Over a period of nearly 18 years the Dublin choir, Our Lady’s Choral Society, enjoyed a close relationship with Sir John Barbirolli, a relationship that took them not only around Ireland and to Manchester and London but to Perugia and Castel Gandolfo. It took the choir to Berlin as well, but regrettably, at the last minute, without Sir John. In his speeches and writings he occasionally referred to them as the “Choir of Our Lady of Dublin”, as though there had been a miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary in Ireland’s capital. This is the story of that collaboration.


It was in 1945 that the idea of bringing the best singers from the various parish choirs in Dublin was born. There were choral societies in Dublin, but none with the imprimatur and ethos of the Catholic Church. Duly, with the support of Dr. John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin, the 360 singers of the Amalgamated Catholic Choirs of the Diocese of Dublin made their debut in December with two performances of Messiah in the Capitol Theatre. The conductor was one of the originators of the idea, Dr Vincent O’Brien, the director of the Palestrina Choir in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral. He was nearing retirement and wished to direct Handel’s masterpiece one more time. By the following year, the last before his retirement, the choir had been re-named Our Lady’s Choral Society. The Director (administrator) of the choir from the outset was the other originator, Father Andrew Griffith, then a curate in the Cathedral.

Meanwhile Sir John was no stranger to Ireland. His first solo recital as a cellist after the First World War had been in the Theatre Royal in Dublin in1920. After the Second World War he brought the Hallé on tour in 1946 and 1949. The 1946 visit had included concerts in Cork, Limerick and Dublin. One of the two concerts in the Theatre Royal, Dublin included E. J. Moeran’s Violin Concerto played by Laurance Turner, the Hallé’s leader, with Moeran in the audience, as he had been in Cork. The 1949 concert in Dublin immediately followed their Edinburgh Festival appearances and was during the period when Barbirolli had been forced to cancel, on doctor’s orders, everything bar his Hallé engagements for twelve months. This Irish trip had been allowed.

When, in 1951, Barbirolli was in hospital following his return from Australia, he was in a ward with four other people, one of whom was a Catholic priest. Naturally the conversation turned to music and the priest told Sir John about a choir in Dublin run by a friend of his, Father Andrew Griffith. This in due course led to an invitation from Griffith, through the Archbishop, to conduct the choir in a performance of The Dream of Gerontius the following year. This was to form the centrepiece of the celebrations planned to mark the Centenary of Cardinal Newman’s first visit to Dublin, as a result of which the National University of Ireland was in due course founded.

The choir meanwhile had continued to develop, adding, among other works, the Choral Symphony of Beethoven, Haydn’s Creation and the Verdi Requiem, to its repertoire and including a number of appearances with Jean Martinon among the conductors of the Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestra with which it was now working. Oliver O’Brien, son of Vincent, had taken over the role of musical director and chorus master on the death of his father in 1948. The previous year, at a visit to the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen, it had been described in an adjudication as “the choir that loves to sing” by Sir Hugh Roberton 1. In 1950 a tour that included concerts in Rome and Paris had been a considerable success. In the Teatro Argentina in Rome, accompanied by the Augusteo Orchestra (as the Santa Cecilia Orchestra was then known) they had performed Messiah. This had been followed by the Verdi Requiem in the Théatre des Champs Elysées with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra under Martinon. Therefore the possibility of performing The Dream of Gerontius under Barbirolli with the Hallé would be another major step on the choir’s musical journey. It would also be the first time an Irish choir had performed in Dublin with what was termed “a foreign orchestra”.

The first Gerontius

In all nine months were devoted by the choir to preparing for this event. Despite the death that day of Philip Godlee, chairman of the Hallé and the man responsible for bringing him to Manchester from New York in 1943, Barbirolli arrived on September 28th, a month before the concert, for two rehearsals. When he heard the choir working with Oliver O’Brien he told them he was impressed. To Griffith he said he had heard better choirs, but he was looking forward to conducting them in The Dream because of the way they interpreted the music. At a press conference soon after his arrival in Dublin towards the end of October for the actual concert, he said that he had been agreeably surprised and delighted with the singing of the choir, particularly with its intelligence from a musical and dramatic point of view.

