rafael Kubelik.
The 1960s and 1970s
The 'swinging sixties' introduced a younger generation of international conductors: Colin Davis (Berlioz' 'The Damnation of Faust'), John Pritchard (Britten's 'War Requiem'), Edward Downes (the British premiere of Prokofiev's 'War and Peace'), Istvan Kertesz (Haydn's 'The Creation') and Charles Mackerras (Handel's 'Saul' and 'Israel in Egypt').
More controversial was the choice of avant-garde composer and acclaimed conductor Pierre Boulez to open the 1974 Festival with Berlioz' Grande Messe des morts (Requiem). Boulez was not, at that time, perceived as an interpreter of mid nineteenth century romantic music. His second Festival programme with the BBC Symphony Orchestra - Berg's 'Three Fragments from Wozzek', Webern's 'Six Pieces for Orchestra', Mahler's 'Fourth Symphony' - did, however, represent more familiar 'Boulez territory'.
The decade however belonged to the great Italian maestro, Carlo Maria Giulini and the Philharmonia. The renowned conductor and orchestra were the principal collaborators with the Festival Chorus at the 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1970 Triennial Festivals. Giulini conducted luminous performances of Beethoven's 'Choral Symphony', Verdi's 'Requiem', Verdi's 'Four Sacred Pieces', Rossini's 'Stabat Mater', Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis'; His interpretations became a benchmark for subsequent Town Hall performances of these works.
The Festival Chorus Gains Independence
In 1976 the Festival Chorus became a permanent self-governing body, and was smaller and more flexible with 120 choristers. The huge 300 strong choruses of yesteryear, it seemed, had become unfashionable, unwieldly and expensive to maintain. That year's festival, which coincided with the bicentenary of American independence, marked a corresponding shift away from the large-scale choral works. The event was graced by the eminent American composer Aaron Copland. Copland conducted the new, leaner Festival Chorus and BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic) in his choral piece 'In the Beginning', and a suite from his opera 'The Tender Land'. The last Leeds Musical Festival took place in 1985 but the Festival Chorus grew in stature and influence, promoting its own concerts and taking part in radio and television broadcasts. Both the Festival Chorus and the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus continue to form an integral part of the prestigious Leeds International Concert Season in the Town Hall.
Festival Chorus Masters
The distinguished line of chorus masters who have auditioned and rehearsed successive choruses for their festival concerts under the batons of some of the world's finest musicians include:
City Organists H.A Fricker (1907-13) and Dr A.C Tysoe (1922-25), Norman Strafford (1928-37). Herbert Bardgett was chorus pianist from 1928-37 and chorus master from 1947-61. Dr Bardgett was also chorus master of the Huddersfield Choral and Sheffield Philharmonic societies when both choirs performed at the 1953 festival; the year when there was no festival chorus. The then Leeds Parish Church director of music and chorus master of the Leeds Phil, Dr Donald Hunt, was the chorus master for five festivals from 1964-74. Since 1976, Simon Wright has been chorus master and more recently, conductor and artistic advisor; a post especially created for him.
Leeds Festival Chorus
Leeds Philharmonic Chorus
|Click images to enlarge|
First programme, 1858
Souvenir for the Leeds Musical Festival, 1901
1913 programme with Elgar conducting 'Falstaff'
Sir Michael Costa, Festival Conductor, 1874 and 1877
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Festival Conductor 1901-1910
Rehearsal of the Spring Sympnony, Benjamin Britten and the Halle Orchestra, 1950
1958 Programme, part of Choral and Orchestral Concerts
1958 Programme, part of Chamber Concerts
1958 Programme, part of Jazz Concerts
1958 Programme, further recitals
Festival review, 1961