History: 1936-52 H. Arthur Lawrence

In October 1934, Mr. Barkham resigned, and the Society appointed as its conductor Mr. H. Arthur Lawrence. He was, we learned, the son of T. B. Lawrence, founder and conductor of the Fleet Street Choir, and we soon realised that this young man, slightly built, dark, modest and quiet in manner, was a sensitive musician in his own right. He was to remain our conductor for nearly twenty years; by his patient work he raised the Society to the position it has held ever since as one of the leading Leith Hill choirs. In particular, as befitted the son of his father, he was a born madrigalist: during the twelve occasions on which he led us at Leith Hill* we won the madrigal banner seven times, and only once did we fall below second place. He was the amateur in the finest sense of that much misused word: one who loves what he practises. He identified himself with us completely, as also did the gifted musician whom he married and who is now our President; he inspired a remarkable depth of affection in the members of the choir, and his untimely death in 1953 was a heavy blow to everyone who knew him.

He was not long in making his mark on the Society. Behind the quiet manner lay a firm insistence on standards of attendance and application; slackness he refused to tolerate, either in himself or in his choir. It was clear also that he wanted the Society to be more than a mere festival competitor. The main work at Leith Hill in 1936 was Verdi’s Requiem, and on June 7, greatly daring, we made the first of the Society’s three attempts to cope with this work ourselves—though it has to be admitted that we left out the Offertorio, the Lux Aeterna, and the more taxing solos. It was very much a "do it yourself" Verdi, with the choir providing the soloists. We had the aid of a small orchestra, and our total expenses were £7 lOs. Od.

Meanwhile we went steadily on with our Leith Hill work, and in 1939, for the first time, we headed the Advanced Choirs section, beating the renowned Epsom by a single point. It was to be the last Festival for eight years.

The story of the war years has to be pieced together from the choir minutes and from the recollections of those who remained in Banstead. The Institute was commandeered at the outset, though it was released not long after, and the only way in which the Society could exist was to enrol itself as a County evening class which met in the School hall in the High Street. The piano there, like most pianos in public halls, was impossible, but Mr. W. H. Carpenter, a member of the Society, was also in charge of evening classes, and a suitable piano was soon found. Rehearsals went on as usual until the beginning of air raids made evening meetings impossible; thereafter, ,during the period of danger, they were held on Saturday afternoons. It says much for the spirit of the Society, and of its conductor who had to travel from London, that there was no break; people turned up in spite of nights made sleepless by bombardment, long spells of extra duty, and rehearsal rooms made miserable by shortage of fuel. In the records of those years there is only one direct reference to the war; in answer to a complaint of non-attendance made in 1943, members of the Committee offer as explanations "war-time conditions of strain" and the "discouraging state" of the places where they have to rehearse.

In Dorking, relatively quiet compared with the immediate surroundings of London, music went on throughout the war years under the guidance of Dr. Vaughan Williams, with depleted choirs forming a temporary organisation calling itself the Leith Hill Festival Choir. The Dorking Halls had been commandeered, and the concerts and recitals took place in St. Martin’s Church. Weekly rehearsals were held, and some of our members managed to find their way there in spite of petrol shortage and all the restrictions of war-time travel. "Judas Maccabeus" and "Elijah" were sung in 1940, the "Messiah" in 1941, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1942, Parry’s "Job" in 1943, the "Hymn of Praise" in 1944. By 1945 a fully representative body of Banstead singers were able to play their part in a performance of V.W’s "Benedicite" and Handel’s "Saul". We are not likely to forget what happened. Seeking to do honour to V.W. by making sure that we knew the "Benedicite" thoroughly, we had left ourselves little or no time to prepare "Saul", and the fact became only too apparent at the final rehearsal. V.W. was furious. Had we failed with his own work we should doubtless have been treated to a few typical observations on our shortcomings, but to neglect Handel was unforgivable. The unfortunate sopranos who sat in the forefront of his wrath quailed as he glared at them over the top of his spectacles, and an indignant "I suppose you've brought the right oratorio" hardly added to their peace of mind.

The storm passed as quickly as it had arisen—it was always so with V.W.—but we had learned our lesson, and the concert itself brought generous praise.

