How to obtain good orchestral accompaniments for concerts is always a problem for amateur choirs with limited funds. In its early days, the Oxford Harmonic Society, as it was named from June 1924, often had to make use of small groups of local amateurs or just use piano or organ accompaniment. But on several occasions the choir was able to sing with the well-known London professional symphony orchestras.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Oxford did not have the orchestral riches that it has today, when we can enjoy both amateur orchestras and professional orchestras based in the city performing to a high standard. A particular problem was a shortage of wind and brass players. Various steps to improve the situation had been taken by that important figure in the musical life of Oxford in this period, Dr Hugh Allen (later Sir Hugh), organist at New College and conductor of the Bach Choir from 1901 and Heather Professor of Music from 1918. In 1902, he founded an amateur orchestra for ‘the development of the study and practice of orchestral music among the instrumental players in Oxford, for the performance of orchestral works and for co-operation with the Oxford Bach Choir’. Known initially as Dr Allen’s Orchestra, it was renamed the Oxford Orchestral Society in 1919 and was often to support the Harmonic Society concerts. (It has now become the Oxford Symphony Orchestra). In 1920, Allen was instrumental in setting up another important strand of musical life in Oxford: the Oxford Subscription Concerts, which aimed ‘to promote the performance of good music in Oxford’, by bringing in professional symphony orchestras and string quartets, as well as using local musicians. (On the history of the long-lasting series of Oxford Subscription Concerts, see Frank Howes, Oxford Concerts: a Jubilee Record, 1969.)
Oxford Harmonic Society first participated in a Subscription Concert on 24 February 1927. The programme consisted of several orchestral works conducted by Sir Henry Wood with his New Queen’s Hall Orchestra and one choral piece, Thomas Wood’s Forty Singing Seamen, conducted by Reginald Jacques in a first performance with orchestra. The concert had originally been planned to take place earlier but had been postponed because of the General Strike in 1926.
Sir Henry Wood was then aged 58 and had been conducting Promenade concerts in the Queen’s Hall since 1895. He had introduced a wide range of music to his audiences and had also persuaded concertgoers not to clap after each movement but to wait until the end.
The orchestral pieces in the Oxford subscription concert were Bach, Brandenburg Concerto no. 4; Brahms, Symphony no. 3, Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’s Journey to the Rhine’, and Thomas Wood’s A Seaman’s Overture (this last piece conducted by Jacques.) Wood (no relation of the conductor) was a local Oxford composer, from 1924-9 lecturer in music and precentor at Exeter College. Forty Singing Seamen is a setting of a poem by Alfred Noyes (another alumnus of Exeter College) which contains language that would cause offence today. The soloist was Herbert Heyner (1882-1954) a baritone who sang in the Proms 59 times between 1909 and 1937. The concert received a good review in the Oxford Journal Illustrated.
On 7 March 1929, the Society took part in a Subscription Concert with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Hugh Allen. The choral part of the programme consisted of two of the Polovtsian dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor. The orchestral pieces were Brahms, Symphony no. 4, Delius, Brigg Fair and Donald Tovey, Piano Concerto in A major, which was played by its composer. Allen is said not to have been at his best in conducting professional orchestras (see Cyril Bailey, Hugh Percy Allen, OUP, 1948, pp.145-9), and Hilda Best, who sang with the choir from 1924 to 1989, later recalled that on this occasion the choir had not been properly rehearsed with the orchestra but that nevertheless the performance went off well.
On 28 November 1935, the Society took part in another Subscription Concert, together with the West Oxford Choral Society, performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony under the baton of Malcolm Sargent with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
George Thewlis was uncomplimentary about the performance in his notes on this concert:
As is always the case, it was dreadfully out of tune, and Sargent took it at such a pace that it was impossible to hear a clear line throughout.
Other works in the concert were Smetana, Overture to The Bartered Bride, Wagner, Siegfried Idyll and Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn.
The review spoke of ‘brilliant conducting and amazingly good work on the part of the orchestra with some good singing by the choir and soloists.’ Sargent had started his conducting career under the wings of Sir Henry Wood. By 1935 he was 41 and famous. Together with Sir Thomas Beecham, he had founded the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1932 as a rival to the London Symphony Orchestra.
These three concerts were clearly much enjoyed by choir members; they are all recalled in Hilda Best’s reminiscences in the Oxford Times as especially memorable concerts.
On 11 March 1944, in a rare moment of extravagance, the Society hired the London Symphony Orchestra to play in a concert mounted out of its own funds. This was a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, in which Peter Pears was one of the soloists.
The Society was only able to afford this because of the tremendous success of their first performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1943 (see our post for May). The reviewer praised both orchestra and choir:
“Elijah” … provided the London Symphony Orchestra with some fine opportunities at the Harmonic Society’s concert in Oxford Town Hall, under the conductorship of Mr. George Thewlis. Needless to say these experienced musicians played with a keen sense of the work’s beauty and while realising its dramatic effects were not tempted to outdo the composer’s intentions. It was a restrained and well-balanced performance marked by judgment. The Harmonic Society, depleted in numbers owing to the war, still has many fresh young voices. Their phrasing and diction were commendable in “Elijah”.
- Herma E. Fiedler, ‘The Oxford Orchestral Society’, The Strad (April, 1960)
- Frank Howes, Oxford Concerts: a Jubilee Record (1969)
- Cyril Bailey, Hugh Percy Allen (OUP, 1948)
- ‘64 Years a-singing’ [an article by Ian Smith on Hilda Best], Oxford Times, Friday 6 January 1989
- George Thewlis, ‘The Oxford Harmonic Society’, Thewlis manuscripts, box 6, in the Bodleian Library