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Leeds, City of Music

What's in a name? For one thing, titles are never quite what they seem.

Take, for example, the dismissive jibe of 19th century continentals that England was "the land without music" - it is about as near the truth as the "dark, satanic mills" of William Blake's marvellous first stanza of Jerusalem. Scholars now tell us that the "mills" mentioned by Blake are the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge whose "darkness" was concerned with the exclusion of all aspiring students other than those who were members of the Church of England by law established. Leeds, City of Music lays fair claim to the title by a combination of historical pedigree, sociological evolution and by its remarkable geographical location at the centre of Britain and at the heart of major transport infrastructures of rail and road.

Other cities and municipalities might well challenge such an assertion - York, with the longest established musical society in Europe, or Halifax - cradle of the contemporary choral society,where the eponymous choir was founded almost twenty years before its more famous fellow institution just a few miles down the road?  And well may Huddersfield style itself The Huddersfield Choral Society - for such is the great wealth and scope of amateur music making in that town that some sense of self-image is thoroughly understandable. Nor does music merely flourish from large centres of population - in the world of brass banding the villages of Queensbury (home of Black Dyke Mills) and the twin towns of Brighouse and Rastrick spring at once to the mind.

But it is the diversity of musical activity which makes Leeds so significant a cultural force in the national consciousness - a diversity underpinned for generations by a notable professional and semi-professional infrastructure.

Before getting underway, it should be stated that much of the material here presented has been plundered from books. A certain amount has been obtained by personal research in the splendid local history section of Leeds City Libraries, and still more by personal contact with many "loiners" as our city's inhabitants are colloquially and affectionately described.

In particular, some special friends have been material in kindling my interest and enthusiasm in Leeds, City of Music. They are, in no particular order, the Leeds teacher and organist Malcolm Ibbotson, retired Canterbury Cathedral Lay-Clerk Edward Armitage and the late John Edward Dunhill, Senior Verger and Registrar of the Parish Church. The link between this trio is the rare book with which each has, over the years, presented me. At the risk of beginning with a bibliography, no serious student of music in Leeds can find out much about it without investigating thoroughly the life and work of organists Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Robert Senior Burton and William Spark. It was the work of these three remarkable individuals – united by a volatile cantankerousness of spirit as well as by almost frenetic energy – which did so much in the last century to underpin the present musical structure of the district. So, thank you, Malcolm, Ted & John Edward – the books on Spark and Wesley, and the remarkable annals of the Leeds Festivals have been a rich resource tool.

It is right also to pay a very special tribute to Leeds born musician, scholar and critic Donald Webster. Dr Webster's earliest musical experience was in the famous choir of this church  His encyclopaedic memory is a source of constant admiration to his many friends and of not a little fascination to the wider public.

On the personal front, friendships with present day members of two remarkable Leeds musical families, the Erringtons and the Maudes – and, especially, my own personal relationships with the late Melville Cook, Donald Hunt and Francis Jackson – have provided a wealth of anecdotal and professional background which remains invaluable while being always subject  to the vagaries of one's own memory and the entirely subjective use to which such information has been and continues to be put.

The remarkable change of tone evidenced in the opening paragraphs of the entries for the City of Leeds in the two most recent editions of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians yield a very different emphasis for the casual enquirer. Way back in 1954, for the edition prepared under the direction of Eric Blom, with the sad demise of the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra imminent, the initial sentence divided the city's cultural life between the sheep and the goats. Pride of place was, understandably, afforded to the famous Triennial Festivals and lumping everything else together in a category very much less exalted.

By the time of the New Grove under the visionary editorship of Stanley Sadie, things were reported to be, and were – of course – in actuality very, very different. That doyen of musical historians, Percy Young, now asserts that Leeds is one of the most active musical centres in Britain declaring that it has become more widely known for the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition held every three years since 1963 and the Leeds Musical Festival.

 In the 19th century [continues Dr Young] the Parish Church became a focal point for reform and enterprise in sacred music. Citizens of Leeds have been involved in cultural activities at every level, and the wealth of musical opportunity that has developed testifies to a long tradition of community responsibility.

