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‘As Much by Force of Circumstances as by Ambition’: The Programming Practices of the Melbourne Liedertafel Societies, 1880–1905

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 April 2011

Suzanne Cole
University of Melbourne


Two male-voice singing societies – the Metropolitan Liedertafel and the Melbourne Liedertafel – occupied prominent positions in the concert life of Melbourne during the prosperous 1880s. At this time the Metropolitan Liedertafel, formed in 1870, had between 80 and 100 performing members and regularly attracted audiences of over two thousand to its ‘Social Evenings for Ladies and Gentlemen’. A concert described as the ‘greatest gathering of its kind every [sic] seen in this city’, given at the recently completed Exhibition Buildings on 7 July 1881 and attended by the Princes Albert Victor and George, drew a crowd of between five and six thousand. The farewell concert given on 13 February 1882 for the Mendelssohn Quintette Club, visiting from Boston, had an audience of approximately two thousand, even though as one of the society's ‘smoke nights’, attendance was limited to men. The Metropolitan Liedertafel played host to a number of other visiting international musicians, including Henri Kowalski, August Wilhelmj, Carlotta Patti, Ernest de Munck, and, somewhat later, Sir Charles and Lady Hallé. In the early 1880s, the Metropolitan was identified as the city's leading musical society; an 1881 review in the Argus made so bold as to suggest that it was ‘the most successful association of its kind ever established here – or probably anywhere else’! This sentiment is reflected in a satirical piece in Town Talk in October 1881 in which the Metropolitan's conductor, Julius Herz, refers to himself, in a mock German accent, as ‘the subreme conductor of the greatest musical organisation in the vorld“.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2005

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1 Metropolitan Liedertafel Annual Report (hereafter MetL AR), 1894–95, locates the origins in a meeting of twelve gentlemen on 15 July 1870 in the George Hotel in Prahran. Except where stated, all archival material is part of the Liedertafel Collection held by the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne.

2 Attendance figures are given in the societies’ Annual Reports.

3 ‘The Metropolitan Liedertafel Concert at the Exhibition’, Argus (5 Jul. 1881).

4 ‘Metropolitan Liedertafel Concert’, Daily Telegraph (5 Jul. 1881); ‘The Metropolitan Liedertafel Concert at the Exhibition’, Argus (5 Jul. 1881).

5 See, for example, ‘Metropolitan Liedertafel Concert’, Daily Telegraph (5 Jul. 1881).

6 Argus (13 Jun. 1881).

7 ‘At Allan’s’, Town Talk (22 Oct. 1881).

8 The early history and German influence of the Melbourne Liedertafel (hereafter MelbL) is examined in Kerry Murphy, ‘“Volk von Brüdern”: The German-speaking Liedertafel in Melbourne’ (this issue).

9 MelbL AR, 1880–81 and 1881–82 (1880–1904).

10 MetL AR, 1886–87 (1874–1903).

11 Review of MelbL concert, 14 June 1880, undated clipping from Australasian, MelbL Scrapbook (1879–89).

12 Australasian (29 Jan. 1881). The Australasian appears to have been particularly supportive of the MelbL at this time, but the reviews in other journals corroborate the generally high standard of their performances.

13 The minute books show, however, that occasionally this target of eight concerts was not reached, due to clashes with other events, problems with venues, or budgetary difficulties. The Liedertafels also took part in a number of other musical events, including fund-raising concerts, serenades to prominent members of society and visiting musicians, and occasional events such as the performance of Kowalski's Vercingetorix. I will, however, be limiting my examination to the regular numbered subscription concerts.

14 Few printed programmes survive from the 1870s, although some data about this period has been collated from other sources. The primary focus of this article will, therefore, be on the period between 1880 and the amalgamation of the societies in 1905.

15 Unfortunately, very few programmes for the MetL smoke nights survive except for the period 1883–85, but it is clear from press reviews that these smoke concerts were almost exclusively miscellaneous throughout the period under examination.

16 Weber, William, ‘Miscellany vs. Homogeneity: Concert Programmes at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music in the 1880s’, in Music and British Culture, 1785–1914, ed. Bashford, Christina and Langley, Leanne (Oxford, 2000), 300–1.Google Scholar

17 Humorous songs, such as Genée's ‘Tea-Kettle Serenade’ and Tauber's ‘Cannibal Idyll’ were perennially popular; non-musical comic items were less common.

18 Constitution and Rules of the Metropolitan Liedertafel (Revised 17 March 1890). Harold John Felstead Business and Personal Papers, 1866–1939, Box 1, State Library of Victoria.

19 Categorization presents a substantial problem in this type of statistical analysis of data. What exactly is a part-song; when does it become a cantata, or some other larger choral form? Questions such as these are particularly problematic for obscure works for which no scores survive, and about which we have only the limited information contained in the concert programmes. In general, the broadest possible categories have been chosen for this analysis: a choral work is easier to define than a part-song. Given the large amount of data, misattribution of a few individual items is unlikely to seriously skew the data, but it should be borne in mind that these figures are intended to give a broadbrush picture of the activities and are subject to change as a result of further research and finer categorization.

