This is the first in a series of posts giving snapshots from the history of Oxford Harmonic Choir in celebration of its centenary.
An outdoor rendition of Edward German’s light opera Merrie England on 28 July 1921 was the first reviewed concert in the long series, extending to the present, given by the Oxford Harmonic Choir, and we date our foundation from this event. At that time, the choir was called the Iffley Glee Club and was associated with the Iffley Memorial Institute, which had been set up in 1917 as a tribute to the war dead and to surviving soldiers. One of the Institute’s founders was Sir George Forrest, a retired Indian civil servant, and it was in the grounds of the house he and his wife rented, Iffley Turn House (a Regency villa, now called Grove House, 44 Iffley Turn) that the performance of Merrie England took place.
Edward German (1862-1936) achieved popularity writing incidental music for plays by Shakespeare in a style nicknamed ‘olde English’, ‘a species of musical mock-Tudor’ (Grove’s Dictionary). In 1901, he was invited to complete the score of The Emerald Isle, left unfinished by Arthur Sullivan on his death, and this started him on a course of writing operettas, of which the patriotic and humorous Merrie England was the first and most successful. With a libretto by Basil Hood, the plot concerns Queen Elizabeth’s displeasure at Sir Walter Raleigh’s love affair with Elizabeth Throckmorton and works in Mayday celebrations, accusations of witchcraft, an actor who thinks Shakespeare would be improved by a ‘big brass band’, and an impersonation of Herne the Hunter. Three of the best-known arias are Queen Elizabeth’s ‘O Peaceful England’, the Earl of Essex’s ‘The Yeomen of England’ and Raleigh’s ‘The English Rose’.
Although it adopts aspects of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy operas, such as patter songs and comic duos and quartets, Merrie England lacks the satiric wit of The Mikado or Iolanthe but strikes a more frequent romantic note in the love songs of Raleigh, Bessie Throckmorton and Jill All-Alone.
With its catchy tunes and slightly tongue-in-cheek evocation of a romanticised past, the operetta was extremely popular with amateur choral societies at the beginning of the twentieth century, and it has been revived for such events as the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Opera South put on a production for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012. It was issued by HMV on eleven records in 1918 under the composer’s baton, and there is a CD of a 1960 recording conducted by Michael Collins from EMI Classics.
Because of the splendidly detailed reporting of the Oxford newspapers in the earlier part of the twentieth century, we know a good deal about this performance by the newly-formed Iffley Glee Club. It may well have been the group’s first performance with orchestral accompaniment; there were twelve players, led by Frank Townsend. (The conductor is not recorded.)
We don’t know exactly when the Glee Club was formed. Tradition has it that there were seven founding members. Among them was Charles Wale, manager of a Co-op Store in the Cowley Road, whose daughter Hilda sang in the choir from the age of fifteen to the age of eighty, from 1924 to 1988. Sir George Forrest attributed the success of the club to the ‘great tact and energy’ of Mr and Mrs Harold Cook; Mrs Cook was to conduct the club’s third reviewed concert. There was a small inner group of four, styled ‘The Iffley Quartet’, consisting of Marjorie Adams (soprano), Freda Sotham (contralto), Harry Collier (tenor) and Harold Cook (bass), who often sang part-songs on their own as part of the club’s concerts. It was these four who took the starring roles in Merrie England: Frieda Sotham was Queen Elizabeth, Marjorie Adams Bessie Throckmorton, Harry Collier Sir Walter Raleigh and Harold Cook the Earl of Essex. The part of Jill-all-Alone was sung by Mrs Quelch (contralto).
The concert received a good review in the Oxford Chronicle:
The Iffley Glee Club last night gave an excellent rendering of Edward German’s light opera, ‘Merrie England’, in the grounds of Sir George Forrest, in aid of the Iffley Institute.
The Iffley Glee Club always attracts large audiences – Iffley has the rare gift of appreciating a really good performance.
There was an excellent orchestra of twelve for the accompaniment, with Mr. Frank Townsend as first violin.
Few people realise the charm of outdoor singing until they actually hear it well done. At Iffley last night, both the chorus and the solo singers were well above the average. ‘Merrie England’ was a big subject to attempt, but the Party was amply justified – and rewarded.
(‘Party’ here, I think, means ‘Glee Party’, a common expression at the time.)