 I have always felt that music within any community was best assessed under two headings – that which was, by common agreement, indigenous (that is to say, that music which comes from within) and that which is imported by entrepreneurial effort. Such a distinction seems potentially far less divisive than comparing one institution with another. It would, of course, be churlish not to concur with the New Grove at this stage.

Right at the outset it needs saying and saying again that it was the famous sleepless night endured by Fanny Waterman almost forty years ago which changed the face of the public perception of music in Leeds for ever. From that bout of insomnia resulted the establishment of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition The television coverage of those remarkable gladiatorial finals with the giants of the keyboard has also brought the inestimable advantage of familiarising millions with the superlative interior of the Victoria Hall at Leeds Town Hall.  No other civic building – inside or out – is as familiar to the viewer at home. The remarkable belfry – a hugely expensive brilliant afterthought to the original design – epitomises local government in every news bulletin, while the salmon tinged pillars of the interior (plastered with painted marbling) present an image of Victorian splendour rivalled by few constructions elsewhere. Not for nothing did Professor Asa Briggs in his Victorian Cities flag Leeds up in a chapter entitled A study in Civic Pride.

It has been a source of much pleasure to Fanny's many friends and admirers that a room in the Town Hall is now known in perpetuity as the Waterman Room.  The scheme of providing the ancillary rooms surrounding the Victoria Hall with names rather than impersonal numbers (which no-one could never remember) or references to the colour of its décor when newly-painted has now, happily, been abandoned. In its place are a number of rooms – especially those used by artists and sponsors for hospitality – in which are commemorated some of the great cultural heroes connected with Leeds. These worthies include many luminaries of the famous Leeds Festivals, the artists Atkinson Grimshaw and Jacob Kramer, and many others. The linking factor is Leeds – whether as their place of birth, or the topological centre of their creative activity. It is especially good to have a prominent room beneath the stage named after one of Yorkshire's queens of song – the lyric soprano Elsie Suddaby. Many have rejoiced at the recent re-mastering and re-issuing some of her famous recorded performances on CD with the title The lass with the delicate air. 

The art of singing flourishes with particular effect in the West Riding as a whole, just as it does in the valleys of South Wales. Some credit the quality of the water supply, others the bracing air, still more experts point an informed sociological finger at the patronage of mill, factory and mine of post Industrial Revolution Britain. Indeed, the cynic might suggest that the great rise of the choral society and brass band over the past hundred and fifty years had as much to do with the desire of the land-owner and "new money" industrialist to keep his workforce reasonably content and, in consequence, not a potential cauldron of political discontent. Any such generalisation, while almost a caricature, does – inevitably – contain the proverbial grain of truth within it.

The fervour engendered by the evangelical revival had, of course, much to do with it all, for there is a perceivable link between today's so-called open-air "spectaculars". There is, of course, absolutely nothing new under the sun. The almost frenetic present-day enthusiasm of the general public for vast musical spectacles out of doors (however unsuitable the aural environment may be) highlights a lifting of the human spirit which the Wesley brothers John and Charles certainly knew much about. Their open-air meetings for worship two and a half centuries ago exploited this personal response to the fullest extent among their fellow Methodists.

The early years of the 18th century provide the first firm evidence of musical activity within the borough of Leeds, whose charter only dates from 1626. Exactly one hundred years on from that auspicious document comes a written account, in 1726, of the first public concert in the Assembly Rooms.

 The history of Leeds music in its infancy is linked inextricably with the development of a musical tradition at the city's Parish Church and the entrepreneurial activities of its earliest organists. This remarkable story has been vividly told by Dr Donald Webster in his book Parish, Past and Present published in 1988 by the Old Choirboys' Association in conjunction with the University of Leeds Printing Service.  The public's appetite for music was considerable, and the first series of subscription concerts was begun just over two hundred years ago. Ever conscious of getting good value for money, the Leeds public have – since 1795 – supported concerts by subscription ever since. Such a method has underpinned all Leeds Town Hall concerts this century and remains central to the enterprising programmes presented by Opera North since the company's formation in 1978.  At the heart of the triumphant success of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition is a substantial mailing list of loyal supporters whose continuing commitment is one of the jewels in the city's artistic crown. Nor is such support confined to music, as the commitment of audiences to the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Northern Ballet Theatre also amply demonstrates.

