The Early Years

Following a meeting at Burnley Town Hall in May 1920, the Town Clerk was instructed to place adverts in the local press inviting vocalists to join a new Municipal Choir, and encouraging all Choir Masters in town, of which there would be many at the time, to furnish the names of singers who were suitable and willing to join this new enterprise. 91 applications from singers were received.
A Mr Dan Duxbury JP was appointed Chorus Master, and Mr Harold Lever the accompanist. Unfortunately we are unable to find any images of these two gentlemen.
The first concert was held at the Palace on Sunday December 26th 1920, and according to the programme there were 101 singers.

The Palace - Hippodrome Theatre had opened on the 2nd of December 1907 as a variety theatre and cinema. It had a seating capacity of 2,200 on 3 levels - stalls, circle and gallery (including boxes).
It was built on St James’ St on the site where the “Wilkinson’s” store can now be found.
Apparently this grand, impressive building was constructed in record time, (less than a year). In fact, it was completed in less time than it took Burnley Borough Council to build some adjacent public toilets!

The programme consisted of miscellaneous items including The Ballad of the Fleet - “The Revenge” composed by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford in 1884, and Hear my Prayer by Mendelssohn.
Miss Cecilia Farrar was the soprano soloist, and there was also a harpist, Mr Charles Collier. The choir was accompanied by the Municipal Orchestra, which had been formed the previous year.
The programme opened with O Come All Ye Faithful and ended with the National Anthem.
The other choral items were:
Sir Eglamore (arr. Gardiner),
Beauteous Morn (Edward German), [ladies only], and
My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land (Edward Elgar).
It is interesting to note that 3 of the works were by living British composers, Stanford, .German and Elgar.
The Burnley Express reported that the concert was very well received by a capacity audience.

THE 1920s
3 or 4 concerts were given each year. These were mainly held at the Palace, but in 1924, members of the choir joined with another 10,000 voices at the new Wembley Stadium to sing with the Imperial Choir, which, as its name suggests, consisted of choristers from Great Britain and the colonies.
The early concerts tended to be more varied in content than became the case in later years. Works performed included: Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, The Black Night, (Elgar), and Acis and Galatea (Handel).
One of the soloists in 1921 was the celebrated tenor Frank Mullings, arguably the leading “heroic” tenor in the country at the time, and a household name.

Born in Walsall in 1881, Mullings had a powerful, colourful voice and a strong stage presence. His repertoire included such taxing dramatic parts as Tristan in Tristan und Isolde, Radames in Aida, the title role in Otello, and Canio in I Pagliacci (which he recorded  on the famous 1927 Columbia  recording of the  complete work).
He returned in 1922, 1926, 1928 and 1937. Only Henry Wendon sang as tenor soloist on more occasions, (6, from 1937 to 47).

Other very famous singers to appear with the choir in the early years were sopranos Lily Allen, Dora Labette and Miriam Licette; altos Margaret Balfour, Muriel Brunskill, and Astra Desmond; tenors Tudor Davies, Parry Jones, Heddle Nash and Walter Widdop; and basses Norman Allin, Robert Radford and Harold Williams.

The Choir and Orchestra, under (the auspices of the town council) also engaged world famous artists to sing in regular “Celebrity Concerts”. Arguably the world’s greatest ever heldentenor, the “Great Dane” Lauritz Melchior was engaged in 1921, and sang at The Palace on November 13th.

1922 was a remarkable year for a choir only recently formed.
In March, the choir performed The German Requiem by Brahms – in English of course, as was always the case in those days. The programme also included the Alto Rhapsody (also Brahms). Margaret Balfour was the soloist. She was probably the leading contralto of the time and sang the Angel in Elgar’s own recording of Gerontius. She returned to sing with the choir on a further 10 occasions, including Gerontius conducted by Hamilton Harty in 1929. Her 11 appearances with the choir place her 2nd in rank to Isabel Baillie (21 concerts). Her final performance with the choir was a Messiah in 1939.

In November 1922 the choir was conducted by the great Irish conductor / composer Sir Hamilton Harty, and he brought his own “band” with him – the famous Hallé Orchestra.

The concert included Parry’s magnificent anthem – Blest Pair of Sirens.
The choir were able to engage Harty and the Hallé on a further 6 occasions – 1928  -The Damnation of Faust (Berlioz), 1929 – The Dream of Gerontius (with Balfour), 1930  - “Faust” again, 1930 - Harty’s own composition The Mystic Trumpeter, 1931 – miscellaneous items, and 1932, when they performed The Songs of the Fleet by Stanford, and repeated The Mystic Trumpeter.
The choir first performed Handel’s Messiah in December 1922.
170 names are listed in an “augmented” choir, but apparently “only” 148 sang in the concert.
The soprano soloist was Isobel (later Dame Isobel) Baillie, considered by many experts to be the greatest oratorio singer of all time. She returned to sing with the choir a further 20 times. No soloist has sung more frequently with the choir.

Though born in Hawick (Scotland), her family moved to Manchester when she was a child, and she was based there throughout her long career. She was noted for the purity and clarity of her tone, and is said to have sung The Messiah over 1,000 times. In 1933 she became the first British singer to perform at the Hollywood Bowl. Her final performance with the choir was in Jan. 1953.

Other important events in the 20s were the first performances of: the Verdi Requiem (in English!) in March 1924 (with Balfour), The St. Matthew Passion in 1926 (with Balfour again), Elijah and the Mozart Requiem in 1927, and Dvorak’s Stabat Mater in 1928. Parry Jones was the tenor in 1928, and a Miss E. Hoyle and a Mr W. Gill are listed as choir members. They are the grandparents of our current Treasurer. Maybe, like others, they met through choir?
In 1924, the famous Yorkshire heldentenor Walter Widdop sang in Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, and another well-known tenor Tudor Davies sang in the choir’s first performance of the Verdi Requiem, along with Elsie Suddaby, Margaret Balfour and Harold Williams. Harold Williams returned to sing his most famous role, Elijah, in 1927 and on a further 8 occasions, (10 appearances in total).
In June 1929 the choir sang at the opening concert at the Stocks Massey Pavilion in Towneley Park.

The social side of the choir developed too, as can be seen from this photograph of the annual choir outing.

THE 1930s
The 30s opened confidently with another performance of The Damnation of Faust (Berlioz), with the Hallé on March 30th 1930. It was again conducted by Hamilton Harty. The soloists included the acclaimed tenor Heddle Nash and Isobel Baillie.

Later that year the choir and orchestra combined under Harty again to perform his own cantata The Mystic Trumpeter.
Ticket prices for both these concerts were 3/6 and 2/4 in advance. Some cheaper seats were available at 1/6 and 9d on the day. This was a significant increase on the normal admission prices that usually started at 1/6 down to 6d.
In 1932 the choir was struck by tragedy. On April 4th, less than a fortnight after the March concert, Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, accompanist Harold Lever started a new job as headmaster at Lionel St. Primary. After his second day, (the 5th), he took the train home from Manchester Road station, but never arrived. He was found dead in a railway carriage when the train pulled in at Todmorden. He was just 56.
Within weeks Dan Duxbury succumbed to pneumonia and passed away on May 10th aged 70.
When the choir next sang in public, at the Towneley Pavilion on July 24th, it was under the direction of Lee Thistlethwaite. The opening item was the hymn “Art thou weary” set to a tune by Lever, and the programme included Sullivan’s “O Gladsome Light” and “The Long Day Closes”, and the anthem “There is an old belief”. Not the most obvious choices for an outdoor summer concert in normal circumstances.

Continue to History Part 2 - The George Altham Years

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