Society’s choral history of note

Halifax Choral Society with a previous performance of Elijah
Halifax Choral Society with a previous performance of Elijah

As the Halifax Choral Society prepares to perform Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, a little-known link between the famous composer and Halifax has been uncovered. Virginia Mason reports

Its much-loved dramatic music has stirred the hearts of many generations of concert-goers since then, so Calderdale audiences will be thrilled to know it is being performed again by the Choral Society this coming Saturday at Halifax’s Victoria Theatre.

But as the Society prepares for the concert, a little-know link between the famous German-born composer and Halifax, has been uncovered.

“It is not widely known but Mendelssohn himself donated a folio of the oratorio to Halifax Choral Society,” reveals Halifax historian and genealogist, David Glover, who has been looking into the connection.

The link concerns Samuel Smith, born in 1804, in Skircoat, Halifax, explains David.

After being educated at Kendal Grammar School, he joined his father Joseph’s dye-works business in Woolshops, Halifax.

“Samuel was a great lover of music and was secretary to the Halifax Choral Society from 1836 to 1842. The census of that year shows him living at Kershaw House, Luddenden with his wife, Mary (nee Aked) and her family, but later that year he did move to Bradford where he founded Samuel Smith and Brothers, stuff dyers and finishers. It was based at Field Head, Little Horton and the business was a great success,” says David.

It is in the centenary history of the Halifax Choral Society (1918), that an account exists of Samuel’s first meeting with Mendelssohn.

It describes how Samuel was travelling with several friends “on the Continent” in the summer of 1839 and stayed for a few days at Frankfurt-am-Main, where Mendelssohn lived at that time.

Mendelssohn spent a morning with the English visitors before dining with them at their hotel afterwards. Samuel told the composer that the Choral Society had obtained copies of Mendelssohn’s work St Paul and were the first society in England to have them and had already set to work on the oratorio.

In appreciation, Mendelssohn dedicated a forthcoming choral composition to the Choral Society - the 114th Psalm.

“After Samuel moved to Bradford, there is another account of a meeting between him and Mendelssohn. In April 1847, Samuel attended the Birmingham Festival to hear a revised performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio, Elijah and once again Samuel secured an interview with the composer,” reveals David.

“Mendelssohn told Samuel he feared his music was not appreciated in this country generally and the Yorkshireman encouraged him by telling him that the Choral Society was to perform St Paul. Pleased to hear this, Mendelssohn dedicated the work he was then writing, the Ninety-Fifth Psalm, to the Choral Society, as well as presenting Samuel with a folio copy of Elijah.”

David adds that Samuel’s musical interests led to what some might say to be his greatest accomplishment - the building of St George’s Hall, Bradford.

He also became interested in the building of church organs with several being built under his supervision - including one at Lightcliffe Congregational Church. In 1851, he was elected Mayor of Bradford and was a close friend of Sir Titus Salt.

In may 1869, when the Halifax Choral Society celebrated its Golden Jubilee, Samuel returned to his home town as guest of honour.

His son, Samuel Milne Smith married Anne Eliza Clark and the couple eventually inherited Cliff Hill, Warley. Soon afterwards, in the winter of 1872, his father went to live with them and it was at Cliff Hill that he died in July 1873.

The Mendelssohn folio of Elijah passed down to Samuel and after his death to Tom Sutcliffe of Warley - Sutcliffe was an influential member of the Halifax Antiquarian Society in its early days.

“Sadly, I do not know where the Elijah folio is today,” says David, who himself is a member of the Antiquarian Society.

“Could it be the Elijah in the Choral Society collection held at Calderdale Archives which is uninscribed?”

He explains that in the collection are two Mendelssohn folios - St Paul, which was quite probably that which was used at the local performance of that oratorio in 1847 and one of Elijah.

“Unfortunately there is nothing on the folio of Elijah to say if it is the original one presented to Samuel by Mendelssohn. Both folios were printed in 1847 and both have beautifully engraved frontispieces depicting Mendelssohn.”

David adds that there is a rumour that Mendelssohn visited Halifax.

“But this is something that cannot be substantiated,” he says.

l Halifax Choral Society will perform Mendelssohn’s Elijah with the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra, conducted by John Pryce Jones, on Saturday, October 29 at 7.30pm. Tickets are available by ringing 01422 351158. To take up a special ticket offer for this concert, see today’s page 3 of The Guide.