On 1 June 1922, the Iffley Glee Club performed another light opera by Sir Edward German: Tom Jones. Based on the novel by Henry Fielding, the work was commissioned in 1907, the bicentenary of Fielding’s birth. It was another success for the composer. The music critic and cricket commentator Neville Cardus later wrote:
Next morning I heard over and over again in my head most of the melodies… I savoured the orchestration… I returned to ‘Tom Jones’ night after night; I sold several of my precious books to obtain admission.
There is a recording on cd conducted by David Russell Hulme (Naxos, 2009), and various excerpts may be found on YouTube.
German produced a concert version in 1913, which was the version used by the club. This met with some criticism from the reviewer in the Oxford Chronicle, who called it ‘a curiously inconsequent medley of excerpts from the opera of that name’.
The performance again took place in the open air, by permission of Mr William Foster, in the grounds of Beechwood, a late eighteenth-century house in Iffley Turn (now owned by All Souls College). The beauty of the setting was evoked in the review:
The Iffley Glee Club had an ideal setting for their concert last night in the grounds of “Beechwood”, kindly lent by Mr. William Foster. A slightly-sunken lawn, surrounded by a fairly high wall, and a grassy terrace surmounted by trees at one end, formed a ready-made arena, requiring only the simplest of preparation for choir, band, and audience; nor was there wanting the final favour of a fine, warm, and practically windless evening.
But it was more critical of outdoor performance than the review of Merrie England:
Even with such first-rate conditions, however, music is at some disadvantage in the open air: some delicacies tend to be lost (though, on the other hand, some roughnesses are less obtrusive) in the vocal parts, while the intonation of an orchestra is very sensitive to variations of temperature. The strings last night had some trouble in this matter as the evening cooled down; the chief difficulty of the wind instruments lay in a pianoforte which was not attuned to either recognised standard of pitch. However, these discrepancies, though regrettable, were not serious enough to mar the general enjoyment of the performance.
Again, members of the club took some of the solo roles: Miss A. Sotham, Harry Collier and Harold Cook (all of whom had apparently ‘figured among the prizewinners at the recent Competitive Festival’) and Mrs Corbett, who sang the minor solos allotted to the hostess. The role of Sophia Western was sung by another local musician, Gertrude Ludlow, who many years later was to become the third wife of one of the choir’s later conductors, George Thewlis. There was again an orchestra of twelve, led by Frank Townsend; the conductor was a member of the club, Oliver West, and the accompanist was his wife.
Later in the year in December, there was a concert in the Iffley Schoolroom, organised by Mr and Mrs Cook. The first half consisted of Sir Charles Stanford’s Battle of the Baltic, sung by the choir; this was a setting of Thomas Campbell’s patriotic poem about Nelson’s defeat of the Danes in the battle of Copenhagen (1801). The second half of the concert was in the glee club tradition of part-song singing, with pieces for mixed quartet (the Iffley Quartet) and male quartet (H.S Rowles, Harry Collier, W.E. Harris and Harold Cook), together with solos by Marjorie Adams, Miss H. Vague (mezzo soprano), Oliver West (tenor) and Mr Jackman (bass). Sadly, the review in the Oxford Chronicle does not reveal the titles of these items, except for the encore of the mixed quartet, which was ‘Strange Adventure’ from The Yeomen of the Guard, ‘one of the best things of the evening’.
The conductor of the piece by Stanford was a woman, Mrs Harold Cook – the only time in our records that a woman has conducted the choir. The reviewer noted ‘Mrs. H. Cook conducted carefully and with confidence.’ It used to be thought that Harold Cook was one of the club’s first two named conductors, from a mistaken note by George Thewlis in his list of the choir’s concerts (in a manuscript now in the Bodleian Library), but Dr Joe Wilson’s discovery of the Oxford Chronicle review shows that it was in fact his wife who conducted. Harold Cook as a singer in Merrie England and Tom Jones could not have conducted any of the first three recorded concerts from 1921-2.
1923 was to inaugurate a change for the club after the appointment of a conductor from outside its members – Reginald Jacques, a member of Queen’s College, who was later to become the conductor of the London Bach Choir. The first concert of this year was to be held in central Oxford in the YMCA Hall; the move from Iffley to central Oxford and towards the transformation from a small glee club to a large choral society with a new name, ‘The Oxford Harmonic Society’, was under way.
This change reflected a general trend. In Stainer and Barrett’s Dictionary of Musical Terms, published in 1876, the authors were already lamenting the loss of small social gatherings for making music due to the dominance of larger choral societies:
The increase of musical taste has led to the formation of large choral societies, by whom the master-works of the great composers are given with effect; but it has also led to the neglect of private social musical gatherings, and, consequently to the disuse of one of the most delightful musical pleasures, the performance of the glee. Glee-singing is almost a lost art in England.
Our next post for March will explain what led to the change of name from Oxford Harmonic Society to Oxford Harmonic Choir.