1880s

Conductor trouble

Frederick Spark

Frederick Spark

The Festival Committee was dominated for many years by its energetic secretary Frederick Spark, brother of William, who sang with the Chorus. In 1879, he was amongst those who had become exasperated by Michael Costa’s imperious attitude. It was decided to replace him in time for the 1880 Festival. Spark suggested Arthur Sullivan, others suggested Charles Hallé, and Costa still had plenty of adherents. There were three votes at a meeting in December 1879, which resulted in an invitation to Hallé; but he replied that he wanted to bring his Manchester orchestra with him, which upset the Committee because they reasoned that the Manchester players could not be as good or prestigious as the ones from London who had played at the 1877 Festival. Hallé was deeply offended.

There was another meeting, on New Year’s Day, when another vote was taken, which resulted in an invitation to Costa, with certain conditions attached:

The committee also desire to know if you will undertake to conduct the works which will be selected by the committee, and will furnish for their approval a list of the band.

Michael Costa

Michael Costa

Costa was furious. How dare they! Spark sent an invitation to Sullivan, the only candidate left. There was, however, lingering suspicion on the committee that Sullivan might try to dominate them. Spark told this to Sullivan, explaining that there was considerable resentment when Costa had strongly objected to Beethoven’s Choral Symphony at the last Festival, and that it was, in consequence, omitted from the programme. “Bach’s works were also opposed by Sir Michael, though we did succeed at last in getting the Magnificat done,” he said in a letter to the composer. Sullivan accepted the invitation, and his appointment was announced, to jubilation in most quarters. A local columnist remarked:

There is one point, however, in the election of Mr. Sullivan about which I am particularly pleased. It is the fact that for an English festival we are to have an English conductor. Too long have we in this country bowed down to foreign talent, even when it has been far inferior to English talent.

This is a view with which Sullivan himself agreed: a few years later he was extremely put out by the appointment ahead of himself of the foreigner Hans Richter to conduct the Birmingham Festival.

In 1892, George Bernard Shaw reviewed The History of the Leeds Musical Festival by Joseph Bennett and Alderman Frederick Spark, which he described as “amusingly frank”:

The Leeds committee-men do not always cut a very dignified figure in its pages. When Charles Hallé treated them politely, reasonably and unassumingly, in a thoroughly artistic spirit, they immediately proceeded to insult him, and let him know that his Manchester orchestra was not good enough for Leeds – that they were accustomed to a first-rate article from London, conducted by the great Costa. When Costa treated them with contempt, sneered at their ignorance, personally insulted those who dared to argue with him… and demanded a hundred guineas more for his services than Hallé, they grovelled before him, and only fell back on Sir Arthur Sullivan when their Neopolitan tyrant finally refused to have anything more to do with them…Down to 1877 the majority of the committee never got beyond the primitive notion that a great musical event was one at which Tietjens sang and Costa conducted…it was not until she died and he repudiated the committee that Leeds at last found out that familiarity with The Messiah, Elijah and the overture to William Tell, was not the climax of nineteenth-century musical culture.


Dvorak in Leeds

Antonin Dvorak

Antonin Dvorak

St Ludmila was a Bohemian duchess who converted to Christianity in the ninth century, the grandmother of St Wenceslaus, the good king whose footsteps in the snow were followed by his page. Antonin Dvorak was impressed by the high standards of English orchestras and choirs, and was pleased to accept the commission to write an oratorio for the Leeds Festival.

The text for St Ludmila was provided by the poet Jaroslav Vrchlicky on a suitably national theme at a time of unrest and demonstrations, when the Czechs were incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Dvorak worked on the oratorio at home in Vysoka and travelled to Leeds in October 1886 to conduct the first performance. There was great excitement when he arrived, and the oratorio had an enormous success. Dvorak wrote home to Bohemia:

I am still in the greatest state of excitement, partly the result of the remarkable performance of the orchestra (120 players), chorus (350) and soloists of the first rank; and also on account of a magnificent ovation on the part of the public. The enthusiasm – this English enthusiasm – was such as I have not experienced for a long while! I confess I have never before been so strongly moved, nor so aware of the flutter of excitement around me at the conductor’s desk as after the first and third sections. At the close of the performance I had to bow my thanks again and again in response to a tempest of applause and the calling of my name. Then I had to speak a few words of praise in English, heartily congratulating the orchestra and chorus. Again the audience broke into tempestuous applause, waved their handkerchiefs and shouted my name. I heard that at Ludmilla’s aria, “O grant me in the dust to fall”, which the famous Albani sang divinely, the public was moved to tears.

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