Raising the Tone at the Corn Exchange
Contributed by Steve Woods
2009 has been a year of many historic anniversaries, several of them marked by publishing fanfares and no expense spared exhibitions. In the music department, one barely-noticed anniversary has been that of the composer Louis Spohr (1784-1859). Musical fashions are in some respects as mysterious as fashions in dress, in art, in architecture. Styles change, reputations rise and fall, often without any any plausible explanation. For nearly eighty years after his death J S Bach was regarded (if noticed at all) as a musical footnote, until rescued from obscurity by Mendelssohn. The case of Spohr, while obviously less sublime, does serve to illustrate the lottery of artistic reputation. His chamber works and the splendid clarinet concertos remain popular with performing musicians, and CDs of this part of his output are readily available. The large-scale works however, in particular the operas and oratorios on which his considerable nineteenth century reputation rested, are now seldom performed and even finding old recordings is a challenge. Yet for much of that century his oratorios were as popular with concert-goers as were Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah,and nowhere more so than in England.
Spohr was a young violin prodigy, who began composing, and then touring Europe in his early twenties. His performances of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven cemented his reputation as the greatest German violinist of his generation. In 1820 he accepted an invitation from the London Philharmonic Society to appear as a soloist and conductor for the season. Between 1839 and 1853, five further triumphant visits to England followed, and during his stay in 1843, the influential critic J W Davison hailed him as ‘the Great Spohr - the immortal while yet living’. After Mendelssohn’s death in 1847, Spohr was generally viewed in Germany and England as the outstanding contemporary representative of the classical tradition. The Morning Chronicle (2 May 1848) described him as ‘the first composer of the day, without a possible rival’.
In the decades following his death, Spohr’s reputation was gradually eclipsed by that of other modern composers. As a new century dawned, his star was clearly on the wane in metropolitan circles, but it still shone brightly enough to captivate provincial audiences, and local choral societies in particular. Thus it is no great surprise that for its Annual Concert on 26 April 1900, Sleaford Choral Society should have chosen Spohr’s ‘The Last Judgement’, to be staged at the Corn Exchange [J043]. What is more surprising is the scale of this production in what was still a small market town. The committee was able to mobilise an orchestra and chorus of a hundred performers, mostly local stalwarts, but supplemented by several visiting soloists from Manchester, Sheffield and other towns.(One or two of the popular classics which formed the second half of the programme had to be pruned to allow some performers to catch the last train home). The pianoforte was supplied by Mrs Limming of the ‘Boston Road music emporium’. Tickets, ranging in price from three shillings to sixpence, could be obtainedfrom Mr Morton’s Gazette office, where a plan of the Hall could also be inspected. Doors opened at 7.15pm and the performance began at 7.45.
Carriages could be ordered for 10pm. Any further particulars could be obtained from the ‘experienced and courteous’ Hon.Sec.William Spyvee,at his shop in Southgate. In its lengthy report of a triumphant concert, the Gazette tells us that a number of the principals ‘took the audience by storm’ and were sometimes obliged to give encores. At the end, ‘a delightful evening’s entertainment’ prompted a standing ovation. Its final verdict on the event was that ‘the members of the Sleaford Choral Society deserve the heartiest praise of all lovers of high-class music in our town and district for the splendid bill-of-fare presented to the large and fashionable audience…We cannot truthfully deny the allegation that Sleafordians are, as a rule,not enamoured of classical music, and the efforts of the Choral Society to elevate the musical standard of our town,and thus in some measure combat the pernicious effects of the prevalent music-hall ditties and other topical vocal absurdities, are worthy of the highest commendation’.
The Gazette may have had its finger on the cultural pulse. On the same evening as the Corn Exchange concert, the Ruskington Conservative association was presenting A SMOKING CONCERT in the Assembly Rooms, adjoining the Shoulder of Mutton. There would be featured vocalists from Nottingham, Lincoln and Boston, but the main attraction was to be an evening of Haydn. In this case, ‘the world-renowned Prestidigitateur’ Professor Karl Haydn. As it happened, Professor Haydn would also soon honour the Sleaford Conservative Association with his presence at the Marquis of Granby in Northgate. Here again,in addition to the feats of conjuring, the evening included songs and recitations with Mr A.D. Jordan at the piano,and concluded with Auld Lang Syne and the National Anthem at 11pm, at which time, presumably, the carriages could be summoned.