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Choral Notes Features


60 Years with the Choral – A Reminiscence

Conrad Winterburn recently celebrated 60 years of service as an HCS singing member. He took the opportunity at rehearsal to speak to the choir about what he remembers from the past 60 years, including the state of play in the country when he joined and many memorable moments across his HCS career. Conrad very kindly agreed to his words being transcribed; here’s what he had to say:

Someone once said, “The past is another country,” which may or may not be true. But certain things stand out. I remember joining the Society by audition on the 15th of November 1963 – in front of the entire committee on the stage of the Huddersfield Town Hall, which is not as it’s done these days. A bit forbidding.

Alec Douglas-Hulme had taken over as Prime Minister a few months before. John F. Kennedy was still alive, but within a week he would have been assassinated. His death was reported to all present in the interval of a concert seven days later and the second half of the concert was dedicated to his memory. The late Queen’s fourth child was yet to be born, and Doctor Who started later that very month. Harold Wilson was the man for the future. The Berlin Wall had been put up a year before. It was the 10th anniversary of the abolition of sweet rationing. The Beatles were getting established as successors to such as Tommy Steele, Bill Haley and the Comets, Frankie Vaughan and Alma Cogan.

When my audition took place at the piano was Richard Barraclough, who later became a president of the Society and who I just happened to have known at school (although I don’t think it’s that which got me in). The choir was over 200 strong. There were different types of people in those days. People from chapel and church choirs, concert parties, soloists, members of Gilbert & Sullivan Societies and other local musical groups, and people who sang in such works as The Crucifixion and Olivet to Calvary at just about every local chapel and church in the district (which were many). They came from different jobs and backgrounds. There were lots of people in manufacturing, retail and clerical work, textile workers and then, as now, people in the teaching and health services. There was David Hartley (who went on to sing with the society for over 60 years) and even one retired coal miner. There were many different personalities. I remember a group of crusty old men who, if you so much as coughed, would turn around and glower at you, but I also remember people of that age who were very kind indeed. There were two longstanding members, Norman Dearnley and Tom Grange, who said, “Look, you sit between us.” And I did so for quite a long time – they were wonderful people. The concert dress for the ladies was officially white, but it was really off white because most of them were wearing their old wedding dresses, duly adapted. Some of the ladies were known as Madame, because it was the tradition in those days that they were referred to by their unmarried surname with Madame in front if they had a reputation in performing or teaching music. The main point of difference, of course, was the membership fee. It was then ten shillings, in old money, per annum (rather less than it is nowadays!) and the age of compulsory re-tests was yet to come.

Memories over the past 60 years – not necessarily in chronological order and memory lapses excepted – include the following: I remember the people forming queues at six o’clock in the morning to get tickets for the Public Messiah. Also, in those days, Benjamin Britten and William Walton were still composing. At the time of his death, Walton had been asked to compose a work for us (which, obviously, remained unwritten). Vaughan Williams, to quote Sir Thomas Beecham, was decomposing, having died only a few years earlier. The Society had commissioned and given a premiere performance of his Dona Nobis Pacem in 1936.

An early memory in particular is Sir Malcolm Sargent’s 70th birthday concert in London in 1965, attended by acquaintances of Sir Malcolm including Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, and film star Douglas Fairbanks (Junior). The Society chartered a train (it was a steam train, of course) to take us down there to perform with other Societies which he conducted. The train was late back, having been diverted. I remember passing through Heckmondwike Market Place at seven o’clock in the morning when the car, in which I was being driven by fellow member the redoubtable Mrs. Winifred Bentley Smith, was stopped by a policeman, not because she’d done anything wrong, but because he was wondering what the people in the car in evening wear were doing driving through Heckmondwike at seven o’clock in the morning. I remember her reply to his question, “Who are you and where are you going?” “Young man,” she said, “we have just been to the 70th birthday concert at the Albert Hall in London for Sir Malcolm Sargent.” Then she looked at him with a beady eye and all he could say was, “Oh, it’s alright, do proceed.”

The trip to America in 1965 was a wonderful experience for those who took part, but I missed it because I had six months leave of absence for a course of study before taking my final professional exams.

I remember performing The Apostles in Liverpool in early 1967, when Sir Malcolm Sargent said, “See you all in the autumn”. He didn’t. He died in the October and that concert in Liverpool was the last we had with him. There are now only three members who have sung under him. He had the same ability as Sir Laurence Olivier, which was that if he were surrounded by a crowd of 200 people, his would be the one face you noticed.

