In May 1932, Oxford put on a three-day Haydn Festival, designed to imitate the three-day festival when Haydn received an honorary degree in 1791. The Oxford Harmonic Society participated in the opening concert together with the Bach Choir in a performance of The Creation. Dr William Harris, the organist at Christ Church, conducted the Oxford Orchestral Society. The soloists were Isobel Baillie, Edward Manning, and Arthur Cranmer.
The concert was reviewed by Trevor Harvey in the Oxford Mail under the heading ‘Magnificent Effects at Opening Concert’. The choir received praise: ‘The most important people in performances of this kind are, of course, the chorus, and it can be said at once that they sang particularly well.’ All the soloists also received praise, especially Isobel Baillie:
I have not, by some chance, heard Miss Isobel Baillie for some years … and was immensely impressed by her singing, which, always good, has become really first-rate; she had lovely tone, a controlled flexibility and the understanding of the music.
This concert was the first time the celebrated Scottish soprano sang with the Society. Isobel Baillie (1895-1983), christened Isabella Douglas Baillie, was born in Hawick on the Scottish borders, the youngest daughter of a master baker. Later, the family moved to Manchester, where her singing ability was noticed by T.H. Bramwell, the headmaster of the board school she attended. Her father’s unexpected death caused financial difficulties and her siblings had to find paid employment. Bella (as she was then known) left school at 15 to take up work first in a music shop in charge of the piano roll department and then as a clerk in the gas department of Manchester Town Hall. It was Mr Bramwell who eventually persuaded her mother to let her take singing lessons, and she began earning money from singing engagements in the area. In 1920 when her earnings from singing outstripped those of her Town Hall job she embarked on a professional career. She was taken up by Hamilton Harty, who had become the conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in 1920, and she sang for him in the first broadcast performance of Messiah. In 1923, she made her London debut in six concerts in Sir Henry Wood’s Proms in the Queen’s Hall and was launched on a highly successful career, becoming a much-loved singer.
In her autobiography, she includes as an example of her often hectic schedule a list of her engagements for December 1949, the engagement in Oxford on the 9th being a performance of Messiah by the Society:
19 London (BBC)
20 London (Royal Albert Hall)
22 Berwick- on-Tweed
‘In my time’, she wrote, ‘engagements were simply accepted as and when they came in.’ Her agents were Ibbs and Tillett of Wigmore Street, London, who managed many famous singers, and this was how the Society booked her appearances, as a surviving invoice from 1948 shows:
Although she sang many different works, Baillie was particularly associated with performances of Messiah. In her autobiography Never Sing Louder than Lovely, she estimates that she had taken part in it over 1,000 times and says that she managed to keep up performance level by imagining herself addressing a member of the audience who was hearing the work for the first time. She became famous for her rendition of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. She describes how she approached the aria in the following passage:
This aria does not exist as a display piece and must convey a sense of quiet conviction and assurance. Once again, imagination plays a great part in the rendition of this aria; in my mind I always picture myself standing by His graveside. The opening section I know that my Redeemer liveth in particular demands a feeling of total conviction yet must be sung quite naturally … Joy should enter the voice on reaching the phrase ‘Yet in my flesh shall I see God’, dispelling the horror of the previous phrase …
In March 1942, Baillie began a closer association with Oxford Harmonic Society when she sang in a wartime St Matthew Passion conducted by George Thewlis. It was to be the first in a series of sixteen concerts she sang with Thewlis, the Society’s conductor from 1941 to 1961. At the beginning of the war, there had been some doubt whether it would be possible to mount concerts, given the blackout and the exodus of men to the army, but the Heather Professor of Music, the energetic Sir Hugh Allen, who was a great promoter of music in both town and gown, was keen to continue, as George Thewlis later recalled:
The outbreak of war seemed at first as if it would disorganise all musical effort in the City and University. The black-out prevented any building being used of an evening for any performance, and the expected call up of men made any arrangements for future concerts seem risky and impracticable. Nevertheless, the Professor in his usual optimistic manner suggested and encouraged the continuance of all existing societies wherever possible.
Though some of the Oxford choral societies did disband during the war, Oxford Harmonic Society managed to keep going, with at first one concert per year and then two. Concerts were a morale booster for many during the war years and could receive good audiences. The review of the 1942 St Matthew Passion in the Oxford Mail noted that ‘Every seat in the Town Hall was occupied’. The choir got a rather mixed review, but the soloists were praised: ‘The soloists could not have been more happily chosen’:
The solo arias are amongst the most beautiful in all Bach’s store of such things. Each in turn with its own setting received from Miss Isobel Baillie, Miss Pilcher and Mr. Eric Greene the happiest interpretations.
But it was to be the concert next year, the first performance of Messiah by the Society, with Isobel Baillie in the soprano part, that was to be such a game changer for the Society, as we shall see in my next post for May.
Isobel Baillie, Never Sing Louder than Lovely (Hutchinson, 1982)
Christopher Fifield, Ibbs and Tillett: the rise and fall of a musical empire (Ashgate, 2005)
Herma E. Fiedler, ‘The Oxford Orchestral Society’, The Strad (April 1960)
Denis Stevens, ‘Music at Oxford During and after the War’, Oxford: the Journal of the Oxford Society, 40 (2) (December 1988)