1870s

Michael Costa

Michael Costa

The Triennial Musical Festival was supposed to happen again in 1861 but did not, because of personality clashes and strife between the Choral Society and the Madrigal and Motet Society. William Spark later wrote about this, comparing it with the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. The second Festival had to wait until 1874. James Broughton, the conductor of the Leeds Philharmonic Society, founded in 1870, became the Festival Chorus Master. Michael Costa was appointed as Festival Conductor, a position he would hold until 1880.

Costa was at the height of his career, an all-round composer who had achieved fame and recognition at home and abroad. When his oratorio Eli (premiered at the Birmingham Festival in 1853) was performed in Stuttgart in 1869, the year of his knighthood, he was presented with the Royal Order of Frederick by Charles, King of Württemberg, and he had also collected decorations from sovereigns in other German States, Turkey, Holland and Italy, his country of origin. He worshipped royalty, and was reported to have removed his hat in a snowstorm as a member of the royal family passed, bowing to the ground and sneezing furiously. As Director of the Italian Opera in Covent Garden he had promoted the works of Meyerbeer. Verdi admired him. He was a disciplinarian with a passion for accuracy, but was also dogmatic and used to being obeyed without question. In Leeds he raised hackles, not entirely in connection with his rescoring of Handel’s Messiah with a part for cymbals.

George Alexander Macfarren

George Alexander Macfarren

Mendelssohn was prominent in the Festivals of 1874 and 1877, as he would be many times in the future: St Paul and Hymn of Praise in 1874, Elijah and The First Walpurgis Night in 1877. Therese Thietjens was one of the soprano soloists in 1874. One of the operas she had performed in during her earlier career in Germany and England was Robin Hood, by George Alexander Macfarren, along with tenor John Sims Reeves. All of them were in Leeds simultaneously. Madame Tietjens was greatly favoured by Costa, singing in many performances of Messiah and Elijah. As her career progressed, she became as famous for her size as for her voice: in 1892 George Bernard Shaw remembered how her performances of Lucrezia, of Semiramide, Valentine, Pamina and her Countess had established a sort of belief that all these characters must have been extremely overweight. Macfarren’s oratorios St John the Baptist and Joseph were performed in 1874 and 1877, the latter as a premiere.

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