Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Empire Cinema, WW2 and Sir Malcolm Sargent!


In May 1939, Malcolm Sargent went on tour in Australia, conducting their National Symphony Orchestra. Sargent had been in talks with ABC, an independent Australian broadcasting corporation, and after he’d guest conducted a series of concerts and written a report on the future of Australian music-making, ABC asked him to return on a more permanent basis. He’d only been there about six weeks when Britain declared war on Germany. Ironically, on the day war was announced, he was conducting a performance of Britten’s Belshazzar’s Feast, a choral work about war and conquest. Sargent’s son, Peter was sure that if war hadn’t been declared, Sargent would have taken his whole family to Australia to live. ABC tried to persuade him to stay until the war was over, but the outbreak of war made Sargent think, and his sense of honour meant that he asked to be relieved of his duties so he could return home to Britain. ABC refused his request, and he had to conduct about 16 concerts before he was able to travel home to Britain, and arrived on 27 November 1939.

Apparently, English life hadn’t changed much, despite the fact that the country was at war, and Sargent was able to conduct many one-off concerts. But, by the summer of 1940, war had come a bit closer to home, as Hitler turned his attention to an invasion of Britain, sending bombers over British cities. However, the Royal Air Force was too powerful for the Luftwaffe and the threat of an invasion passed, although the Blitz continued. The areas attacked tended to be near ports, or manufacturing areas.

Just before the outbreak of war, the government had started an initiative (the Council for the Encouragement of Music CEMA), to take the arts to factory workers and to arrange for musical performances that were affordable for ordinary people. A number of Britain’s large orchestras performed such concerts, and were pleased to help boost morale. However, factory workers were not always keen on the classical music on offer to them, so in 1940 there was a need for someone to make classical music more popular.

One of England’s most well-known dance band leaders of the day, Jack Hylton, approached Sargent’s orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, to undertake a 3-month national tour, which would involve performing twice a night in music halls, mostly in big industrial cities in the North and Midlands. His aim was two-fold: To raise public spirits, and to boost the popularity of record companies. In America, some classical musicians had already been taking advantage of the new broadcasting medium and were quite revered, however, this wasn’t yet the case in Britain.

Jack Hylton reassured the manager of LPO that the orchestra wouldn’t have to play with any music hall acts, but that they did need a flamboyant conductor with a sense of entertainment: Malcolm Sargent was the obvious choice, because as well as being an orchestral conductor, he was also interested in lighting and staging, and he had also been broadcasting popular programmes on the BBC. Two weeks after being asked, Malcolm Sargent gave the first of the Blitz Tour concerts, at the Glasgow Empire on 12 August 1940. This concert really was the start of the attempt to take classical music to the masses, and seems to have worked as the Empire was full, the cheap seats having been sold mostly to workers from the dockyard.

The programme Sargent presented that evening comprised some of the more popular classical pieces, and the audience was most appreciative and it is often claimed that these “Blitz Tours” became part of the war effort.    


Ghost sign on the side of today's Odeon in Cattle Market.

Now, I’m hoping I’ve piqued your interest about where all this is going and what this has to do with Loughborough, but I suspect you’ve already guessed that Malcolm Sargent came to the Loughborough Empire cinema and conducted one of his Blitz Tour concerts! Moreover, a friend and I actually found a concert programme from one from of these London Philharmonic Orchestra concerts that Malcolm Sargent conducted!




What a joy! The programme was a simple fold-out A5leaflet, containing programme notes for each of the pieces being performed. As we already know, these concerts were set up with a view to raising spirits in the industrial towns of Britain, and to bring classical music to a new audience. It is wonderful to learn that the concert included Dvorak’s Carneval Overture, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Mozart, Delius’s Walk to the Paradise Garden, and the Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 by Grieg which filled the first half of the concert, while the second half was filled with the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony in E Minor. Each half would have lasted about 50 minutes.
 
The front and back of the concert programme

The middle of the concert programme with programme notes
 
Isn’t this all so exciting? However, in my efforts to find out a bit more about this concert, I trawled through the local newspapers of the day and found an advert for the event.
 
Loughborough Echo 30 July 1943, p.1. The prices are: 7/6, 5/-, & 2/6
 
And then, joy of joys, I found a couple of reviews! But wait!! Both reviews report that on the afternoon of the concert Malcolm Sargent was indisposed and never made it, his conducting role being undertaken by Warwick Braithwaite instead! Such a shame, although I do expect that Braithwaite was an excellent conductor too!
 
Review from the Loughborough Monitor, August 5th, 1943, pg.3
 
And this it the text of the review from the Loughborough Echo, Friday August 6th, 1943, pg.3: 

London Philharmonic Orchestra
“The London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Jean Pougnet, gave an excellent programme at The Empire Cinema on Sunday afternoon. Dr. Malcolm Sargent was unable to conduct owing to indisposition and his place was taken by Warwick Braithwaite.*
 
The programme opened with Dvorak’s “Carneval” Overture, the brilliant, rhythmic character of which was much appreciated by the large audience. A feature of this item was the excellence of the percussion instruments, cymbals, timpani and tambourine, all of which helped to mark the strong rhythm, together with the persistent figure of the cor anglais, which stressed the melody.
Mozart’s Serenade Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, was perhaps the most popular item of the programme. Written for strings only, its effect was soothing and melodious, as Mozart always is.
 
The intermezzo from “A Village Romeo and Juliet” by Delius employs more instruments than the Mozart number and abounds in fragments of melody that seem to float about with but little decision. The work is characteristic of Delius, and a perfect diminuendo was produced at the end.
 
“Peer Gynt” Suite No.1 showed Grief to advantage. Once again rhythm was predominant and the ever-popular “In the Hall of the Mountain Kings [sic]”was excellently given. It was noticeable that in one of the pianissimo passages the crowing of a back-yard rooster in the neighbourhood could clearly be heard.
 
Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, in E Minor, concluded the programme and showed together with what had gone before, Mr Braithwaite’s complete control of the orchestra, whose light and shade throughout were delightful.”
 
M.R.
 
*Henry Warwick Braithwaite was a conductor from New Zealand who studied at the Royal Academy of Music and spent most of his career in Britain, particularly conducting opera. He played a part in the film “Battle for Music” which documents the plight of the LPO before and during the war.  
Of course, I’m now wondering about the identity of the Echo’s music critic: Who was M.R.? 
The Odeon during its life as the popular Curzon.

 

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