Adventures with city choir on 1911 musical world tour

Reading recently in these pages of choir expeditions and tours, I wonder how many Sheffield singers would respond to the following advertisement:

Thursday, 23rd May 2019, 19:13 pm
May Midgley with a friend in a rickshaw in South Africa

“Singers wanted for an all-expenses-paid world tour, beginning next March. The itinerary will include Canada, the USA, South Pacific islands, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

“Successful applicants (via audition) will sing approximately 130 concerts during the six-month tour. A deposit of £500 will be returned in cash when boarding is completed.”

A postcard of the RMS Victorian, the ship that took Sheffield Musical Union on their 1911 world tour

When this offer first appeared, the “boarding” referred to was not o nto a Boeing 747 but the RMS Victorian, sailing from Liverpool, the deposit was £5, and over 200 singers took the opportunity of a lifetime to take part in what remains a unique event in the history of choral music. The year was 1911.

The mastermind behind Sheffield Musical Union’s World Tour began life as an apprentice knife maker in a little mester’s shop.

He ended up as the most influential choral director in the country.

In his retirement, Sir Henry Coward wrote of the Tour in great detail and his book Around The World On Wings Of Song gives a fascinating glimpse into the organizational complexities of transporting a party of almost 250 singers, soloists and medical staff on such a global marathon.

The chorus of Sheffield Musical Union outside Mappin Art Gallery, Weston Park. Image: Picture Sheffield

Coward’s reputation meant that he was in enormous demand and, apart from Sheffield, he directed several other Yorkshire choirs.

Recently-discovered letters, written home by one of the youngest musical tourists (from Bradford Choral Society) have made available much “unofficial” detail regarding the 1911 event.

In fact, the correspondence between May Midgley and her parents at 12 Oak Avenue in Bradford lifts the lid on what life was like for rank-and-file members of the chorus.

After all, the famous Henry Coward D Mus (Oxon) could hardly have been expected to comment, as May did, on the outrageous prices charged by Chinese laundries in Australia (“3d for a pair of stockings!” - £1.25 from her daily laundry allowance) or the drying of ‘smalls’ on the heating pipes aboard the (brand new) train supplied by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

A newspaper cutting of the Sheffield Musical Union choir practising on board ship in 1911, conducted by Henry Coward

What distinguishes May’s words from other extant tour diaries is the fact that her parents, Samuel and Henrietta Midgley, were distinguished professional musicians - May’s musical education included study in Germany.

While others were writing home about the Niagara Falls or seeing the aurora borealis or singing to Red Indians, seeing flying fish in the South Pacific or kangaroos in Australia, May was ready to discuss musical matters that Coward left undisclosed.

These include the disastrous start to the Verdi Requiem in Cincinnati – May described the young conductor Leopold Stokowski as “very good but he has a lot to learn”.

She was able to detect soloists mis-pitching notes and the ensuing choral chaos. A shrewd judge of character, she was unimpressed by displays of arrogance from Canadian musician Dr Charles Harriss when he conducted some concerts.

A Sydney newspaper picture of the Sheffield Musical Union 1911 tour

Since Harriss invested £600,000 (today’s money) in the adventure, he was allowed to compose new works like the Coronation Ode (“A more awful thing you never heard”).

Fortunately, May Midgley was more taken with another of Coward’s friends, Edward Elgar, who joined the tour in Toronto, conducting The Dream of Gerontius.

“I couldn’t sing the first part at all for a lump in my throat. We have all fallen in love with Elgar, he is most charming and I think he conducts beautifully”.

May’s letters demonstrate a gregarious young lady participating in the balls and receptions held in the choir’s honour (“One young man danced with me the whole evening”).

She took part in on-board entertainment, becoming deck billiards champion after coaching from bass soloist Robert Chignell. No mention of a romance there but elsewhere May tells of couples getting engaged or even, in Durban, getting married.

May Midgley’s letters (now in the archive of Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus) provide vivid social commentary on Edwardian choral societies. Choristers today will recognise problems and circumstances they have encountered on their own tours, although perhaps not on the gargantuan scale of the 1911 tour by the Sheffield Choir.

The composer Sir Edward Elgar

12 Oak Avenue – The letters of Henrietta May Midgley 1911 is available from the author: for £6.50 post free

Detail from the letterhead of a Toronto hotel on the 1911 Sheffield Musical Union tour