What links Michael Morpurgo, Elgar and the Royal Manchester College of Music in the First World War?

3a00045rPhoto credit: Marie Brema taken in New York in 1897  by A. Dupont. Available at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a00045 The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

The answer is the College’s director of the opera class Miss Marie Brema. Brema was the only person, besides Brodsky, to feature in the College’s regular advertisments in the Musical Times. She was worthy of mention having been an operatic superstar before she retired and started teaching at the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1912. Born in Liverpool in 1856, she was the first British female singer invited to perform at Bayreuth as well as performing all over Europe and the USA, and privately for Queen Victoria. She was also chair of the Society of Women Musicians during the war 1917-18. She was a great champion of opera performances at the College even when she was faced with a shortage of male singers and at times opposition from other professors.

The Annual Report of 1917 comments that “The increased attention given opera in musical education is a sign of the times, inasmuch as it reflects the rapidly growing public interest in the lyric stage.” It was also probably due Marie Brema’s determination and success. For example, the operatic performances given in March 1917 presented scenes from Orpheus, Lohengrin, and Cavalleria Rusticana which were arranged and staged by Marie Brema, and she also provided the wigs and the costumes. The programme for this performance stated “Owing to the absence of Men Students, certain alterations have been necessary.” But the performances were a success. The Annual Report goes on to report that the scene from  Orpheus was so well received that Mr O’Mara from the O’Mara Opera Company invited Marie to direct her students in his production of the opera at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester. Their performance was “several times repeated during the season…and upwards of twenty students took part in it.”

She was clearly a force to be reckoned with and fought her corner well. At a meeting of the board of professors on 9th March 1915 in her absence, they agreed that the “Midsummer term is the least suitable part of the Session for such performances.” A week later when Marie was present at the meeting, the minutes read “after hearing Miss Brema’s explanation…the Board thinks it desirable to modify the resolution passed at the last meeting”!

So what connects her to Elgar? She already knew the composer having sung in the first performance of The Dream of Gerontius in 1900. But their ties became closer during the First World War. The composer’s piece Carillon was written in 1914 setting the poem written by the Belgian poet Emile Cammaerts, in response to the German invasion of his homeland. Carillon is a recitation with orchestral accompaniment and was first performed in the Queen’s Hall, London 7th December 1914 with Elgar conducting and the recitation performed by the poet’s wife and the actress Tita Brand, who also translated the original French words into English. Tita Brand was Marie Brema’s daughter, making Emile Cammaerts her son-in-law. Marie Brema also performed the piece in the concert she organised at the college after the war had ended, “In Celebration of Peace” on Tuesday December 10th 1918 at 7 pm. Miss Brema was accompanied on the piano by one of the Belgian refugee students, August Ardenois after the College’s Roll of Honour had been read.

Finally, what is the connection to Michael Morpurgo, other than that he has written well-known books about the First World War, War Horse, famously adapted for the stage and screen and Private Peaceful? Well, Michael Morpurgo’s mother was called Kippe Cammaerts, daughter of Tita and Emile, so his great-grandmother is Marie Brema.

Katherine Seddon