 A fascinating continuing thread through the whole of the first century of music in Leeds was that of philanthropic support of charitable institutions – especially hospitals. Historians tell us that proceeds from church concerts in the centre of the town during the 18th century assisted materially in the efforts to construct the first Leeds Infirmary just off what is now City Square. Still more significant was the energy generated in the building of Leeds Town Hall in the 1850s – a project much stimulated by the need to have premises adequate for the presentation of large-scale charity concerts in support of the re-building of the Infirmary to the designs of Sir Gilbert Scott at the western extremity of Great George Street. 

The installation of organs in churches and chapels throughout the district did a tremendous amount to foster appreciation of the musical arts among the citizenry. The new organ at St Peter's, opened in 1714, was – according to the local chronicler Ralph Thoresby – the object of much enthusiastic interest. Less felicitous was the attention paid to an instrument supplied with Brunswick Methodist Chapel in 1828. This instrument attracted much adverse comment, not on aesthetic reservations, but on grounds of conscience. Besides causing a schism in Methodism, its opening provoked a degree of civil unrest and the militia had to be called in from York to restore order.  The 1820s were evidently very volatile times – much controversy was caused by the lot and scot of a parochial election for the post of Parish Church organist, and the choir which had been established there in 1815 at the charge of a levy on the rates was made the subject of a voluntary subscription list. Predictably, standards declined in consort with subscriptions and by the time of the arrival of Vicar Hook in 1837 he found

                "the surplices in rags, and the books in tatters".

The mention of surplices is significant, for Leeds was the first parochial establishment on mainland Britain since the Reformation (there were marginally earlier examples in Ireland and on the Isle of Wight) to sustain a surpliced choir of boys and men.

It was left to the charismatic Dr Hook and his considerable powers of leadership to restore the Church's musical fortunes and, from the opening of his new building in 1841, choral services on weekdays as well as Sundays has been a feature both of parochial life and of the city's cultural inheritance.  This tradition has been maintained without the advantages of a residential choir school or large-scale endowments. That it has survived at all is due entirely to the commitment to music sustained by successive clergy and church wardens and by the often unstinting labours of the musicians involved.

Hook (1798-1875) proved himself master of the Victorian equivalent of the sound-bite in asserting that he would

                have a "good" service

even if he "had to go to prison" for it, for these were the heady days of the Tractarian revival in the Anglican church which placed equal emphasis on word and sacrament alike. Despite being quite unable to distinguish between the tune to the metrical psalm All people that on earth do dwell on the one hand and the National Anthem on the other, Dr Hook was nonetheless firmly committed to securing the best music for his new church. He appointed as his organist none other than Dr Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the most prominent church musician of his day. This was a bold move, for Wesley was a difficult – though utterly brilliant – man and relationships with him were never easy. But Hook knew what he wanted and possessed an uncanny knack of getting the best out of people. He also took professional advice on his musical colleagues and, perceiving that Wesley's principal gifts were in the direction of organ playing and composition, wisely appointed a separate man to be solely responsible for the training of the choir.

Just after Wesley left Leeds for Winchester Cathedral in 1849, important steps were taken in the establishment of an amateur singing society. A further twenty years were to elapse before the formation of the Leeds Philharmonic Society which is now the senior choir in the city by date of foundation and by virtue of its continued and very distinguished programme sustained annually since 1870.  Famous Conductors of the "Phil" have included Sir Charles Stanford, Sir Edward Bairstow, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Meredith Davies, Sir Charles Groves, Sir Charles Mackerras and Richard Hickox. Dr Donald Hunt (Conductor of the Three Choirs' Festival and Organist of Worcester Cathedral from 1975) was Chorus Master and Associate Conductor from 1961 to 1975.

The first of the world-famous choral festivals was arranged in 1858 to coincide with the opening of Leeds Town Hall by Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The music was under the direction of a celebrated musical son of the county of broad acres, Sheffield-born William Sterndale Bennett – whose cantata The May Queen received its first performance. Sterndale Bennett's successors as conductor included Sir Michael Costa, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir Charles Stanford, Sir Hugh Allen, Albert Coates and Sir Thomas Beecham. Other notables who featured large in festival programmes have included Sir Malcolm Sargent (to whom Beecham gave the première of Belshazzar'sFeast in 1931), Sir John Barbirolli, Carlo Maria Guilini, Sir Edward Downes, Sir John Prichard and John Alldis. Important too was the contribution of Sir Charles Mackerras, whose monumental Handel performances of the very early 1970s still remain available in superb recordings, now issued on compact disc.