Most significant of all these concerts, for the Festival’s future and for ours, was the St. Matthew Passion of 1942. This supreme work had always been a favourite with V.W. He had conducted a Dorking performance of it with massed choirs in 1931, and in 1938 there was another performance with 400 singers from the Leith Hill choirs. In 1942, in the more restricted space of St. Martin’s. two performances had to be given so that all those who wished to hear it could be accommodated. Since then the Passion has been a regular feature of our musical life, revealed to us in all its depth by one of the greatest musicians of our time. To some of us it remains the crown of the musical year.

Meanwhile in Banstead rehearsals went on. We hear of a performance in 1942 of Constant Lambert’s "Rio Grande" with a two-piano accompaniment; of Parry’s "Pied Piper of Hamelin" sung in 1943 with a small orchestra paid for by our conductor; of frequent rehearsals of the St. Matthew Passion, one of them attended by V.W. himself in spite of black-out difficulties, and of various concerts given in aid of Warship Week, Anglo-Soviet Week and other war-time money-raisers. Strange things happen at such times. The choir found itself on one occasion—surely a blunder on someone’s part—singing madrigals to an audience of wounded soldiers. For the first half of the concert the hall was packed; after the interval the Commandant and his family sat politely in the front row—alone.

Gradually the war drew to an end, though it was 1947 before the full Leith Hill programme of competitions and concerts was resumed; and we remember that we then tied for first place with Dorking Oriana. But 1947 is notable for us also because in that year we had the second of our memorable strokes of good fortune. Various members had served the choir well as secretary for short periods, but continuity was lacking. In September 1947 Mrs. Elizabeth Reid was elected to the secretaryship which she was to hold for twenty-two years.

It is no discourtesy to the previous holders of the office to say that the change quickly became apparent. The minutes of the meetings thereafter have a fullness and clarity which enable the reader to know exactly what is happening in the Society. The annual reports which were read at the Annual General Meeting became not a formality but an occasion of mingled precision and wit to which members looked forward keenly. The detailed efficiency with which the Society’s affairs were conducted became known and valued not only among our own members but among the Leith Hill Festival officials and everyone with whom we had dealings. Day-to-day problems of personality and temperament beset every choir; they were either foreseen, so that they never appeared, or dealt with by an unfailing mixture of kindness and tact. It became increasingly clear that we had the ideal secretary, who combined organising ability with an unusual gift for personal relations. If we claim, as we may, that the Banstead Musical Society is a happy and united choir, we owe it to Elizabeth Reid at least as much as to any other person, and no history of the Society would be complete without a tribute to her achievement.

The story of the choir from 1947 until 1953 is one of steady progress. Our sight-reading, which was liable on earlier occasions to collapse in spectacular ruin, became at least passable. We won the madrigal banner at Leith Hill in every one of those years except 1950; in the final aggregate Dorking Madrigal, under the guidance of Dr. Cole, held us at bay until 1951, but thereafter we enjoyed the first of our two long periods of unbroken success, which was to last until 1959. In December 1948 we held the first of our "Come and Sing Messiah" rehearsals, which brought so many friends to join us in an unofficial evening of singing, and which were to yield an ever-increasing sum for donation to the hard-pressed funds of the Leith Hill Festival. Not content with a season which ended with the Festival in April, we quite spontaneously formed three groups of members who met in the summer months to sing for their own enjoyment; one of these even christened itself the Amphion Singers, and gave a separate concert consisting of Brahms’ Liebeslieder and Moeran’s Songs of Springtime. As a choir we sang items from our Festival music in various local churches; some of us had the privilege of taking part in V.W.’s 80th birthday concert in 1952, and so became acquainted with his enchanting "Oxford Elegy". In 1953 we dared to sing the St. Matthew Passion at Nork Church; we were invited to Chelsea to sing Haydn’s Imperial Mass and Parry’s "Blest Pair of Sirens", and when a special Coronation Service was held in Banstead, it was our conductor who took charge of it.

Then, suddenly, disaster. Early in 1953 Mr. T. B. Lawrence, who had been our President ever since the death of Capt. Acland in 1943, died after a courageous fight against a cruel illness. And in August of the same year Arthur Lawrence, our conductor, also died, to our inexpressible dismay and grief.

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