Arthur Fagge remembers

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

What an abundance of good copy lies concealed in the memories of our conductors! If only bookmakers would delve among musicians instead of politicians, the world might be ever so much happier. Chance last month threw me into the company of an old friend, Arthur Fagge, conductor of the London Choral Society, with whom I had not spoken since 19079. Of course, we were soon talking of singers and Sims Reeves, for Fagge in those days now long past was accompanist to the great English tenor. After accompanying him personally and musically for seven years, the accompanist, like the valet, did not think his master so very great: in fact, I was assured that, as a singer, Ffrangcon Davies10 was much the better man. But, so seductive was the quality of Sims’s voice that it would have been rank treason in the eyes of any Englishman to place it on a lower plane than that of Mario11. In plain words, Reeves ruled the roost for nearly fifty years. Joseph Maas12 died before he could really challenge the great idol of the people, and Davies did not make the same appeal.

I recall hearing Ffrangcon Davies in his early professional day, but there are those still living who remember him as a curate. This is a story related to me by a mutual friend. The Rev Ffrangcon Davies had promised to help a vicar by singing a duet at a church bazaar with a lady he had not previously met, another amateur singer, a Miss Charlotte Thudichum, daughter of a famous London physician. Years after they met again, for they were both in the cast for the first performance of Sullivan’s Ivanhoe: he as Cedric and she as Rebecca. I recall them both as singers of great distinction. Ffrangcon Davies did much to forward the modern art of singing, and when he wrote his famous book, The art of singing 13 a stirring preface was added by Elgar.

Sims Reeves lingered in our conversation as the great tenor himself did on the stage. In Mr Fagge’s opinion, Reeves was the actual source of that bother at a recent Promenade concert. After ‘Sound an alarm!’ some ill conditioned fellow exclaimed loudly, ‘He’s left out the crescendo'. Sims Reeves had that crescendo cut out of the band parts years and years ago.

Mr Fagge told me that the idea for the London Choral Society came to him after reading an article in the Frankfürter Zeitung. It said, ‘England has a composer and doesn’t know it’, a phrase suggested by the performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius at the Lower Rhine Festival. Fagge was then conductor of the Dulwich Philharmonic Society, but he wanted a body more centrally situated, with the ambition at least to be among those who represent London, the capital of the Empire. The first season opened with a performance of Sullivan’s Golden Legend by a choir of less than two hundred. Then membership increased, and with further rehearsals both choir and conductor found their fame sealed when Gerontius was sung at Queen’s Hall.

Rumours of their quality had been noised abroad, and the house was sold out as soon as the concert was advertised. This became a habit, and was most marked when an Elgar work, sacred or secular, was in the programme. Unfortunately, the music of other modern composers did not bring similar financial encouragement, and a string of novelties resulted in a train of losses. However, Nil desperandum and all that: the flag has been kept flying, and now the London Choral Society is again under weigh to repeat its first success of thirty years ago with a performance of that same work, Sullivan’s Golden Legend.

This is not a sketch of Arthur Fagge, but I must mention his other work at Coalbrookdale, where he conducts a flourishing choral society: and at Shrewsbury, where they have festivals. At one time was associated with Mr Fagge a capable young man named Adrian Boult, at a festival across the border organised by the late WH Leslie.

  1. Fagge, born in 1864, died in 1943 - Brian’s account here gives a good idea of his career. ↩︎

  2. David Ffrangcon Davies (1855-1918) is perhaps best remembered now for his friendship with Elgar. ↩︎

  3. Mario Giovanni Matteo, Cavaliere di Candia (1810-1833). once-famous Italian tenor, known internationally by his Christian name. ↩︎

  4. (1847-1886), popular English tenor with an extensive repertoire in opera and oratorio. ↩︎

  5. Sic, actual title is Singing for the Future (first published 1906). ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, October 1934, p. 16