20 Again, categorization of the nationality of the many obscure and forgotten composers of part-songs is difficult and broad categories have been chosen, rather than an attempt at fine distinction.

21 See Kerry Murphy's article ‘Volk von Brüdern’ for a more detailed analysis of the German part-song repertory of the Liedertafels.

22 The Argus reviewer praised the MetL for a smoke-night programme that ‘brought out the fine talent of English part-song writers. It is well for those who speak English to read up the history of part-singing, and they will find that many of the oldest and most of the best of part-songs were written to English words, and in such sweet and quaint and now unusual harmonies that their archaic beauties charm all hearers whenever they have the chance to become acquainted with them’ (26 May 1884).

23 The MelbL appeared undeterred by this criticism: this work remained firmly in their repertoire and was performed ten more times over the next decade. This reviewer also advocated madrigals as a potential solution to the problem of finding appropriate male-voice repertoire, a solution that was never adopted.

24 Age (7 Apr. 1903).

25 Keiley, Henry, ‘The Tendency of Popular Taste in Music, and How to Elevate It’, Victorian Review (1 Mar. 1880): 824.Google Scholar

26 Argus (21 Sep. 1880).

27 The Ninth Symphony had previously been performed at the ‘First Melbourne Music Festival’ in February 1882, and in 1872 by the Royal Philharmonic Society. See Carne, W.A., A Century of Harmony (Melbourne, 1954): 80Google Scholar.

28 Argus (27 Oct. 1885).

29 Argus (7 Aug. 1883).

30 Argus (24 Feb. 1885).

31 Women chorus singers were involved in the performance of Kowalski's Vercingetorix (24 September 1881), and in a fundraising performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore (see MetL AR, 1886–87 (1874–1903)), but not at any of their regular subscription concerts.

32 Argus (30 Mar. 1886). The performance of the excerpt from The Huguenots at the same concert, however, received an appalling press; the reviewer in the Argus (30 Mar. 1886) claimed that ‘it is probable that no greater pains were ever spent by the members of the Metropolitan Liedertafel … and it is certain that they never produced such poor results’.

33 For example, the Argus review claimed that a Metropolitan performance of Bellini's ‘Casta Diva’, ‘supported by a chorus from which women's voices were excluded’ was not ‘creditable’ to the society (22 Feb. 1887).

34 Unidentified loose review.

35 Argus (8 Nov. 1890).

36 For a discussion of the hoped-for benefits of Cowen's concert series, see Jennifer Royle, ‘“Preparing to Exhibit”: Frederick Cowen in the Public Press Preceding Melbourne's Centennial International Exhibition, 1888–89’, Context 14 (1997): 53–62.

37 Argus (23 Feb. 1886).

38 See for example, Radic, Thérèse, ‘Liedertafels’, in Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, ed. Whiteoak, John and Scott-Maxwell, Aline (Sydney, 2003): 399Google Scholar.

39 Argus (14 Nov. 1882) (MelbL Scrapbook (1879–89)).

40 Leader (5 Mar. 1892). See Fig. 7 for the programme of the Melbourne Liedertafel's concert.

41 ‘Herz, Julius’, Oxford Companion to Australian Music, ed. Bebbington, Warren (Melbourne, 1997),Google Scholar hereafter OCAM.

42 S. Pascal Needham conducted the society's 102nd, 103rd and 104th concerts in 1885 while Herz took a brief holiday due to ill health. Herz's final concert was concert no. 160 on 19 December 1892. Herz's departure is discussed in greater detail in Hill, ‘A Source of Enjoyment’ (this issue).

43 The popular local bass singer B.T. Moroney conducted the society's 143rd concert on 28 June 1881. Siede is listed on the programme as the conductor, but the press review reports that Siede was unable to conduct due to ill health (Argus (30 Jun. 1881)).

44 MelbL Minutes (23 Jan. 1890) (1878–95).

45 Although Wood's first concert, on 27 March 1893, was considered by the Argus to be ‘one of the worst entertainments ever offered to the members of this Liedertafel’, this opinion was quickly revised and Wood's tenure appears to have been generally successful.

46 John Maidment, ‘Wood, Ernest’, OCAM.

47 Howes, F.S., History of the Choir of St. Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, 1888–1951 (Melbourne, 1951): 2.Google Scholar

48 MetL AR, 1890–91 (1874–1903).

49 MetL Minutes (28 Jan. 1893) (1892–1902).

50 Carol singing was relatively uncommon in England until a revival sparked by the publication of H.R. Bramley and John Stainer's Christmas Carols New and Old in 1871. The now-famous Service of Nine Lessons and Carols was not introduced at King's College, Cambridge, until 1918 ( Routley, Erik, The English Carol (London, 1958): 173–5).Google Scholar

51 They sang 21 MetL concerts after their formation in April 1894. Wyatt, Pallet and Rofe were all founding members of the Cathedral Choir ( Howes, , Choir of St. Paul's Cathedral: 3)Google Scholar.

