(Not) on Choir Tour

Posted on 6th August 2020 by simonbeattie

Where I should have been this week. Image from Wikipedia.

This week I should have been singing at Ely Cathedral with a group of friends called the Pearce Singers, a choir which arose some years ago out of those of us who used to sing with Tring Parish Church Choir when we were growing up. Back in the 1980s and early 90s, we would go and sing the services at a cathedral every summer, annual trips of which we all have very happy memories.

I was looking forward to Ely. Partly, because I have never sung there before, but also because I had written a new piece specially: a bilingual setting of the compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum. You can listen to a computer-generated MIDI file of my setting on my SoundCloud page. The tenors sing a cantus firmus using the original Latin words of the hymn; I used J. M. Neale’s English translation for the other voices. Aside from the words being suitable for evensong, Neale is remembered by the Church of England on 7 August, when we were due to be singing at Ely.

Thinking about choir tours reminded me of this book: A Narrative of the Visit of Mr. Henry Leslie’s Choir to the International Exhibition at Paris, 16th to 24th July, 1878 (London, J. Miles & Co., 1879).

Privately printed for members of the choir, it is, as far as I can tell, the first printed account of a choir tour (or any concert tour, for that matter).  It was written by the Choir’s librarian, F. D. Lewin.  The Choir’s director, Henry Leslie (1822–1896), ‘a lugubrious looking, bespectacled, and later whiskery young man’ (Oxford DNB), in 1847 became ‘honorary secretary of the newly founded Amateur Musical Society, and from 1855 its conductor.  He had also taken charge of a madrigal society which performed in the Hanover Square Rooms and which from May 1856 was known as Henry Leslie’s Choir.  A basic group of about thirty singers swelled on some orchestral occasions to 240, and over three decades gave several London concerts each year, prepared with a care for detail unique in Britain at the time, though its effects were later attacked as too calculated, even “effeminate”, and many regretted the drift from a pure partsong repertory to grandiose “mixed concerts” with popular soloists.  Leslie wrote a hundred or so partsongs for the choir, including “O memory”“The pilgrims”, and “Annabelle Lee”, which became best-sellers.

‘By the late 1870s Leslie (and many critics) felt that some of his singers were “becoming a little ropy” and that he himself was tired and stale.  A final triumph came at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, where he and Arthur Sullivan organized the British musical element, and Leslie’s choir won first prize in the international choral competition.  Two years later, after a command performance at Windsor Castle, he disbanded it, and although it was revived at public request under Albert Randegger, with Leslie as president and later conductor (1885–7), and attracted such stars as Charles Santley, it was finally disbanded in 1887’ (ibid.).

The chromolithographed frontispiece to the book shows the Choir’s splendid prize from the Paris competition. I wonder where it is now?

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