In fact Sir John was treated like the major celebrity he was, with many column inches devoted to his activities by the morning, evening and Sunday papers while he was in Dublin. His remarks about the choir were widely reported. In the Irish Times, the daily diarist Quidnunc caught the flavour of the Barbirolli humour during rehearsal. Sir John remarked about the choir’s singing of what he termed the ‘Devils chorus’. “At first I wasn’t terribly satisfied with their interpretation, so I stopped them and said ‘Look here, there you are, a crowd of full-bloodied Irish revolutionaries, and you’re singing like a bunch of Sunday-school teachers. Look at me – I’m an Englishman – Now sing as if you’re abusing me!’ After that they were fine”.

He also went on to say that with the great Irish artistic tradition and with world figures like Stanford, Harty, Moeran, McCormack and Burke-Sheridan, it was strange there was not yet a national concert hall.

Two days before the concert he was honoured by the National University with an honorary doctorate of music. On this occasion his links to Ireland were confirmed by the telling by John F. Larchet, Professor of Music in University College, Dublin of the ‘Bob O’Reilly’ 2 story from the First World War.

The Newman Centenary concert took place on October 26th in the Theatre Royal, as had the Hallé concerts in previous years. This was a large art deco building opened in 1935, in Hawkins Street just south of the River Liffey. With a seating capacity of 3000 plus, it was a regular location for major symphony concerts. However while the acoustic was acceptable for orchestral events, it cannot be said it was ideal for choral concerts, because the choir had to be placed well back behind the proscenium arch. Richard Lewis sang the part of Gerontius, Marian Nowakowski the Priest and the Angel of the Agony. Singing the Angel for the very last time was Kathleen Ferrier.

The critic of the Irish Independent was full of praise for the whole performance but noted particularly the great improvement in choral technique. The Irish Times, in the course of a critique on the Hallé Orchestra’s two concerts over the weekend, commented upon the contribution of the soloists most favourably, with Nowakowski highly praised for the “wonderful quality of his tone in ‘Go forth from this world’”. Kathleen Ferrier had performed in both concerts, singing, among other arias, Gluck’s ‘Che faro’ with “rare artistry” in the first. In The Dream she was “right inside her part of the Angel, and every tone and inflexion of her performance was in exquisite taste”. As regards the choir, the Irish Times confined itself to noting that Sir John “obtained some lively effects from the chorus, who were very good in the ‘demonic’ music”. Sir John was quoted in an interview after the concert as saying he found the choir a highly responsive instrument, marking it out as one of the front rank in oratorio presentation. To the choir he said, “I have conducted many choirs which have sung magnificently, but there was something today you have given me, something which I shall remember to the end of my days”.

A tour to England

The success of the new collaboration was such that a tour in England with the Hallé Orchestra was publicly discussed. “Sir John Wants Choir for London” said the Irish Press, adding that Barbirolli would be writing to Cardinal Griffin in Westminster to discuss the matter. There was talk of concerts in Manchester to include both The Dream and Messiah. Kenneth Crickmore, the manager of the Hallé was brought into the debate. But, as ever with such plans, the project foundered because of lack of funds. Crickmore had gone so far as to express his astonishment that the choir existed without any subsidy. That the tour to Rome and Paris undertaken by the choir in 1950 had been financed solely from subscriptions made by the individual members, deepened his respect for them.

Their next encounter took place within six months. A tour of Ireland, again with the Hallé, was announced for April 1953, to include Cork, Limerick, Waterford and concluding in Dublin. The work to be performed was Messiah. Apart from Waterford, where the Cathedral was the appropriate venue, theatres or cinemas were the settings. Herbert Bardgett, renowned Chorus Master of the Huddersfield Choral Society and the Hallé Choir, arrived to take three rehearsals over the weekend preceding the tour which ran from April 22nd to 25th. Barbirolli and the orchestra met up with them in Cork, arriving by sea. On the 25th, having criss-crossed the country, choir and orchestra arrived in Dublin by train from Waterford at almost mid day. They were on stage in the Theatre Royal by 2.30 p.m. ready for the final performance which began at 3.

