Sunday, June 15, 2014

A chapter in our history

Extracting Mr Wolf’s new Choral Society from its mythological future

Sidney Wolf
Although we spent 2013 celebrating the 150th anniversary of our earliest choral ancestor, this year is also significant as the centenary of the present formation of the Dunedin Choral Society.  Sidney Wolf, the conductor and driving force of this new society, arrived in Dunedin at the beginning of 1903, with a formidable reputation as teacher, organist, conductor, examiner and adjudicator throughout New Zealand.  He applied for the newly vacant conductorship of the Dunedin Choral Society on arrival, but the position went to Jesse Timson, the organist at First Church.  Wolf immediately advertised his own society: a ‘first-class choir’, which, through the acquisition of a sound vocal technique, would be able to perform ‘the most modern works and also the true interpretation of the old masters.’  Wolf’s society lasted until at least 1911 and his chorus received consistently enthusiastic reviews, as did the Southern Musical Society (based at St Kilda) which he took over in 1909.  The Dunedin Choral Society found itself haemorrhaging both members and audience, and was wound up in May 1914 after 18 months of dormancy.

Wolf began recruiting for his new ‘Dunedin ChoralSociety’ in June 1914.  Although it took the name of the old society – and within a year was commonly referred to as a reconstitution of it – it was an entirely separate body, with a new style of organisation and very different musical standards.  It was unquestionably Wolf’s – not the committee’s – society; the committee’s role was to support him, and admission to the choir was only by his acceptance on audition.  Like his first society, excellence in performance, not the education of either members or the public, was the single primary aim.

One hundred years on, the idea of professional musical directorship, an auditioned choir, and high standards of performance of a variety of music seems quite normal, and it is easy to suppose that the Choral Society simply continued in the path which Wolf had set.  The reality has proved quite different however, and the cyclical periods of poor administration, low musical expectations, and indifferent leadership seen in the earlier versions of the Society, have all recurred in the new.  In spite of a major cull of performing members in 1969 to improve standards (echoing that of 1937), even in the 1990s a proportion of this choir could not read music, and there proved to be no effective mechanism for dislodging incompetent singers from its ranks.  Extinction has come extremely close at times.

While some of the threads of the last 50 years have been beautifully laid out for the historian’s inspection; others have proved to be very tangled indeed.  Most of the documents after 1980 have not been deposited in the Hocken, and although they came to me in dated files, none of the files marked from before 2003 proved to bear more than a chance resemblance to the label below the level of the first two items.  Sorting, listing, and in many instances dating some 5000 documents has been a time-consuming business, as has marrying undated supporting documents to the correct set of committee minutes on contextual grounds.  But as with the earlier years, this work has allowed a sense of the real History of the Dunedin Choral Society to emerge; without it, the later part of the History would be as much myth as the early part was when I began.

By Dr Jenny Burchell
Researcher and author of the choir's history book (in progress).

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