Music of the West Riding of Yorkshire
Yorkshire as a whole, and the West Riding musical heritage in particular, is an especially rich one – from folk song through
the golden ages of church music down to contemporary pop – and taking in some of the most famous figures in mainstream music en route, not least Bradford's Frederick Delius.
The West Riding of the county of broad acres, like the valleys of South Wales, is especially famed for its singers – amateur
and professional – household names in Opera – the two Dames, Janet Baker and Josephine Barstow – both cut their musical teeth in their teens in Yorkshire – in the cities of
York and Sheffield respectively.
Lesley Garrett hails from Doncaster, and other world-famous singers made in Yorkshire include tenors John Coates and Walter Widdop
– and these are only a very selected list, the result of personal choice.
Singers are known to enjoy careers and lifestyles often ranging from rags to riches, but few Yorkshire musicians could have had a
more humble start in life than Halifax's most famous – and most modest – musical son George Dyson, who rose from his early days playing the piano for Sunday School at his Baptist Chapel to
Master of Music at Winchester College and eventually Director of the Royal College of Music in London. Besides his composing, conducting and musical administrating, Dyson's name remains in the public eye
for all military men and women as the author of the standard textbook on Grenade Warfare still in print from Her Majesty's Stationery Office and still selling thousands of copies each year.
The history of music making from the eighteenth century onwards is particularly absorbing and bound up to the nth degree in the
sociological development of society at the outset and during the course of the so-called industrial revolution.
Many of the most famous folk songs date from the eighteenth century – and some actually had composers such as James Hook's very
jolly The Lass of Richmond Hill.
The roll-call of famous musical visitors to our county is impressive – in particular those two indefatigable travellers,
Niccolo Paganini and Franz Liszt were frequently found performing in Yorkshire and it is said that the lack of a full time symphony orchestra in Leeds is one reason why the City has always been able to
attract so many famous orchestras from overseas.
Actually, we do have in the Orchestra of Opera North our own full time orchestra – an orchestra justly acclaimed through its
many superbly received recordings and concerts as well as through its main work of playing for opera.
Important, too, for lovers of the West Riding tradition is Scarborough's Eric Fenby, without whose helpless devotion the ailing
Bradford-born Frederic Delius would almost certainly never have completed some of his finest works .
Yorkshire is famous for its choirs, especially its large choruses and choral societies. The world's longest established choral
society is that at Halifax formed by local music lovers in 1817; ever practical, the first resolution of its committee was to establish a burial fund.
The most famous of the large Yorkshire Choirs, The Huddersfield Choral Society, was a comparative late comer on the scene and, with a
foundation date of 1836, is almost twenty year's its neighbour's junior. Sir Henry Coward and, especially, Sir Malcolm Sargent – who came fortuitously onto the Huddersfield scene in the heyday of
the gramophone – spread the fame of Huddersfield far and wide.
The City of York itself can boast a musical society founded in 1764, just eight years after the famous music selling concern Banks
and Son – a firm still in business, but now emigrated from their original Stonegate home to new premises in Lendal. York is also the birthplace of composer and musical educator Joseph Barnby, whose
father was Head Master of the College for the Blind. In his later years Precentor or Music Director at Eton College, Barnby was also Principal of the Guildhall School of Music in the City of London. He
is represented this evening by his sugary, syrupy Sweet and Low – which I supposed we should properly have left to the sweet course…
Another great Yorkshire tradition is that of Brass Banding. Formed originally as a reed and brass band by mill owner John Foster by
an extraordinary congruence of dates in the same year, 1836, as The Huddersfield Choral Society, the Black Dyke Mills Band is one of the most celebrated musical ensembles in the world – and its
members have been recently artists in residence at both the Royal Academy and the Royal College of Music. One of Dyke's most famous players, cornet virtuoso Phillip McCann, now conducts his own Band,
Sellers International at Huddersfield – and is also a key figure in the tutorial staff of the University there.
Two of Huddersfield's very greatest musical sons were the leading organists and musical educators of their day - Sir Walter Parratt
and Sir Edward Bairstow.
Sir Walter was in turn organist of Magdalen College Oxford and St George's Chapel Windsor. Acknowledged virtually as the founder of
modern English organ playing technique, he taught for half a century at the Royal College of Music. The Parish Churches of Wigan and Leeds benefited immeasurably from Sir Edward's musical leadership at
the close of the 19th and outset of the 20th centuries before York Minster claimed him in 1913. Many honours came the way of both men.