The history of the early Leeds Festivals makes for fascinating, and not always very happy, reading. After the runaway success of the prototype held in the heady aftermath of the opening of the Town Hall and, of course, running concurrently with that extraordinary occasion, one supposes anything has to be an anti-climax. Folk got so carried away with enthusiasm for the royal visitors that day, that a prominent chemist even perfumed the air outside his shop as a special mark of patriotic fervour for his sovereign. On a less happy note, the seemingly perpetual feuds between rival musical organisations in the 1860s and early 1870s resulted in a sixteen year interval elapsing before the holding of the second festival in 1874 after the pioneering effort of 1858.

During its heyday, the festival operated in choral terms as a kind of artistic federation, with separately rehearsed contingents drawn from a wide area of Yorkshire and sometimes further afield. The standard of the Leeds chorus was such that groups from within its number were used as choral assistants – sometimes on a semi-professional basis – by other festivals. Most notable among these was the oldest established music festival in Europe held in the Cathedrals of the eponymous Three Choirs at Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester in turn.

The Festival Chorus did not enjoy a separate full-time existence as it has since Professor Alexander Goehr's major re-structuring, but was simply formed anew again for each festival.  The "other" chorus, besides that of the Philharmonic Society, was the Leeds Choral Union – financed handsomely by a wealthy mining engineer, Henry Charles Embleton whose devotion to the music of Elgar was absolute and who nearly bankrupted himself in promoting Elgar's name nationwide and abroad. The members of the Choral Union were taken to Canterbury and Paris as well as other prestigious venues rather nearer to the singers' home base.

The greatest days of the festival and its magnificent choral singing coincided with the apex of choral activity within churches and chapels. Like every substantial town, Leeds was the base for several organ builders – each with a thriving practice in tuning, maintenance, rebuilding and the provision of new organs. Of particular distinction was the Bramley-based concern of James Jepson Binns, whose instruments are happily now recognised and acknowledged as masterpieces of their type and whose welfare and future maintenance has become a matter of national interest rather than purely local pride. Of Binns' very many fine organs in the city, those of St Aidan's, Roundhay Road, and St Edmund's Roundhay are particularly splendid and Binns' sympathetic repairs to and restoration of the extraordinary instrument in St Bartholomew's, Armley – the work of Edmund Schulze – brought him great fame. His most famous organs, at the Albert Hall, Nottingham and at Rochdale Town Hall, have both been stupendously restored in recent years.

An interesting social and economic factor in all this organic development – which went, of course, hand in hand with the vast programmes of church building throughout the late Victorian and Edwardian periods – was that the majority of the instruments were the outright gift to the parish or chapel trustees of a single wealthy patron and were only rarely erected as a result of public appeal or fundraising.  Only the instruments at the city's Parish Church and at Leeds Town Hall were provided entirely as a result of the efforts of the authorities of those particular buildings. The Armley Schulze – an organ of world, rather than regional or national, significance – was purchased and installed by the Eyres family, and the substantial organ at St Chad's Headingley was the outright gift of a musical incumbent. The Tetley family was responsible for the instrument in St Michael's Headingley – and so on. The so-called "Mayor's Nest", as Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel was known on account of the large number of civic heads drawn from among its congregations over the years , received a handsome double cased instrument in 1910 a few years after the opening of that in St Anne's Roman Catholic Cathedral – each being the work of Norman and Beard of Norwich.

