The founding of The London Choral Society

On 9 June 1903 the Daily Telegraph reported that:

Central London apparently is going to languish no more in a choirless state. Indeed, there is something like a rush to supply the ‘long felt want’. We have already referred to the ‘select choir’ which Mr. Henry J. Wood is organising. And now Mr. David J. Thomas, organist of St. Anselm’s, Davies-street, lets us know that he founded ‘The Central London Choral Society’ last October; while Mr. Arthur Fagge, the energetic conductor of the Dulwich Philharmonic, tells us of his intention to start a ‘Central London Choral Society, with headquarters at Queen’s Hall’, next autumn. Well, the more the merrier!1

Arthur Fagge2 was as good as his word – though dropping ‘Central’ from the title3 – for, the following month, the Telegraph carried the following advertisement:


Mr. Arthur Fagge is now prepared to receive applications from those wishing to join the above as active members. Sopranos, contraltos, tenors, baritones and basses with good voices and reading ability.
REHEARSALS will be held at Memorial Hall, Ludgate-circus, on MONDAY NIGHTS at seven o’clock from September to March next, and the concerts will be given at Queen’s Hall.
Applications (letter only) to be sent to 92, London-road, Forest-hill, S.E.4

The response was successful (with advertisements still appearing as late as September 1903, after rehearsals had begun) and Fagge’s newly-recruited choristers (many from the Dulwich Philharmonic Society)5 were clearly very able – and their conductor very effective, of course6 – for on 26 October the choir made its debut.

The formation of this new choir, at a time when, apparently, performances of choral music in London were at a low ebb, was much anticipated, prompting ‘a musical correspondent’ to issue a warning that appeared in several newspapers, against merely recycling music that had become all too typical of the genre during recent years, declaring that:

success does not lie along the way of the beaten track, and that the ‘Messiah’, ‘Elijah’, ‘The Golden Legend’, and ‘The Redemption’ are not the only works available for performance by such a body. He suggests some admirable alternatives – Schumann’s ‘Faust’, the ‘Graner Messe’ of Liszt, or the ‘Beatitudes’ of César Franck. For the sake of our better musical education, and of the proper and economical utilisation of the materials at hand, it is to be hoped his hint will be taken, and that when the new Choral Society begins operations it will be with a less hackneyed programme than usually meets one’s eye.7

Despite these admonitions, it was indeed Sullivan’s The Golden Legend which was heard at the first concert and for the second, on 14 December, Mendelssohn’s Elijah. It is perfectly possible that these works were chosen in order to allow this new choir to find its corporate voice and personality in familiar music, for in the following new year, The Dream of Gerontius, which would have been previously unknown and in an unfamiliar musical idiom, was to receive its first London concert performance8 and, subsequently, new and unfamiliar music became a stated policy of the Society.

When advertisements for the inaugural concert appeared, it was revealed that The Golden Legend would be performed with ‘Full Orchestra and Chorus of 300’. Fagge was later to repeat Gerontius, ‘which so far no metropolitan choral society has had the courage to tackle’,9 with his Dulwich choir. At the same time that he was preparing the London Choral Society for The Golden Legend, he was rehearsing the same composer’s The Martyr of Antioch at Dulwich.

It is a commonplace to say that the London Choral Society was formed in order to perform Gerontius, but this is not at all certain. It was the Society’s third concert, not its first, though, as previously suggested, the first two concerts may have been preparatory. However, the Greenwich & Deptford Observer, local to Fagge, asserted that ‘the Dulwich Philharmonic Society were selected to render the choral music at the Beethoven Festival at Queen’s Hall, last May [1903], and the success achieved, and the encouragement afforded the Society by the Press and the public, led Mr. Arthur Fagge, the Society’s conductor, to start a London Choral Society, the want of such a society having been very much felt in mid-London’.10

The inaugural concert was very well received by the press, saying of The Golden Legend: ‘Seldom has this popular work been given such a fresh and vivid interpretation. Unanimity in the scheme was a marked and very welcome feature, the chorus, orchestra, and soloists each being in absolute accord’.11 While being less enthusiastic about the chosen work, the Daily News (London) reported ‘a finished, spirited and expressive performance of the music’, recognizing that ‘the choir of the London Choral Society is well balanced, and much may be expected of this new organization’.12

The chorus was animated, enthusiastic, and, above all, intelligent. There was little straining after effect, but the words were delightfully pure and distinct. Intonation was good, and altogether such spirited and fresh and evenly-balanced choral singing was specially enjoyable in that it is somewhat rare in the Metropolis. The soloists were more than adequate. They were, first of all, in perfect accord with the general interpretation by orchestra and choir. Without distracting in the least from the several excellencies [sic] of Miss Perceval Allen, Miss Carmen Hill, Mr. Whitworth Mitton, and Mr. Ffrangcon Davies, it may be said that in this supreme point of unanimity the guiding hand of Mr. Arthur Fagge was clearly discernible. [. . .] Upon the advent of Mr. Fagge and his Society London music lovers may certainly congratulate themselves. One has always thought such choral singing was only to be heard in the northern provinces.13