52 Argus (24 Oct. 1899): 6.

53 This phrase first appeared in the Age review of a MelbL concert (20 Nov. 1893), when the programme comprised excerpts from Parsifal, the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, Liszt's First Piano Concerto and the ‘Crusaders’ Scene’ from The Legend of Saint Elizabeth, and Landerkennung op. 31 by Grieg.

54 A field of 16 candidates was considered; Zelman polled 9 votes against King's 7 (MelbL Minutes, 13 Mar. 1890 (1878–95)).

55 MelbL Minutes (25 Sep. 1890) (1878–95). A review from the Standard (4 Nov. 1890) indicates that King conducted the 209th concert.

56 MelbL Minutes (12 Mar. 1891) (1878–95).

57 MelbL Minutes (25 Mar. 1891) (1878–95).

58 For more on Clarke and the Victorian Orchestra see Radic, Thérèse, ‘The Victorian Orchestra 1889–1891: In the Wake of the Centennial Exhibition Orchestra, Melbourne, 1888’, Australasian Music Research 1 (1996): 13103Google Scholar.

59 4 May and 13 July 1891.

60 MelbL Minutes (23 Jul. 1891) (1878–95).

61 MelbL Minutes (23 Jul. 1891) (1878–95).

62 Nash, William P., Music in the Cabbage Garden (Melbourne, 1988)Google Scholar discusses this with respect to both the MelbL and MetL on pages 209 and 290, although the article in the Champion that he quotes does not mention either Liedertafel by name, only referring to ‘the fashionable functions of large Melbourne musical societies’ (8 Aug. 1895: 54). Elsewhere the Metropolitan was specifically targeted for ‘sweating’ orchestra members (Champion (19 Oct. 1895): 142).

63 This was triggered by a review in the Age (8 Jul. 1896) complaining about the ‘thumping, riotous and noisy’ pianists, many of whom were King's students, featured in MelbL concerts.

64 De Chanéet cites several other unfavourable reviews in a letter to the Age dated 14 July 1896. Reviews of the general standard of MelbL concerts became increasingly critical around this time, suggesting an overall drop in standards; see for example reviews of concert no. 237 on 26 February 1895 and no. 231 on 26 February 1894.

65 The circumstances surrounding King's dismissal and the appointment of Marshall-Hall are examined in greater detail in Hill, ‘A Source of Enjoyment’.

66 Marshall-Hall did conduct a performance by the Liedertafel of his own work Alcestis on 23 June 1898, but this was not one of the regular subscription concerts.

67 A full transcript of his speech was published as ‘Much Ado. Professor Marshall Hall Relieves his Feelings. A General Onslaught’, Argus (2 Aug. 1898): 6.

68 Radic, Thérèse, Marshall-Hall, G.W.L.: A Biography and Catalogue (Melbourne, 2002): 16.Google Scholar

69 MelbL Minutes (8 Sep. 1898) (1895–1905).

70 MelbL Minutes (8 Dec. 1898) (1895–1905). The minutes do not record whether the letter was ever sent.

71 Marshall-Hall conducted only one concert after 1901, on 25 August 1903 (concert no. 281). Programmes are missing from several concerts from around this period and it is possible that he may have conducted one or two other concerts at this time. Mansley Greer also conducted a few concerts in 1903–04.

72 See Hill, ‘A Source of Enjoyment’ for a discussion of the financial difficulties faced by the Liedertafels during the depression years of the 1890s.

73 Age (1 Aug. 1893), MelbL Scrapbook (1890–99).

74 Unidentified review of concert on 6 August 1894, MelbL Scrapbook (1890–99).

75 Argus (14 Jul. 1897).

76 Undated review, MelbL Scrapbook (1890–99).

77 ‘The Melbourne Liedertafel’, Argus (9 Jul. 1895), MelbL Scrapbook (1890–99).

78 Henry John King, ‘The Palace of Truth’, Age (16 Jul. 1895).

79 Leader (6 Sep. 1892).

80 King was also trained as a violinist, but never played the violin for the Liedertafel.

81 ‘Professor Marshall-Hall on Orchestral Programmes’, Argus (20 Jun. 1899): 6.

82 Radic, G.W.L.Marshall-Hall: 18.Google Scholar

83 Argus (30 Jun. 1885).

84 Weber, , ‘Miscellany vs. Homogeneity’: 300–1.Google Scholar

85 Weber, , ‘Miscellany vs. Homogeneity’: 300.Google Scholar