The Fleet Street Choir

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Recent remarks I made about the wisdom of reviving the old enthusiasm for English choral singing have brought me a bundle of press-cuttings concerning the Fleet Street Choir — Fleet Street, where enthusiasms are kindled daily. These cuttings are from Swedish papers reporting the recent tour of the choir. Real surprise was rampant, especially when it became known that the visitors, though professional journalists, were only amateur choralists. It is a fine experience an music to listen to a well-trained choir — male, female, or mixed — in unaccompanied music. My own abiding memories are the Manchester Orpheus Male Voice Choir, the Blackpool Ladies Choir, and a Hanley Choir.

Unfortunately, I was not born early enough to have ever heard the Henry Leslie Choir2; but the choirs I have heard singing unaccompanied choral works by Brahms, Elgar and the old English madrigalists disarmed all criticism. One occasion I was present at Morecambe when Cornelius’s lovely eight-part vocal Nocturne was sung3. I heard half a dozen splendidly trained choirs in succession, each bringing a different conception. Atkins, Corder and McNaught were there, sitting seemingly unmoved; but actually, so McNaught told the audience, Corder had been brought to tears. Less affecting but memorable were performances I heard of Brahms’s Dirge of Darthula; and at one time it was that Elgar’s Feasting I watch and After many a dusty mile must be heard at every concert.

Performances of unaccompanied choral works must have had a wonderful influence on Elgar, as we see in his setting of the poem by Coventry Patmore known as The River. This is the finest thing of its kind Elgar ever wrote, and that perhaps is the reason why it is rarely performed. Again showing Elgar’s real interest in unaccompanied choral music, I remember that on one occasion he engaged the Hanley Cauldon Road Choir4 of fifty voices to sing before an invited audience of his friends and critics at Hereford. Elgar himself chose the music.

From this background of a world of music thirty years ago, I rejoice that London has again a choir capable of dealing with this attractive and sensitive kind of music, and that its members are amateurs like its earlier prototypes. The Swedish critiques I have before me are in agreement on the matter of interpretation, and for this the conductor Mr TB Lawrence, is responsible. I have one suggestion to make: if this choir is intent on ambassadorial service abroad, it might be politic to include in its programmes works by composers native to the countries visited. Germany and Switzerland have most original music written for unaccompanied voices, and it may be that there are Swedish composers no less gifted and skilful.

  1. Henry Leslie (1822–96) was a great Victorian choral conductor and — to judge by the few examples I have seen — by no means a bad composer. ↩︎

  2. This was the 1905 Morecambe Festival; Cornelius’s ‘Nocturne' is O Tod, du bist die kühle Nacht; this was a favourite memory of Brian’s, and recurs frequently in his writings. ↩︎

  3. Founded and conducted by Brian’s friend John James. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, December 1935, p. 205