Such encouraging and positive comments were almost universal – except at The Referee, whose critic ‘was disappointed in the choral singing. Evidences of careful rehearsal and, on the part of the choristers, painstaking earnestness were abundant’.14

It is true that the choir was not well balanced in vocal tone, but the precision of attack and clearness of articulation were admirable. These things are the foundation of good choral singing, but it struck me that Mr. Fagge had not yet had time to build upon it an artistic superstructure; in other words, to secure those subtleties of phrasing, delicate gradations of tonal force, and changes of tone colour which carry conviction and can alone reinstate choral singing in popular favour.15

Rather harsh and premature comments perhaps on what was the choir’s very first public performance, though unlikely to be without substance, even if on the whole there were many remarkable qualities.

Elijah followed on 14 December – ‘a remarkably fresh and vivid performance’16 – with David Ffrangcon Davies17 returning as the eponymous hero – ‘a remarkably dramatic interpretation . . . supremely artistic and full of power’18 – and he appeared again, on 15 February 1904, with Marie Brema and John Coates in The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar’s great work was effective in rescuing the choir from becoming ‘a replica of the Royal Choral Society’.19

Like London buses, however, the delayed performance of Gerontius by the London Choral Society in February 1904 (the premiere had been in Birmingham more than three years earlier, in October 1900) was to be followed very closely by two others: one conducted by Hans Richter at Covent Garden in March and another by Felix Weingartner in April!

Reviewing Gerontius, its composer, and the forthcoming London performance, St James’s Gazette20 makes the interesting observation that ‘if one could see . . . into the clever conductor’s mind, it might be that this “Dream of Gerontius” was the reason for which the Society was called into being. At any rate, it redounds to its credit that such a young Society should, at the very outset of its career, give Londoners the opportunity of hearing a most impressive work’.

The keen anticipation shown by the Press in the run-up to 15 February was fully justified, and the work hailed as ‘undoubtedly a masterpiece, and probably the only great oratorio that has been written since our ideas as to the relationship between words and music were revolutionised’.21 It was also recognized ‘that care and patience will overcome the greatest difficulties’ (this a tribute to Arthur Fagge). ‘The choral parts are very far from easy, but they were sung not only accurately but with real intelligence. [. . .] For a choir that has been in existence so short a time the performance was really remarkable’.22 There was, incidentally, ‘an immense audience’23 and the choir ‘achieved a triumph’.24 There were many more reviews expressing similar sentiments. The London Choral Society had ‘arrived’!

Two months later there was more Elgar – King Olaf on 25 April, described as the ‘first performance in Central London’, the programme (this time at St James’s Hall) also including the ‘Meditation’ from The Light of Life (Lux Christi, 1899) and five unaccompanied part- songs sung by male members of the choir.25 ‘Precise and vivacious, the chorus showed over and over again that they are able to put a great deal of colour into their singing; and this highly successful performance bringing a most encouraging first season to a close is undoubtedly a happy augury for the success of an admirable organisation which during its first season has leaped into the very front rank.’26

This had been a remarkable first season and the beginning of a long and illustrious existence. Gerontius was given again at Queen’s Hall on 24 October 1904 (another full house), on 5 December it was Walford Davies’s Everyman; and on 13 February 1905, Elgar’s The Apostles. A performance of Elijah at Queen’s Hall, slipped in on 29 November, in aid of the Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain on its 166 anniversary, was under the patronage of the King and Queen. The final concert of the second season, on 10 April 1905, comprised Elgar’s Caractacus and Frederic Cowen’s John Gilpin. On 2 May there was a testimonial concert to Arthur Fagge in Queen’s Hall at which he conducted The Dream of Gerontius yet again, and there were ‘ringing cheers’ for him at the end, which ‘indicated his popularity among his own people and with the public’.27

And so it continued, other notable ‘firsts’ being Hubert Parry’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Holbrooke’s The Bells (1906), Granville Bantock’s Omar Khayyám (1908), Coleridge- Taylor’s A Tale of Old Japan (1911), combined with works such as Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah (with the Parry) and the last part of Schumann’s Faust (with Davies’s Everyman), and so on. On 4 December 1907 in Queen’s Hall came a performance of Pompeii, ‘a dramatic vocal and symphonic poem in four parts for soli [2S,A,T,Bar,B], chorus, orchestra and organ; the libretto after Bulwer Lytton’s “The Last Days of Pompeii” by George H. R. Dabbs, M.D., the music by Beniot Hollander’,28 undoubtedly the Society’s most unlikely performance. The score contains a cautionary note from the composer, resident at 23 Westwell Road, Streatham Common!