Music in Leeds has bound inextricably bound up over the generations with efforts to raise money for the General Infirmary. Among the
earliest recorded concerts were those at the then new Holy Trinity Church in aid of the first infirmary building project in the mid 18th century, while much of the impetus to build the Town Hall arose from the need to erect a building more suitable for the holding of large-scale charity fund raising galas, balls as well as concerts, than the Borough's Assembly Rooms. Incidentally, the Assembly Rooms still survive (though truncated in length by the railway viaduct to the South) just behind the Corn Exchange and the premises are now occupied at their Western end by Café Rouge.
The earliest surpliced choir in any English Parish Church since the Reformation was formed in 1815 by Richard Fawcett, Vicar of Leeds
and Headmaster of the Grammar School just three years after the building of the National School adjacent to the Parish Church. We know this Choir was wearing surplices by 1818, as there is a laundry bill
in the Church Accounts for that year. The maintenance of the Choir was a (non all that) popular charge on the Church Rate and later became the responsibility of a voluntary subscription list. Ultimately,
fortunes declined in consort with the money and on the arrival of the redoubtable Dr Hook as Vicar of Leeds in 1837 the "surplices were in rags and the books in tatters". Be that as it may, by the time
Hook's new Church was ready four years later, he had worked up enthusiasm among parishioners and local worthies to such an extent that the Choir was revitalised and reformed with sung services on
weekdays as well as Sundays
The other great Leeds musical institution founded in the mid Victorian period was the Leeds Musical Festival. The prototype had been
held in 1858 to celebrate the opening of the Town Hall. From 1874 onwards the Festivals were held triennially until the 1970s. Some of the most famous works in the choral repertoire were composed for the
Festival – pre-eminently Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony and Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. Less familiar than these is Dvorak's Santa Ludmilla from 1886, being revived at the Town Hall in May
next year and to be broadcast by the BBC.
The Festivals, like the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra nearly a century later, were federal in essence. Contingents from the various
West Riding towns and from further afield were trained separately, uniting only for a few final rehearsals, in the same way that funding for the YSO was achieved from a multiplicity of local authorities.
The Festivals, of course, flourished for longer than the YSO which remained a brave experiment. By the time of the establishment of Opera North in 1978, it is clear that many of the lessons of the YSO's
demise had been learnt – certainly the support Opera North receives from local government remains at a very impressive level.
But the truth is that like other famous musical institutions – the Parish Church Choir and the famous Choruses – the
Leeds Philharmonic, founded in 1870 and the Leeds Festival Chorus, independent of the Festivals for about thirty years now – Opera North relies very considerably on the support of individual
patrons, music-lovers and subscribers.
This personal underpinning is seen nowhere more impressively than in the remarkable success story of the Leeds International
Pianoforte Competition. The first event held forty-one years ago had a fairy tale ending with the winner emerging as a supremely talented local schoolboy, Michael Roll. Though receiving substantial
sponsorship from business concerns in recent years ranging from Harvey's Bristol Cream to the Halifax by way of a Japanese multinational, the Piano Competition actually exists because of the selfless
devotion of a veritable army of volunteers – and, not least, on account of the vision and prodigious energy of the redoubtable Fanny Waterman, one of the world's greatest piano teachers. Not for
nothing do we call her in the trade with a combination of affection and awe Field Marshal Fanny.
A modest single sided fact sheet gives further detail of native born Yorkshire musicians, and a more comprehensive study by local
music critic and cultural historian Geoffrey Mogridge is now to be found on the Website of Leeds International Concert Season.
In terms of musical education, there are notable university departments all over the county - Sheffield is the longest established,
followed by Leeds, York and Huddersfield in that order. Each flourishes exceedingly, as do a number of independent music schools and tutorial colleges - in Leeds, the Headingley-based Yorkshire College
of Music and Drama is that with the highest reputation among private educational concerns.
One of the most famous of all Ballad composers was Samuel Liddle, Leeds born, whose setting of Abide with me has retained a
place in the repertoire. Liddle was the accompanist to Clara Butt, Plunket Greene and the cellist W H Squire.
Some of the finest English romantic songs in the ballad tradition came from the pen of Doncaster's pride, the great Wilfrid Sanderson
- Organist for many years at St George's Church, now Doncaster Minster.
No account of Yorkshire music would be complete without Ilkla Moor. Music by a Kent cobbler - words extemporized on the spot
by travellers on a Charabanc outing.
Lastly, two very special national songs with very strong West Riding links. The music to Blake's words is by Sir Hubert Parry and was
composed in the darkest days of the First World War for singing at a Fight for Right campaign meeting in London's Royal Albert Hall. But it is the version by Edward Elgar, devised for the Leeds Festival
of 1921, that the public knows and loves best – with its sweeping string lines, this is the evocative setting associated invariably with The Last Night of the Proms – Parry's Jerusalem.
West Riding Musical Heritage
Some Famous Sons and Daughters
A selective list
Famous contemporary composer John Casken is a native of Barnsley where Huddersfield born journalist and composer Robert
Cockroft (famed as a pithy writer on food for The Yorkshire Post) now edits the local paper, the Barnsley Chronicle.
