“If it weren’t for Gerontius, I wouldn’t be here.”
These startling words by LCS tenor Kath Geraghty begin a remarkable story of historical and family links between Kath, the composer Edward Elgar and his choral masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius, and on the 17th of March, Kath will be one of the 150 singers from LCS to perform the work in the Great Hall of Goldsmiths.
And in 1911 – exactly 107 years to the day before our performance – more than 200 singers from across Yorkshire boarded the RMS Victorian at Liverpool docks. Philip Chignell, a 39-year old church organist – and a bass in what is today the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus – and 19-year old pianist and teacher Katie Netherwood – an alto in the Huddersfield Choral Society – were among their number. They were setting out on what was billed as “a world tour”, since described as “one of the most remarkable events in British choral history”. Philip and Katie didn’t yet know each other, but the trip would change their lives… and guarantee Kath’s existence.
The six-month tour covered nearly 34,000 miles, with 134 concerts in more than 70 towns and cities across three continents. A highlight of the tour was to be the Canadian premiere of The Dream of Gerontius, conducted by its distinguished composer. Elgar however was ill; and on the 17th of March he wrote to Alfred Littleton, the Chairman of his publishers Novello: “I have an awful chill and I see no chance of going to Canada”.
But 11 days later he was in the middle of what he called “a dreadful crossing” of the Atlantic and sent these words to his daughter Carice from RMS Mauretania, using one of the dreadful puns of which he was so fond: “Funnely enough, ‘ok’!”. And a few days later he finally arrived at Toronto: “here in ice and snow, brilliant sun and piercing wind and longing for home”.
Nevertheless, the choir’s director Henry Coward noted that “the impressively beautiful Massey Hall was crowded far beyond its normal capacity of 3,200″ and Philip noted in his diary “there is not the slightest hitch in the performance, which goes smoothly and delightfully from beginning to end”. He added that “Sir Edward is so quiet and unostentatious, he commands the respect that a work like Gerontius demands”. Coward also noted that the chorus was “reverential to a degree in the subdued passages, [and] exceedingly descriptive and dramatic in the Demons’ chorus – Elgar said he had never heard such ‘devils’”.
The composer remained on the tour, conducting the choir in several American cities. The Buffalo Courier surprisingly, and one assumes mistakenly, reported: “Big audience expected to hear singers at Convention Hall tonight – Sir Edward Elgar to sing”!
The composer and the choir then went their separate ways – Elgar sailed home while the singers travelled on via Hawaii and Fiji for more extensive tours of New Zealand, Australia and finally South Africa. They were to perform Gerontius a total of fifteen times, along with music by Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, Handel and Mendelssohn.
But it was not until the choir reached New Zealand that Katie featured in Philip’s diary and even then, only rather obtusely. Nevertheless, they grew closer and closer: Katie was introduced to members of Philip’s family who had emigrated to Australia, and less than eleven months after the choir returned to England, they were married. They were to have four children, the youngest of whom – Ruth – became mother to Kath and herself sang in the Royal Choral Society under Malcolm Sargent.
Her daughter, granddaughter to Philip and Katie, writes that “whilst I don’t know what Philip would make of my being a ‘lady tenor’, I think he would be very happy to be there on the 17th – so long as we get our Demons devilish enough!”
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