Lin’s Personal Exploration of Hastings’ Musical History

These are extracts from a dissertation.

In these recession-hit times, a traveller to Hastings, walking from the railway station past boarded-up shop fronts towards the fire-damaged pier and on to St. Leonards, might be surprised to discover the town’s elegant and fashionable history. It was the fourth largest resort in England and Wales in the mid nineteenth century, with Assembly Rooms that boasted concerts given by the most internationally celebrated singers of the day. The wealthy and cultured came. The Hastings Municipal Orchestra was founded and the Hastings and St. Leonards Vocal Society was formed (later to become The Hastings Philharmonic Choir, on the authority of Sir Adrian Boult). Hastings was soon boasting lavish winter concert series: in 1920, there were 42 concerts in the month of January alone.

The White Rock Pavilion opened in 1927, the first concert venue in the country to be built with acoustics expressly designed for musical performance. The Hastings Municipal Orchestra made recordings there for Decca, under conductors, Basil Cameron and Julius Harrison, with singers Frank Titterton (tenor) and Olive Groves (soprano). On the occasion of the White Rock Pavilion’s ten-year anniversary, the Evening Argus printed the following quote from Mr. Norman Gray, Entertainments Manager:

‘Its (The White Rock’s) name has become known not only throughout England but also on the Continent. In Hastings, for £3.2s, the season ticket holders get 300 concerts! No town gives as many concerts per week as Hastings.’

In common with many formerly thriving seaside resorts, Hastings suffered economic decline in its recent history, but it appears now to be experiencing a musical renaissance. Its Composers’ Festival was inaugurated in 2012, and its Musical Festival now boasts a revitalised and prestigious International Piano Competition. When I retired to Hastings, I took up singing lessons and joined the Hastings Philharmonic Choir in complete ignorance of its illustrious musical heritage. That heritage is slowly being brought back to life, thanks to the efforts of the choir’s current Conductor, Marcio May da Silva, who also formed and conducts the professional Hastings Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Local Studies Room at the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery houses a small archive of programmes and documents referring to concerts given in the town, dating back to the earliest days of the elegant, purpose-built, Burtons’ St. Leonards resort that lies to the west of the more recent White Rock Pavilion.

The details below set out a chronological record of the composers, 1830-1938,  whose works feature in these documents, together with the names of singers who performed them. Although there is a gap in the archive over the period of World War I and the records stop altogether in the run up to World War II, it is plain to see how the celebrated Italian opera composers Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti took the limelight in the early years. Later, their stars faded, to be replaced by those of Wagner and Verdi. English composers surfaced in the twentieth century.

1830 Rossini, Malibran Miss Oury, Mrs Farce

1833 Rossini, Bellini, Castelli, Fioravanti, Mozart H R Bishop, Miss Waters, Signor Arigotti, Signor Guibilei [sic], Signor De Begnis

1836 Bellini, Spohr, Donizetti H R Bishop, Madame Degli Antoni, Signor Begnis, Signor Curioni

1837 Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini Miss Nunn, Madame Pasta, Signor Curioni, Madame Grizi, Signor Dutari, Signor Vercellini, Fanny Woodham, Signor Giubilei, Signor Brizzi

1841 Mozart, Bellini, Handel, Donizetti, Rossini, Zingarelli Miss Novello, Mr Novello, Madame and Signor Lablache, Madame Castelli

1842 Rossini, Mozart, Bellini Signora Pacini, Mademoiselle Ostergaard, Signor Nigri and Signor Pazzi

1866 Mozart,Weber, Mendelssohn, Rossini, Meyerbeer (not included)

1897 Mendelssohn Ethel Winn, Jessie King

1928 Besley, Wagner Carrie Tubb, Frank Titterton

1931 Blow, Purcell Margaret Balfour, Dennis Noble

1932 Beethoven, Wagner, Schubert Elizabeth Ryan, Freda Townson

1933 Elgar, Dvorak, Strauss, Puccini, Gounod, Mozart, Rossini, Schubert Freda Townson, Elena Danieli, Enid Cruikshank, Isobel Baillie, Joan Cross

1934 Mozart, Saint Saens, Wagner, Verdi, Delius, Bizet, Sullivan, Quilter Isobel Baillie, Enid Cruickshank, Mary Blyth, Elena Danieli, Alice Moxon, Oda Slobodskaya

1935 Mozart, Wagner, Sibelius, Rachmaninov, Verdi, Coleridge Taylor, Quilter Laelia Finneberg, Eileen Cusack, Noel Edie

1936 Verdi, Quilter Janet Hamilton-Smith

1938 Wagner Florence Austral, Vera de Villiers

In terms of performance practice, some idea of contemporary vocal style in the 1830’s is provided in the Hastings archive, through the press reviews for Miss Woodham that are quoted in a programme note for her concert in October 1837:

‘Of Miss Fanny Woodham it may be safely pronounced that report has not said too much. Her talent and qualifications are great, and they are of a peculiar order. Her voice is absolutely beautiful – a pure soprano – intensely passionate in its expression amidst the very repose in which she veiled it, and yet with a compass in the higher notes which is very rare. The flexibility of her voice is as remarkable as its purity and compass; the divisions steal, as it were, on the ear, seem to come of themselves and cost her no effort. Her pleasing figure and beautiful and expressive countenance added greatly to the effect produced by her delightful singing.’

Of the Giuditta Pasta who came in 1837 it is reported that she took up poses copied from Raphael in her theatre performances, where she excelled at characterisation, though she was more subdued in the concert hall and in church. In reference to Clara Novello, a contemporary account in Watson’s Art Journal (1867, p.182) describes her as possessing:

‘A voice at once full and delicate, every note as true as on a keyed instrument; the noblest delivery, a style perfectly simple and unaffected, and without a thought of display but for the music and the composer.’

Mozart achieves an unbroken and continuous presence in concerts over the period of the archive and beyond. The H.R. Bishop listed there made versions of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni for the English stage in 1818 and 1819, whilst the Hastings Philharmonic Choir has performed and continues to perform Mozart’s music, most recently his Requiem, his Coronation Mass, and his Great C Minor Mass. The Novello family, mentioned in the Hastings archive, published an English edition of Haydn’s Creation in 1847; the Hastings Philharmonic Choir still use Novello editions when they perform that piece. Novello also published the first English edition of Bach’s St. John Passion in 1872; again, the Hastings Philharmonic Choir still uses that version.

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