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100 Years Ago: ‘A new choral problem’!

100 Years Ago: ‘A new choral problem’!

Just recently I came across the January 1920 issue of The Musical Times and found myself captivated by the ‘Choral Notes and News’ column written by William McNaught (1883–1953), a greatly respected critic and writer for the Morning Post, the Manchester Guardian and London Evening News, prior to becoming the editor of The Musical Times in 1944. It offers a compelling snapshot of choral singing just after the First World War, shedding light on the works being enthusiastically presented by local societies at this time, and the issues that choirs were facing.

It comes as no surprise that many choirs featured the works of Elgar in their concerts, but performances of music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor were almost as numerous. Hiawatha’s Wedding-Feast is top of the list but McNaught also enjoyed A Tale of Old Japan, welcoming its melodiousness.1 He commended Woking Musical Society for imaginatively pairing a performance of Land of Hope and Glory with an Ave Maria setting by Arcadelt (1507–1568), and the Royal Choral Society for presenting Balfour Gardiner’s News from Whydah, a ballad for chorus and orchestra, with words by John Masefield.2 But full marks must go to the Newport Choral Society for heroically presenting not only Cavalleria Rusticana but also excerpts from Parsifal in the same concert!

McNaught’s comments were in keeping with the times: praise, when given, was elegant but restrained (‘a useful standard was maintained’, ‘pleasing’, ‘the choral singing did credit to Mr Frederic Fertel’s conductorship’), and criticism was hinted at rather than expressed overtly (‘an orchestra provided adequate accompaniment’). But he was far less reticent in a feature article, stating that ‘a new “choral problem” seems to have arisen for the bewilderment of choral conductors – the problem of man-power’. The problem – the scarcity of tenors – may well resonate with some choirs even today.

McNaught went on: ‘It is of course nothing new to see the women vastly outnumbering the men, but the brave little group of tenors that used to battle successfully with superior odds tend now to dwindle hopelessly out of the combat, and the basses follow closely behind in this reduction of personnel.’ The military metaphor might seem insensitive given the time, but McNaught was acknowledging that the problem owed much to the huge numbers of men killed in combat during the war. However, his solution was abrupt and to the point. Rather than calling for a recruitment drive for male singers, he advocated the reduction of sopranos and contraltos – ‘a drastic weeding-out would do no harm in certain cases’ – to even the numbers up, even if sentimental matters might dictate against such a policy. In order to achieve artistic satisfaction it was necessary to have a proper balance between the voices, and choral singing would acquire from this its ‘true dignity’. McNaught concluded, ‘think of the wonderful things that could be achieved with a choir of twenty sopranos, twenty altos, twenty tenors and twenty basses – if only conductors knew’. A hundred years later many choirs still face an imbalance of numbers in the ranks (and having as many as twenty tenors might even now be regarded as a luxury), but most appear to circumvent the ‘problem’ very successfully without recourse to McNaught’s draconian solution.


1 Scandalously, despite hundreds of thousands of copies of the work being sold, Coleridge-Taylor and, after his death in 1912, his family received no royalties for Hiawatha. The public recognition of this injustice was a significant factor in the formation of the Performing Right Society in 1914.

2 News from Whydah was due to be performed in the 1940 BBC Proms season but the event was cancelled owing to the likelihood of an air raid during the concert. The piece still awaits its Proms debut.

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