On 1 April 1914 the Society took part in the first concert-performance since it came out of copyright the previous year (at Queen’s Hall and in English) of Wagner’s Parsifal; this was in a ‘compressed’ version but still lasted three-and-a-half hours. Nevertheless, there was a large and attentive audience. Arthur Fagge conducted.

Arthur Fagge continued as conductor of the choir he had founded until his death aged 79 in 1943, although War had effectively brought the choir’s activities to an end in 1940. He was clearly a brilliant conductor: even in these early years he was able to bring the choir to a high standard of performance, in mostly unfamiliar music, to the extent of being able to give an average of five concerts a year from the outset. A remarkable man.


1. Loc.cit., p. 7.
2. Arthur Fagge (1864-1943), born in Kent, was a chorister for five years under Thomas Helmore at St. Mark’s College, Chelsea (not at the Chapel Royal, London, as stated in Grove), and organist of several churches, and was musical director of the Albert Palace, Battersea, accompanist to Sims Reeves, the celebrated tenor, and conductor (1898-1905) of the Dulwich Philharmonic Society. He also conducted opera, for Carl Rosa and other societies, but gained particular fame for his founding and conducting of the London Choral Society. The periodical Black & White (24 October 1903, p. 20) states that ‘he believes strongly in a conductor being his own chorus-master’.
3. Mr. Thomas’s Central London Choral Society remained undisturbed, continuing to rehearse Cowen’s St John’s Eve and Sterndale Bennett’s The May Queen for its forthcoming programme.
4. Daily Telegraph, 13 July 1903, 1.
5. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 27 October 1903, 6.
6. Fagge’s local paper, the Forest Hill and Sydenham Examiner (4 September 1903, 3), reporting his initiative, referred to him as ‘the able and deservedly successful conductor of the Dulwich Philharmonic Society, [and] well known throughout this district’.
7. Holloway Press, 18 September 1903, 4 and several other newspapers.
8. This assertion is usually made, even by The Times (16 February 1904, 6), without apparent regard for the actual first performance in London, at the new Westminster Cathedral on 6 June 1903, conducted by Elgar, but with the North Staffordshire District Choral Society. The London Choral Society performance can certainly claim to be the first performance in London by a London choir, and in a secular venue. Perhaps the earlier Westminster Cathedral performance was seen more as a religious experience than a straightforward concert? St James’s Gazette, 15 December 1903, 13) referred to it as ‘the first in London under ordinary concert conditions’.
9. South London Press, 3 October 1903, 8.
10. Op.cit., 16 October 1903, 4.
11. St James’s Gazette, 27 October 1903, 18.
12. Op.cit., 27 October 1903, 16.
13. The Scotsman, 27 October 1903, 5.
14. Op.cit., 1 November 1903, 4.
15. Ibid.
16. St James’s Gazette, 15 December 1903, 13
17. David Ffrangcon Davies (1855-1918), Welsh baritone who studied at the Guildhall School of Music and made early appearances in opera but soon confined himself to concerts, at home and abroad, and lived and worked in Germany for three years. He returned permanently in 1901 and was particularly noted for Elijah, but also sang in many new works by Elgar and other British composers. He taught at the Royal Academy of Music but singing in public was curtailed following a nervous breakdown. He wrote a book, Singing of the Future, and his daughter, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies (1891-1992), originally a soprano, later achieved distinction as an actress.
18. St James’s Gazette, 15 December 1903, 13.
19. Daily News (London), 3 December 1903, 10. The Royal Choral Society was, apparently, well known at this time for its unambitious and repetitive programmes!
20. St James’s Gazette, 12 February 1904, 5.
21. The Globe, 16 February 1904, 5.
22. Ibid.
23. Morning Post, 16 February 1904, 4. The capacity of Queen’s Hall was between 2,500 and 3,000.
24. Ibid.
25. St James’s Gazette, 9 April 1904, 17. The unaccompanied pieces were Five partsongs [sic] from the Greek anthology, op. 45 (1902)
26. St James’s Gazette, 26 April 1904, 16.
27. The Bystander, 10 May 1905, 24.
28. Title page of vocal score. Benno (Benoit) Hollander (1853-1942) was a Dutch violinist, conductor and composer. He studied composition in Paris with Saint Saëns, was acquainted with Berlioz, was a member of the Auer Quartet and was an orchestra leader in London for Strauss, Weingartner and others, and professor at the Guildhall School of Music from 1887. His compositions include chamber music, two violin concertos and a symphony and his dramatic symphonic poem, Pompeii.