Monday, December 17, 2012

Messiah in Dunedin - The First 50 Years

The discovery of gold at Tuapeka in May 1861 transformed the small provincial town of Dunedin in every respect. With the arrival of as many as 1200 people in a single day new demands were created for entertainment, as well as for accommodation, and for urgent improvements to the already creaking
(or non-existent) infrastucture. Although the majority of the immigrants were prospectors and therefore transient, a good proportion were business opportunists who settled in Dunedin with the expectation of the sort of cultural activities they had been used to.

Public music in Otago had hitherto been almost non-existent due to obstacles ranging from lack of performance venues to lack of actual music, via lack of performance experience or leadership. There were almost no even semi-professional musicians before 1858, and few amateurs with the experience - or the confidence - to set anything up. A correspondent agitating the subject in the Otago Daily Times in 1862 commented:

That there is amateur musical talent in Dunedin there is no doubt, and it only requires a choral society to develop such talent, and the day may be not far distant when “Handel’s Oratoria,” “The Messiah” besides
good secular music, will be performed by the Dunedin choral society.

The Dunedin Musical Association was formed after further correspondence, but gave only one ‘miscellaneous concert’ in May 1862, before collapsing in January 1863 from the combined effects of lack of rehearsal space, poor administration, a shifting population, and an inability to attract female membership. But in late 1863 two new choirs were formed within days of one another. The driving force behind one of these, the Philharmonic Society, was George R. West, a former Cambridge chorister, now instrument and music-seller, and organist; the choir met in the Assembly Rooms over his Music Warehouse in Princes Street. Messiah was a logical first choice of repertoire for a society aiming to specialise in large-scale works as it was by now staple fare for choral societies and church choirs throughout Britain. It is clear that the expectation was that the members would own copies. At the first rehearsal on 31 October, under the conductorship of W. Haydn Flood - who had newly arrived in Dunedin and was soon to become Organist and Choirmaster of St Joseph’s Church - five choruses from Messiah were rehearsed with, as Dunedin’s Daily Telegraph reported, ‘a precision and accuracy which...was a source at once of amazement and gratification’.

It was immediately decided to perform the work, and after a mere eight weeks of rehearsals the first Otago performance of (selections from) Messiah was given on Christmas Eve 1863 in the Oddfellows’ Hall, with accompaniment on the St Paul’s Church harmonium, ‘a powerful double-manual’ instrument, played by Mr W.H. Harrison, although Flood accompanied some of the arias. The choir numbered about 52:

the tenors and basses preponderating, the altos, as usual, being very much in the minority...’ but nonetheless the performance was enthusiastically received, the choruses being given ‘with a firmness and precision highly commendable’. (Daily Telegraph)

At Christmas 1864 the whole work was presented for the first time, this time at the Wesleyan Church in Dowling St and under George West’s conductorship. As in the previous year, it had been hoped to muster an orchestra, but in the event the performance was accompanied by a single violin and a Broadwood piano, lent by Mr West. Due to a series of unexpected circumstances the planned 1865 Christmas performance was postponed to March 1866. This - again with harmonium accompaniment - proved to be the Philharmonic’s last concert containing a single work; following West’s resignation in June 1866 the Society efforts deteriorated into a series of recycled miscellaneous concerts, and in late 1867 it ceased to function.

Although Messiah was not performed as an entity in the next few years, it was probably the most ubiquitous single source of repertoire in Dunedin. The 1860s was a period of intensive building of churches of all denominations; the urgent need for fund-raising was met by concerts in which choruses and solos from Messiah were apt to purpose in both content and availability. With the formation of a new Dunedin Choral Society - again driven by West - in 1871, however, Messiah regained its integrity, appearing as the third concert given by the new Society. This time accompaniment was provided by a semblance of an orchestra. Thereafter the work became pretty much an annual fixture; in 1877 the Society gave two performances at different venues, and in 1878 it was given by the Choral Society at Knox Church (completed in 1876) for the first time.

The 1871 performance was described in reviews as ‘complete’, and subsequent performances were at least substantially complete, though in the performances under the conductorship of Benno Scherek in the 1880s only Parts 1 and 2 were given, ending with the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus. By this time the Society was again in decline, and was declared dormant in May 1888. No Messiah was given that year, and preparation of the 400-strong choir for the music in connection with the NZ and South Seas Exhibition which opened in November 1889 occupied Dunedin’s singers for the preceding seven months to such an extent that no
other major performances were attempted.

In 1890 a performance was given by the Dunedin Musical Association, and in 1891 - it having become unthinkable to have Christmas without a Messiah - a performance was organised by Miss Jennie West, the daughter of George R. West, and a very competent organist, and music teacher. Her reminiscences record the recruitment of singers from the church choirs, and advertisement by nocturnal fly-posting (which had to be removed within 24 hours when the legitimate advertiser threatened her with a summons). The performance was given with a ‘good orchestra’, but also with ‘a row of professional musicians standing at the back of Garrison Hall with score and pencils noting down any delinquencies of mine or the soloists’! The performers numbered 200, and the last trains to Port Chalmers and Mosgiel were held back until 10:30 pm to take the audience home.

Following Jennie West’s example, the 1892 performance - again given by a specially-assembled choir - was directed by Raphaello Squarise, and it was performed at Knox Church in 1893. In 1894 visiting musicians gave performances in August and again in October (to a much diminished audience), but it was not heard at Christmas. In 1895 St Paul’s Cathedral choir and Mornington Presbyterian Church choir joined forces for a performance at St Paul’s after separate rehearsals.

The Choral Society was revived in 1897, but it was St Paul’s Cathedral choir who gave Messiah at Christmas that year, the Choral Society having determined to perform Elijah in December. In 1898 the annual Christmas performance of Messiah finally became the ‘property’ of the Choral Society. In the early years of the twentieth century the performance was usually held in the week before Christmas - several performances were even given on Christmas Day itself. Various features were advertised to attract audiences; in 1907 the orchestra would number 28 performers, in 1909 the Choral Society was ‘assisted
by members of various choirs from Dunedin and the suburbs’, and in 1912 a ‘Chorus of 300 voices’ was advertised. The performance of 1904 was notable for non-musical reasons, however, when a portion of the staging on which the choir was standing collapsed about a third of the way through the performance. Fortunately there were no serious injuries, and the concert continued after some discussion, and a break to re-arrange the singers on the platform. The reviewer noted that the performers remained a little on edge.

By Dr Jenny Burchell

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