SHEFFIELD CHOIR’S TOUR. SKETCH OF DR. COWARD’S CAREER.
The career of “the master chorus master,” as Dr. Henry Coward, the conductor of the Sheffield Choir, is called, is one of the most extraordinary in the annals of modern music. He was a son of the landlord of a Liverpool hotel, and becoming an orphan at an early age was put to work at eight years in one of the cutlery factories in Sheffield. For years he was engaged in the work of making knives. During that time an incident occurred which changed the whole current of his life. On the wall of one of the shops he saw a picture of some old castles that had been dismantled by Cromwell. “How was it that Cromwell could do all this?” he asked a senior fellow-workman. “He used his head. It’s those who use their heads who make their way in the world,” was the reply. The remark made a strong impression on the boy, and he determined to be one of those who used their heads.
He set to work on a rigid course of self-improvement. Reading he taught himself by spelling out the advertisement placards in the streets on his way to work. Then he showed a strong predeliction for music, and learned violin playing and singing from his Sunday school teacher. Next he quit artisan work and qualified himself to be a school teacher, a work that he carried on for many years. Meantime, the passion for music began to assert itself. He learned tonic sol-fa system, and, after a brief association with a primitive little choir he started one of his own. Music and general culture went hand in hand. All the money that the schoolmaster could save he devoted to music. Having matriculated, he gained first his degree of Bachelor of Music, and after that his dearest academic prize, the degree of Doctor of Music–both at Oxford University. No one needs to be reminded that for this degree a man must prove himself a first-rate composer, as well as versed in all the technicalities of the Divine art.
His compositions alone would have made him famous had he not preferred to devote the greater part of his days to making the North a nest of singing birds. The little choir became a large choir. It became a more skilful and artistic choir. Sheffield did not know that it could sing until he made it try and showed it the way. Of course, the material was there, but for the training a master is to seek. Dr. Coward found his voices, and he taught their owners how to use them. He steeped his circle in music. He made them and a wide general public understand what the man who wrote the words had in mind; he made them masters of the composers’ secrets. He became famous as a lecturer on musical subjects. To all but experts the history of music, its meaning and message, had been a thing not to be understood of the people. But he made it plain and human. He told the story’ of the composers, the story of all the forms of English music, in its widest range and in the romantic local forms, in which it is allied to our imperishable folk-songs. This is the way to bring home music to the masses.
The choir grew and grew. The city of steel began to ring with richer harmonies than all her resonant anvils had ever rung out. People began to talk about the muscial spirit of the place. Fifty thousand sweet voiced children carolled joyous greetings to Queen Victoria; and upon the visit of King Edward and his Queen the famous Sheffield choir sang their way to the Royal hearts, and the King sent to Dr. Coward, their conductor, one of those genial, charming letters which one realised that he really felt.
Soon the Doctor had many irons in the fire. His encyclopaedic knowledge of music was turned to account for journalism. He became musical critic for one of the big provincial dailies, and attended all the festivals, and wrote critiques and articles which, his readers held, were not excelled in any other paper at the time. But that work had to yield place to the claims of music itself. He became conductor of the Sheffield Musical Union, of the Orchestral Society, and built up the great Festival which, almost at a bound, took rank with the greatest and most ancient of all our musical symposia.
Spreading fame necessitated his extending his sphere of operations. Sheffield was not permitted to monopolise his energies. Other great cities clamoured for his teaching and guidance. He had, in truth, to undertake the instruction and conductorship of great choirs at Huddersfield,, Leeds, Newcastle-onTyne, and Glasgow, while-unless memory be a treacherous jade-the queen of Midland choirs, the Nottingham Philharmonic, now has him to guide the sweetness and sonority of its singing. Twice he has taken his incomparable Yorkshire choir to Germany, and what say the critics there? They swear that they did not know what choral singing really could be until these Yorkshire songsters appeared before them. This from Germany, the ancient home of music. The members of the choir were honoured by their German hosts as if every man and woman of them had been of regal rank. Nothing was too good for them. Every drawing-room was open to them; every sight worth seeing, every pleasure that could be enjoyed. I carried a beautiful message from home to Canada, where they met with an enthusiastic reception. The only people who do not like the Yorkshire choir are the soloists, the great guns who are accustomed to awe provincial choruses into humility. They don’t do that when Dr. Coward has trained the chorus.
The fact is that so superb is the work of his choirs that it is the choruses which fascinate the illustrious critics who go to the festivals from London, Manchester, and the other big cities. There is nothing else quite like it. The keynote is enthusiasm superimposed upon real talent and training. To be a Coward chorister you must have a voice, and you must be able to sing at sight anything that ever was written for the human voice. If you cannot do that you cannot be a member of the festival choir; you must join the society and learn under the great master’s teaching. You may fancy yourself a premier bass or tenor, or an unexceptionable soprano or contralto. No matter, every year you will have to pass the same test as the humblest. You will sing behind a screen while impartial judges, who are ignorant of your identity, sit on the other side and decide your fate.
In addition to their superlative qualities as bodies of singers, what a democratic organisation his choirs are. In Sheffield you will find a millionaire ironmaster trolling away in company with one of his cutlers or grinders; in Glasgow a great shipowner will be blending his tones with a man who works for him as a rivetter. Among the female voices you will find representatives of the oldest aristocracy of the commercial north, sandwiched between the daughters of cutlers, or lassies actually from the mill and factory. It is what they can produce in the way of music that counts, not what their social position is. Their enthusiasm they get from their master. He would put nerve and spirit into a barrel organ.
When they are taking up some new work he gives them a lecture on it. When they did “Omar Khayyam” he impressed upon them the necessity of their imbibing the spirit of the East, the sad and dreamy fatalism of the Oriental spirit. In the “Dream of Gerontius” his realistic methods were specially reflected in the chorus in which the fleeting soul is harassed by snatching, snarling devils. You could hear those devils snarl, you could feel their vicious snatches. The effect was superbly devilish. In the “Messiah” you get effects from his choir such as you have never previously heard or attempted to produce. In the chorus “He Trusted in God,” the Coward chorus is not merely a careful interpretation of the notes upon the stave; you get the very spirit which Handel meant. That chorus is a diabolical taunting such as a savage, mocking mob would utter.
There is no restraint or repose in Dr. Coward. He is on springs both in rehearsal and at performances. He plays on his choir as on an instrument. At the rehearsals they laugh heartily at and with him. He does not mind it in the least; they catch his fire, and that is all that matters. Dr. Coward is 60, looks 50, and feels 15. He is blessed with a numerous family, and to them he has transmitted a generous measure of his own talents. They are extraordinary boys and girls. Nearly all of the boys are at Oxford or Cambridge. They have won their way there entiiely by scholarships. And the girls are just as brilliant. The talent of the younger generation is like his own, spread over music and the whole range of learning. There is no man of whom the north is prouder than of this genius and good fellow, who for all his learning and degrees is to her plain Harry Coward.