History: The Interregnum 1953-60

We come now to a period which may be called the Interregnum because it spans the years (1953-60) between the conductorship of Arthur Lawrence and that of Richard Stangroom, who has already been our conductor for twelve years. It was an unsettled period in that during the seven years we had four conductors (five, if we count Frank Cook’s triumphant leadership at the end of the 1953-4 season). If we say that the choir maintained its quality over the period, two reasons may be given. The first was the standard of achievement which had already been attained. The second, perhaps a result of the first, was that we were able to attract conductors of very high quality. There was never any lack of candidates, and on each occasion the sub-committee appointed to recommend a successor had some difficulty in choosing the right man.

The first choice, appointed on a temporary basis at the end of October, 1953, was Leonard Hancock, a brilliant young man who had been chosen to conduct at Covent Garden the first performance of Vaughan Williams’ "Pilgrim’s Progress". Mr. Hancock’s first rehearsal electrified the choir, but no sooner had he taken up the work than he had to request to be released, and the search was on again before the end of the year.

Once more, after much debate, we chose a professional musician in Harvey Phillips. He had been recommended to us by Mr. Ralph Nicholson; he was a professor at the Royal College of Music and had his own orchestra. But again we ran into difficulties. Mr. Phillips lived a long way off in Kent; the winter was severe, and he often found it impossible to get to rehearsals, so that Mr. Cook, as deputy conductor, had more and more of the work to do. Finally, to our dismay, we found that Mr. Phillips could not come to the Festival.

But we had underrated Mr. Cook. Not only did he take charge, but he led us to victory at the Festival. The music was far from easy: the main work was Vaughan Williams’ "Five Tudor Portraits", the part song Kodaly’s "Jesus and the Traders", and the madrigal Weelkes’ "Like Two Proud Armies". But Mr. Cook never faltered, and we were winners by a clear ten points. We record this with particular pleasure because it was a moment of triumph for one of the Society’s most selfless members, and we were as delighted for his sake as for our own.

Again the search for a permanent conductor began. This time we appointed Louis Halsey, who was already beginning to make his way in the musical world with his Elizabethan Singers. He was with us for only two years, but his musical sensibility, and the energy and enthusiasm which he brought to his task, made our rehearsals with him a constant stimulus.

It was no surprise, therefore, that in the 1955 Leith Hill Festival, which was the Festival’s Jubilee year, we should again ‘take the Festival banner, and that (to quote our Secretary’s report for the year) Mr. Halsey’s "qualities of imagination and musicianship were more than once praised by the adjudicators". Much the same happened in 1956. We have also to record various concerts given, as had become our custom, in the local churches - chief among them a performance of Bach’s Magnificat and Parry’s "Blest Pair of Sirens" in the Methodist Church on January 6, 1955. and a Mozart Requiem, with our own soloists, in Burgh Heath Church on April 25, 1956.

At this stage we record a change, which in the event proved to be only temporary, in the Society’s arrangements for membership. Since the Leith Hill Festival allowed a maximum of fifty members in a choir to sing in competitions, it was felt that a steadily growing membership of over seventy posed extremely awkward problems for the Society’s officers. It was therefore decided to allow the full membership to fall to sixty, and to enrol new applicants as Associate Members, who would be able to advance to full membership as vacancies occurred. Well-wishers who were not singing members would become Honorary Members. This arrangement persisted until the Society once more became a Surrey County Council Evening Class in September, 1964, when the Associate Membership had of necessity to lapse. Honorary Membership remained, to the increasing benefit of the Society.

It was with the greatest regret that we learned in 1956 of Mr. Halsey’s intention to resign his conductorship owing to pressure of work and of other musical commitments. We had a high regard for him, and believed we had made a friend. That this was indeed so was proved by the interest Mr. Halsey has shown ever since in the choir’s progress, and by his attendance whenever his engagements permit at our Annual General Meeting.

As it was, we were once more in the wilderness seeking a guide. There were again many candidates, but none of whom we felt certain. At this point Dr. Cole, always our good friend, came to our assistance and recommended to us Mr. (now Dr.) Derek Holman, who at that time was Sub-Warden of the Royal School of Church Music at Addington Palace. Mr. Holman became our conductor at the beginning of the 1956-7 season.

Again we found that we had made a most fortunate choice. Mr. Holman’s experience before he joined us had lain mainly in the field of church music, so that in a sense he was exploring with us. But we realised very soon that he was a musician to his finger-tips, at once sensitive and firm in his handling of the choir, and with a sense of humour which added enormously to the enjoyment of his rehearsals.

We need not comment on our Leith Hill work during Mr. Holman’s conductorship except to say that it was of a high standard, and drew from one of the judges the remark that "this choir owes much to its vital direction". More interesting, from our present point of view, were the various extensions of our activities during these years: concerts at St. Andrew’s Church. Cheam, at Croydon Parish Church, and at Addington Palace. We began to feel that the rehearsal time in our restricted September-April season was not enough for all we had to do, and instead of our informal summer groups we began, in May, 1958, a short season of post-festival rehearsals which became a permanent extension of our work. It enabled us not only to prepare ahead but also to explore, to our great enjoyment, music outside festival and concert requirements.

In August, 1958, Dr. Vaughan Williams died. It would be superfluous to add here to the many eloquent general tributes which have been paid to his memory, but we are perhaps entitled to speak as ordinary choir members of a festival to which he gave unstintedly of his time and energy. If he was the greatest man many of us have ever known at close quarters, he was also perhaps the humblest, in that rare sense in which humility is entirely lacking in self-consciousness. To us he was a high priest in the service of his art: never too busy to come to rehearsal with us, utterly absorbed in his task of revealing what music meant to him, and, above all, eager to be one with us in the ever-widening search for that meaning. As Isidore Schwiller, for many years leader of the L.H.M.F. orchestra, was heard to say, "V.W. always finds something new". More especially in his conducting of the St. Matthew Passion he made us fellow-seekers with him. In Michael Kennedy’s "The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams" there is a passage which sums everything up:

"There is little doubt that in the twenty-three performances of the St. Matthew Passion and the twelve of the St. John Passion which he gave in Dorking he found the greatest musical pleasure of his life. Not only was it Bach’s music, it was the type of music-making that he loved best: the devoted amateurs and the enthusiastic professionals joining together for the sheer joy and inspiration of performing a sublime masterpiece."

It is not the least of Dr. Cole’s services to the Leith Hill Festival and its choirs that he has constantly sought to preserve the devotion to this work which his great predecessor inspired.

For four happy years we continued our work with Mr. Holman, and then, in 1960, he too had to resign his conductorship because of pressure of work. Soon afterwards he emigrated with his family to Canada. We are glad to think that he met there with the continued success to which his outstanding gifts entitled him.

So once more we were in search of a conductor. We owe it to Mr. John Huw Davies and to Mr. Frank Martin, Trinity College colleagues, that we were able to appoint Mr. Richard Stangroom.

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