Other celebrated musicians from the Southern part of the West Riding include Dame Janet Baker, born in Hatfield, and the
present-day Doncaster diva herself, Lesley Garrett. Dr Douglas Guest (Organist in turn of the Cathedrals of Salisbury and Worcester and of Westminster Abbey) hailed from Mortomley.
Dame Josephine Barstow was born in Sheffield as was William Sterndale Bennett, who trained in Leipzig and conducted the first Leeds Festival in 1858 when Queen Victoria came to open Leeds Town
Frederick Delius was born in Bradford in 1862 where his father was a prosperous businessman.
The world-famous tenor John Coates came from Girlington on the outskirts of Bradford.
Contemporary composer and favourite pupil of Hindemith, Dr Arnold Cooke
was born in 1906 in Gomersal and is still hale and hearty in retirement in Kent in his ninety-eighth year.
Halifax's most famous musical son is Sir George Dyson who rose to be one of the greatest leaders of the musical profession in
the second half of the 20th century – Director of the Royal College of Music from 1937 to 1952, Dyson provided choral pieces for two Coronations. Among Dyson's many claims to fame is the authorship of what remains the standard British military text on Grenades. Also born just outside Halifax was international tenor
Healey in the "heavy woollen" district was birthplace of famous Organist and Church Musician, Dr George Oldroyd,
who was Herbert Howells' predecessor as King Edward Professor of Music in the University of London. Oldroyd was for thirty years Organist of one of the most famous of Greater London's most renowned Anglo-Catholic parishes, St Michael's Croydon.
Brass Banding's king, legendary cornettist and conductor Harry Mortimer, was born in Hebden Bridge in 1902.
Heckmondwike was the birthplace of John Curwen, founder of Tonic Solfa, whose teaching transformed musical education.
Horbury and Horbury Junction enjoy a number of famous musical associations – the gifted composer and pianist William Baines
(carried off by consumption at the tragically early age of just 23) was a son of Horbury and it was in the village that the Revd John Bacchus Dykes
(himself a native of Kingston upon Hull) composed his famous tune to Nearer my God to Thee. Much debate rages as to whether it was Dykes' tune that the Band of the Titanic so gallantly and
selflessly played under the baton of their Dewsbury born bandmaster Wallace Hartley as the ship went down. It was for a Sunday School procession at Horbury Bridge that Sabine Baring Gould
wrote Onward, Christian soldiers.
Huddersfield like York is a great musical centre. Here were born Sir Edward Bairstow and Sir Walter Parratt
– organists of York Minster and St George's Chapel Windsor respectively – both were noted composers and their music was sung at Coronations.
From Leeds came Stanford, Douglas and Eric Robinson, famous conductors and chorusmasters, and great musical
scholar and Lexicographer Percy Scholes – author of the Oxford Companion to Music. Also ballad composer Samuel Liddle, organist, scholar and hymnologist Dr Donald Webster
, King's Singer, Stephen Connolly and Space Hog stars Antony and Royston Langdon.
Among natives of the once proudly independent borough of Morley are Paul Trepte, Organist of Ely Cathedral and John Barstow
, concert pianist and piano professor at the Royal College of Music, London.
In Victoria's last borough, Pudsey, was born composer and musical polymath Philip Wilby in 1949. Professor Wilby is Head of
Composition Studies at Leeds University and arguably the most famous composer for contemporary brass bands.
Settle is famed as the favourite holiday location of Sir Edward Elgar, whose close friend C W Buck was the local GP.
Slaithwaite gave birth to Haydn Wood, composer of so many famous ballads – pre-eminently Roses of Picardy.
Famous cathedral and cinema organist Norman Cocker
came from Sowerby Bridge where his father was the local dentist. Cocker's role in the transformation of Manchester's Chetham's Hospital school into a specialist music school has been under-estimated.
John Varley Roberts, the most famous choir trainer in Oxford during the 19th century as organist of Magdalen College, was born at Stanningley near Pudsey. He had earlier been Organist of Halifax Parish Church.
The famous composer of popular songs such as The Lambeth Walk and Run, rabbit, run – Noel Gay – and
Professor Kenneth Leighton of Edinburgh University were born in Wakefield. Leighton was a Cathedral Chorister as, a year or two later, was the former Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope.
York itself produced Joseph Barnby
– son of the headmaster of the College for the Blind who became Precentor (Director of Music) at Eton and Principal of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama is also remembered as composer of fine hymn tunes and the popular Sweet
and Low). Alan Gray, successor to Stanford at Trinity College Cambridge and a noted composer of Church music including many descants to hymn tunes was born in York in 1855.