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. This 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.
Sir Michael Costa
Sir 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 of the foreigner Hans Richter (rather than Sullivan himself) 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.

A German view

Despite these local difficulties, a high standard of performance was achieved. In 1889 the distinguished German critic Otto Lessmann came to Leeds and reported to the Allegemeine Music-Zeitung:

I heard choral performances of greater beauty in Leeds than in any town on the Continent. The voices are so fresh; the sopranos and tenors command the high notes with astonishing facility, and the altos and basses display admirable fullness and power.

Lessmann has something to say about the finances of the Festival.  In an emergency, the Committee could draw upon a guarantee fund of over £28,000. He adds:

In the face of such liberality on behalf of a musical performance, and in view of our own miserably paltry proportion, have we any occasion, or even any right, to jeer at the sincere interest of the English in music, or even to question it?

A very different view from the traditional German one of England as Das Land ohne Musik.