Oxford Harmonic Choir has a proud tradition of including less well-known works in its concerts; on a few occasions, too, performances of new works have been put on. An early example of the latter was in 1926, when Reginald Jacques conducted a performance of Forty Singing Seamen, a work for baritone, chorus and orchestra by the Oxford composer Thomas Wood. (The 1926 performance was given without the orchestral accompaniment, but the work was performed again with orchestra in 1927 in a subscription concert that had been postponed because of the general strike, see our August post.)
George Thewlis, who was the choir’s conductor from 1941 to 1961, was explicit about the importance of performing neglected works. In November 1955, he wrote an interesting appeal to Oxford concert goers in a programme for the Messiah:
When I took over the conductorship of the Harmonic Society in 1941, I made a promise to the late Sir Hugh Allen that I would perform a new or unknown work each year. That promise I have faithfully kept up to the present … Although we have no money in hand, we have faith enough to believe that our patrons would not care to see the end of the Society or the lowering of its standards by always performing popular works, and so, in this faith, we are giving the first performance in England of Bruckner’s great Mass in F minor, and the first performance in Oxford of Elgar’s ‘Bavarian Highlands Suite’ in March. The financial success of this concert is vital to the existence of the Society’s future, and so we appeal to you all to support us in this crisis by attending the performance and bringing your friends.
And he continues:
Remember that ‘Messiah’ was a new and unknown work in 1742, and it is only by constant repetition that it has enjoyed the popularity it deserves. It is the responsibility of us all to see that these unknown works are also kept alive for those who come after us to enjoy, and to enable us to keep the faith entrusted to us by our former President, whom we remember with gratitude and affection.
Thewlis’s extensive research into the history of Oxford music, which included listing all the concerts performed since the mid-eighteenth century, enabled him to select works that had had no recent performance, or none at all, in Oxford. Many of the programmes advertise first performances of works in England or in Oxford. These were often from the early modern era, Thewlis’s favourite period. For example, in 1947, a section of the choir gave the ‘first performance in England’ of the French Baroque composer Michel-Richard de Lalande’s ‘De profundis’ (Psalm 130) and the ‘first performance in Oxford’ of Victoria’s motet and mass ‘O quam gloriosum’; this was broadcast by the BBC with an interval talk by the Heather Professor of Music and the choir’s then President, Jack Westrup.
In June 1952, the programme included the ‘first performance in England’ of Monteverdi’s Mass for four voices and the ‘first performance in Oxford’ of Buxtehude’s ‘Jesu meine Freude’ (‘Jesu, Joy and Treasure’). Eric Blom remarked in the Observer that ‘The Mass, beautifully sung under ideal acoustic conditions, was deeply impressive.’
In 1950, there was a revival of Thomas Arne’s oratorio Judith, last performed in 1773; Jack Westrup played the harpsichord continuo. The handsome programme was printed at the Oxford University Press with the libretto and a note by Thewlis.
Thewlis later explained the labour involved in getting the score and parts together:
Arne published only the Songs of this Oratorio; the Chorus parts are in manuscript in the British Museum. It was necessary, therefore, to copy out the whole work for Orchestra, Chorus and continuo. Again the Oxford University Press came to the aid of the Society and Photo-lithographed the chorus parts. There was no full score, so this had to be written, as well as a continuo part both for organ and harpsichord. … Members helped in writing out the orchestral parts, and the result was a complete success. Acknowledgment was due to Mr Hubert Langley, Esq. for his loan of the pencilled score of the orchestral parts from the B.M. which were checked and collated by the conductor at the Museum, and from which he made the full score.
There were also works from the nineteenth century, including first performances of three Bruckner masses: his Mass in E minor in 1951 (‘first performance in Oxford’), Requiem in D minor in 1954 (‘first performance in England’) and Symphonic Mass in F minor in 1956 (‘first performance in England’).
The conductor was praised in the local press for his role in bringing back to life forgotten works:
Oxford is fortunate in numbering among its musicians Mr. George Thewlis, who, combining enterprise with research and untiring labour, gives us unique performances of neglected works.
Under later conductors, too, there has also been some adventurous programming. In 1965, Richard Silk gave a concert consisting of Arthur Honegger’s King David, composed in the 1920s in a style combining jazz and polyphony, and Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, which had premiered in Boston in 1961. In his final concert in 1971, Silk included the first performance in Oxford of Oxford-born Bryan Kelly’s Stabat mater, composed for the Three Choirs Festival in 1970 and described in the programme as being ‘uncompromisingly modern’. And in 1982, Philip Cave conducted a performance of John Veale’s Kubla Khan, a setting of Coleridge’s poem for chorus, baritone and orchestra. This was at the suggestion of the composer, who was educated in Oxford and lived here for much of his life. The work had been broadcast by the BBC in 1959, but in the 1960s and 70s Veale’s music had been felt to be insufficiently avant-garde and he had had difficulty getting his work performed, so that at one point he stopped composing altogether.
Our current conductor, Robert Secret, has a great admiration for the music of the nineteenth-century composer Max Bruch, who today is best known for his first violin concerto. Under Robert’s baton, the choir has performed three works by Bruch: Moses, Das Feuerkreuz (The Fiery Cross) and most recently Odysseus (see our post for October 2019). Other unusual works which Robert has chosen include Louis Spohr’s The Last Judgement, Carl Loewe’s Passion Oratorio (UK première), Dvořák’s The Spectre’s Bride and the work we will be singing in the upcoming concert at the end of this month: Josef Rheinberger’s The Star of Bethlehem.
In 2019, the choir gave a performance of work especially written for it, selected through a competition: David Lancaster’s ‘Of Trumpets and Angels’, a setting of two of Donne’s holy sonnets. In December, Lindsey Charles will devote the final post in this centenary history series to the story of the composition competition.