It must have been inspiring to be part of the choirs singing in the glorious construction of glass and metal on the Northwood Heights, known as
the Crystal Palace.
In 1936 a festival of Labour Choral Union and Co-operative Musical Associations, (then embracing some 44 choirs and five orchestras) came
together there to "co-ordinate workers' musical activity."
So when it was proposed at the WMA AGM in 2016 that we hold an event to celebrate our eighty years
of music making, it seemed appropriate that this take place in the form of a gathering of choirs.
The venue was the Marx Memorial Library, which was once a school
for impoverished children of Clerkenwell. in 1892 the Twentieth Century Press occupied what by then been labelled as 37a and 38, and expanded into 37 by 1909 - thereby returning the site to single occupancy for the first time since its days as a charity
school. The Twentieth Century Press was found by the Social Democratic Federation as printer for its journal Justice and was the first socialist press in Clerkenwell. An early benefactor was William Morris, who guaranteed the rent of the Patriotic Club to
the Twentieth Century Press. During its time in Clerkenwell Green the Twentieth Century Press produced several of the earliest English editions of the works of Marx and Engels, and remained in the building until 1922.
Lenin was exiled in London and worked in the building from April 1902 to May 1903. During this period he shared the office of Harry Quelch, the director of the Twentieth Century Press, from there he edited and printed the journal ISKRA (The
Spark), which was smuggled into Russia. The office is still preserved and open to visitors. In 1933, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Karl Marx, a delegate meeting comprising trade unionists, veteran socialists belonging to the Labour Party
and Communist Party, and representatives of the Labour Research Department and Martin Lawrence Publishers Ltd., considered setting up a Permanent memorial to him. That year also saw the Nazis in Germany burning books. In these circumstances the meeting
resolved that the most appropriate memorial would be a Library. Thus the Marx Memorial Library and Workers School (as it was then known) was established at 37a Clerkenwell Green that year. Study classes, held in the evenings, became the distinguishing
feature of the Workers’ School, which was divided into faculties of science, history and political economy.
Choirs from Birmingham, Saturday
24th September 2016
This memorable event, organised was held on Saturday afternoon and was attended by a real cross-section of members and supporters past and present.
First we were honoured to be addressed by
Rachel O’Higgins, one of the daughters of Alan Bush, who co-founded the WMA in 1936 along with Will Sahnow and the composer Rutland Boughton. The Association soon attracted the support of other committed left-wing musicians, including the young Aubrey
Bowman who was a student of Alan.
The WMA Summer School was set up in the 1940s and became an important tool in passing on knowledge and ideas, with some of the most distinguished British singers, composers, conductors, collectors and scholars
of folk music, orchestral and brass players and jazz musicians sharing their skills and expertise with students from all sectors of society. Recognition was paid to Joan Horrocks for the many years she spent as organiser of the school.
explained how the WMA Singers were formed and mentioned in particular their visit to the 1947 International Youth Festival in Prague. During that visit they were taken to the site of the village of Lidice, which had been destroyed with all its inhabitants
as an act of reprisal by the Nazis. Alan had been inspired by this event to write the song ‘Lidice’ which has subsequently been performed both by the WMA singers and the Birmingham Clarion Singers.
What Rachel modestly did not point out
was that her father Alan ranked amongst the best and most important of British twentieth-century composers but was overlooked because of his honestly and outspokenly expressed socialist principles. It was therefore a particular triumph, as Rachel told us,
that the Keynote Operatic Society was formed with the express objective of mounting a production of ‘Wat Tyler’, an opera written by Alan with libretto by his wife Nancy. This undertaking, largely organised by Topsy Levan, took two years to come
to fruition and culminated in a memorable performance at Sadlers Wells Theatre conducted by Stanford Robinson employing professional soloists and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with the City Philharmonic Choral Society (including some WMA members).
The production ran for three nights (June 19th, 21st and 22nd 1974), playing to large audiences from London and elsewhere.
In particular Rachel mentioned the lament of Wat Tyler’s widow Margaret towards the end
of the opera. Rachel felt that this particularly expressive and affecting aria voiced Nancy’s own anticipated feelings of desolation and loss, should she herself be widowed. In the event although Nancy was younger than Alan, she was to die first. (It
was clear to anyone who met either or both of them that they were completely devoted to one another ).
Notably we were reminded that Nancy herself was a consummate lyricist and translator who collaborated with Alan and other composers on
a number of important vocal pieces.
After Rachel’s talk there was a varied and informal programme including traditional and contemporary campaigning songs from the socialist choirs Strawberry Thieves, Birmingham Clarion Singers and Red and Green
Singers, who led us in some rousing community singing.
Individual performers were Maria Caravanas who gave us an exquisite rendering of Aubrey Bowman’s setting of Willie Gallacher’s poem Dartmoor (dedicated to Aubrey’s wife
Lalage), accompanied by Keith Sparrow who also played some of his own impressive variations on the tune of The Diggers’ Song ‘(You Jacobites by Name)’, Tim Martin singing three of his own songs of social comment and Marion and Steve
Harper giving us two songs by Ewan McColl and Si Khan. Elsa Sothern, a WMA veteran, recalled the times when the WMA Summer School always included an evening of old Time Music Hall and sang ‘Riding on top of a Car’ with enthusiastic audience participation
in the choruses, again accompanied by the stalwart and amenable Keith Sparrow.
Drinks, an informal bring-and-share buffet and the reunion of friends old and new made for a festive and comradely atmosphere. The WMA birthday candles were lit and the cake
cut to a spirited round of The Internationale. The company represented a real cross-section ranging from members who have been involved in the WMA for many decades to some of those who have only just heard of the WMA having attended the Summer School for the
first time this year.
It was interesting that when it came to attempting to light the cake candles, not one person in the gathering had a match or cigarette lighter
about their person. Times have certainly changed. For the Better.