Manchester’s newspapers during the First World War contain a number of advertisements from private music teachers, despite references elsewhere to the falling numbers of potential pupils as the war progressed. Several of them, particularly teachers of singing, would also maintain small choirs that would give public concerts, often featuring talented pupils as soloists. Perhaps more surprising today is that among the advertisements are several placed by teachers of elocution; even more unusual to us is the fact that public recitations were not only given as part of the kind of choral concerts mentioned above, but could feature as a “turn” in the many variety shows which drew crowds to venues like the Manchester Hippodrome or the Ardwick Empire.
Katherine Seddon has blogged elsewhere of Elgar’s “Carillon”, one of two pieces he wrote for speaker and orchestra as contributions to the war effort, and more specifically in response to the German ransacking of “gallant little Belgium”. They use a technique more properly known as “melodrama”, in which a text is spoken against a musical accompaniment. It’s not too fanciful to imagine that in adopting this idiom Elgar was mindful of the tradition of public recitation. “Carillon” was not slow to establish itself in Manchester’s wartime concert life, not least, one suspects, because by the middle of 1915 the city was already home to over 800 Belgian refugees and had already hosted several guest appearances by Belgian musicians – and not just in classical concerts. Carrie Johnson “a young violinist from the Antwerp Royal Flemish Conservatoire of Music”, for example, appeared at the Manchester Hippodrome in May 1915. Such mixtures of popular and “art” music in the music halls was not uncommon; the same venue the following month heard a performance of Elgar’s “Carillon” recited by the Belgian Carl Liten. Barely a fortnight later it also featured in an enterprising concert given by the Manchester School of Music. This was a private institution, based in Albert Square, offering musical tuition, and whose Director Albert J. Cross was a champion of new music. The same concert also included music by Sibelius and the first Manchester performance of Skryabin’s piano concerto. The soloist was Ethel Chapman. The reciter in “Carillon” was Gertrude Robinson, of whom the Manchester City News noted “Here again Mr. Albert J. Cross obtained good playing from his forces, and Miss Robinson’s reciting was emotional and marred only by the persistent rising inflection of the voice at the end of sentences that seems to be a convention with elocutionists”. Maybe we were wrong all along to think Upspeak began with “Neighbours”.