We performed in the popular television programme Stars on Sunday with Jess Yates for Yorkshire TV. We sang many times in Songs of Praise as well as in several Messiahs in successive years at the Albert Hall under the promotion of Raymond Gubbay. We have sung before the late Queen on several occasions in different places, including St George’s Square, Huddersfield. I also remember going to a performance of Messiah in London in 1986 when the then Prince Charles and his then wife Diana were present. We’ve sung with Kiri Te Kanawa (when she was then not as well-known as she later became). She made a lovely impression, especially with the Sopranos. I think that some of them took her out for tea! She was so very approachable and we sang with her (and Jose Carreras) many years later, when I was President of the Society, at the reopening of the outdoor theatre in Scarborough. I also remember the Society being conducted by a very youthful Simon Rattle in the 70s, and taking part in a Royal Variety Performance in London, where we were rubbing shoulders with people like Val Doonican, Penelope Keith and Ken Dodd, whose act of course went on for too long (but for those who admired him, not long enough). Some of our members had to be warned off, very politely, because of their persistence in getting autographs from the stars present.

I have fond memories of trips to Bratislava, Brno, Reims, Oporto and Valladolid in Spain, where we gave what I thought was a landmark performance of Britten’s War Requiem. At various times, we have taken part in world premieres such as Paul Patterson’s Stabat Mater and works by Colin Matthews and Anthony Hedges.

I remember the concert to celebrate the entry into the European Community in 1973 at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, for which we had a punishing rehearsal schedule of three nights a week for several weeks before the concert. It took at least of fortnight for me to stop whistling and humming excerpts from the work we had performed – Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust (which, incidentally, we have never sung since).

One of the outstanding things I remember was when we first sang Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil. We sang it in Huddersfield and again in many other places and it got better every time. We performed it in this country, at Ampleforth, Mirfield, Tewkesbury and Buxton, and abroad in Reims.

We’ve taken part in concerts attended by, and on one occasion conducted by, the composer, Henryk Gorecki for Beatus Vir, and Alfred Schnittke for Faust Cantata. We’ve been many times to the Proms and other concerts halls in London and such places as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Edinburgh and even as far away as St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney.

I remember the time when we sang Mahler’s 8th Symphony (Symphony of Thousand), which we did with the Crouch End Festival Chorus in London in 1999, and again at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral in 2011, with just about every Choral Society in Lancashire and Cheshire, under our good friend Vasily Petrenko.

On a somewhat less exalted subject, we took part in and enjoyed a BBC Prom celebrating the anniversary of Desert Island Discs, when such people as Patricia Routledge, David Attenborough and Bryn Terfel were present.

We also sang Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, and Rachmaninoff’s The Bells at the Proms. And, in the first year of my presidential term, we sang Messiah on no less than five occasions, in a variety of different places including Huddersfield, of course, The Sage, Gateshead, Stratford- upon-Avon, and the Barbican in London.

The main point I would wish to make is that there is no such thing as ‘The Good Old Days’, because all days and times can be good. Every year that passes we think of as ‘The Good Old Days’, but one should know that the present time constitutes ‘The Good Old Days’ for any member between the ages of 18 and 88 (or, in the case of the late Dennis Holmes, 90).

The Society has safely negotiated its way through so many years and given great concerts, not least the recent performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers, a work written in 1610. The work we performed at my first concert in 1964 was composed by a man who had died less than ten years previously.

The fact remains that we are in good heart and good voice, and our enthusiasm is undiminished. We’re about 140 strong. We have in our ranks people across the age groups, including a number of students from the University, and people from many backgrounds and many occupations (present or past) including – for example and in no particular order – a Knight of the Realm, a veterinarian, a solicitor, a kitchen designer/manufacturer, a consultant surgeon, a newsagent/toy seller, and a clergyman (or is it a clergyperson?). Every one of us, young or old, has the ambition of being inspired by, and participating in, a variety of great music, full-bodied and delicate, ancient and modern, familiar and challenging.

Shakespeare suggested that music may be the food of love. Be that as it may, it is always balm to the soul.

Congratulations, Conrad, on an incredible achievement and thank you from all at HCS for your years of hard work and dedication!

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