Hand in hand with the vast growth in interest and expertise in the choral field, went the blossoming fortunes of the brass band movement which had brought practical musical skill to a vast number of folk who received little or no musical instruction in school. The earliest bands – like the famous Yorkshire choral societies first coming to prominence in the 1830s and 40s – were established at the impetus of mill-owners and industrialists for their work-forces. The present day successors of those original musicians still carry the torch for this aspect of aesthetic patronage in the names of so many of the best of bands – Black Dyke Mills and the Colliery bands spring to mind. Of special prominence in Leeds has always been the band now known as the Yorkshire Evening Post Band, which began life in the 1860s as the Leeds Model Band, carrying subsequently the banners of John Waddingtons (the manufacturers of Monopoly) and Goodhall Backhouse (the Yorkshire Relish sauce group) before the YEP assumed sponsorship in 1983. But the most famous Leeds based band is certainly the old Yorkshire Copper Works, best known in its guise as Yorkshire Imperial Metals or the "Imps" which John Pryce-Jones brought to great competition success some years back. The present-day title of the "Imps" must be the longest in the world – the David Urquhart Travel Yorkshire Imperial Rothwell Band.

Banding and Choral Societies produce musicians of quality and commitment; they also in a special way blur the distinction between amateur and professional – seemingly combining the very best of both approaches.  This strange partnership of enthusiast and perfectionist is perhaps best summed up in a saying well-used by those of us who teach:

                the amateur practises until he or she gets the music right
and the professional rehearses until the music
cannot possibly go wrong.
.
 

Reference has already been made to that great cultural "sugar-daddy" of these parts, Henry Charles Embleton – whose support of the Leeds Choral Union was so entirely integral to the success that it enjoyed in the early years of the century fast drawing to a close. This leads neatly into the realms of support for musical presentations yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Patronage in music has always underpinned its public presentation. The patron with the most distinguished pedigree is, of course, the worshipping church. Our English cathedral choirs and collegiate chapels are without parallel or peer anywhere in Western civilization and remain astonishingly influential in the public's musical perception. even today. Why even today? One may well ask!  The truth is that concerns about music at parochial level – once merely thought to be the concern of the Roman Catholic Church in the aftermath of the second Vatican Council – now pervade every Christian denomination.  There is a serious worry that the musical baby may indeed have been thrown well and truly out with the bathwater.

Just as a kind of geographic federalism was at the heart of the great days of the Leeds Triennial Festivals, so such a union in terms of funding was utilised after the Second World War to effect the establishment of the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra. Though popular opinion credits its demise to unfavourable press criticism, the truth is that inter-local authority squabbles had much to do with it. From about 1920 onwards, the presentation of annual subscription concerts at the Town Hall was underpinned by administrative efforts of prominent citizens combined with the entrepreneurial skills of a number of locally-based members of the musical profession. This enterprise went hand in hand with the development of a music department within the University of Leeds. Nowadays, and throughout the 80s and 90s, much activity is initiated by the Leisure Services Department of Leeds City Council. In the 60s and 70s – it had been by sustained by that august institution's precursor the Department of "Education and the Arts". This nomenclature was a nice distinction one might think. (A daily reminder used to meet the visitor to the Institute premises of the old City of Leeds College of Music, where a venerable notice-board still proclaimed that legend decades after Art had ceased to be a bedfellow of Education in civic committee terms.)

The effect of the political and social climate of the day cannot be over-estimated. The award winning music programme of Leeds City Council strives to provide the populace with around 200 varied events each season on a budget that many local communities might regard as lavish, but which – in terms of Leeds' position as regional capital – is not really disproportionate in any sense. The City's commitment has remained remarkably constant, though the city finds – in common with other arts promoters – the once fairly easily obtained business sponsorship is less easy a matter than it once was.  Leeds is fortunate that a number – a small number, but a highly significant factor in the financial equation – of private patrons are still whole-heartedly committed to the philanthropic support of music-making – especially that involving the young.

In the West Riding we as both professionals and music-lovers (one hopes the two categories are not mutually exclusive) have been particularly blessed by the enlightened attitude of our local municipal authorities towards music in all its manifestations. Not for them the "blinkered" approach to music as either one aspect of a wide sonic spectrum. The rich contribution of the area's "comers-in" cannot be over-estimated. In today' climate where political correctness is king – or queen – this aspect of our cultural life is, perhaps, seen at its easiest in terms of what have become referred to as the ethnic minorities. But a city such as Leeds is enriched and sustained by much more than perhaps substantial doses of Reggae on the one hand and the music of the Orient on the other. It is a point well taken that both are now entirely crucial to not only the cultural wellbeing of the district, but also of substantial significance in the educational and economic infrastructure of society as a whole.

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