This time there was an Irish soloist, the soprano Veronica Dunne, who had sung Eurydice to Kathleen Ferrier’s Orpheus at her last appearances at Covent Garden two months previously. Kathleen Joyce was the contralto, William Herbert the tenor and the bass once more Marian Nowakowski, famed for singing “The strumpet shall sound” until he was quietly told of his error.

The route that Barbirolli took through the various editions of Messiah was described as “fresh and scholarly” by the critic of the Irish Times, who “regarded most of his alterations as steps toward the ideal reading of the score”. The critic of the Irish Press concurred, hoping that future performances would be in line with Sir John’s. Whether in the light of the quest for authenticity these judgements would be made today, I rather doubt, but I am sure those who heard the Barbirolli Messiah would have favourable words with which to defend it. Certainly today we most often hear ‘But who may abide’ sung by the contralto soloist. Then it had been the tradition to give it to the bass and Sir John’s decision to restore it to the contralto was felt to be particularly justified. Sir John was taken to task by the Irish Times for setting too fast a tempo for “Rejoice greatly” and making exaggerated choral contrasts in ‘For unto us’. Overall the choir was felt to have given a “splendid performance”. The Irish Press thought the choir had never been heard to greater effect, noting “a clarity in choral texture that was amazing”.

Joseph O’Neill, the critic of the Irish Independent, heard all four concerts of what he termed an “unique tour”, noting the even increased precision and understanding of Sir John’s interpretation in the choral singing at the Dublin performance. He praised what he termed “the restoration of tradition” in Sir John’s reading. This followed a remark that had been made to him by a Dublin musician that Barbirolli had broken with tradition in his reading of the score. The only part of the performance that jarred “a little” was the tempo set for the Hallelujah chorus. “A slightly slower tempo would give it more majesty”. The sharing of the final curtain by Sir John with Oliver O’Brien was felt to be deserved.

Straight after the performance in Dublin, Sir John and the orchestra left to return to England. They travelled again by sea, the choir gathering on the quayside to sing them farewell, including ‘Come back to Erin’ and ‘Va Pensiero’ among others.

Overall, Sir John said he thought the performance in Waterford had been the finest. He particularly liked that they had performed Messiah in a cathedral.

Tenth anniversary

1955 was the choir’s tenth anniversary. The year began in January with a gala concert in aid of the victims of the floods that had devastated the north of Dublin the previous month. Messiah was conducted by Herman Lindars who, besides being one of Sir John’s contemporaries at the Royal Academy of Music, was also a very successful industrialist. The orchestra was the Hallé.

The tenth anniversary concert in April was a performance of the Verdi Requiem in the Theatre Royal, again conducted by Lindars, this time with the Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestra. Was Sir John asked to conduct these performances but was not available? Either way one can detect his influence, in the same manner that, in 1958, his associate at the Hallé, George Weldon, was the conductor for the choir’s December performance of Messiah.

An opportunity missed

September 1956 saw what one would suggest was a great missed occasion in the context of our story, though it undoubtedly still had considerable splendour. Barbirolli’s influence in Berlin had resulted in an invitation for the choir to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic in the Berlin Festival of Music. Two performances of The Dream of Gerontius were to be given in the Hochschüle für Musik in Berlin. His inability to fulfil this engagement remained one of Sir John’s undying regrets. He had been to Dublin in July to rehearse the choir. He had felt he should do something to help improve the choir’s technique and a summer school had been arranged. A current, long serving member of the choir, then, as a boy, singing in the Palestrina Choir, remembers being schooled in music of the polyphonic period by Herbert Bardgett, ahead of Barbirolli arriving to conduct master classes with the choral society.

Sir John had also given a press conference to underline the importance of the Berlin concerts and had written an article that appeared in the Irish Independent, noting that Elgar had first found fame with Gerontius in Germany.
But it wasn’t to be. With Barbirolli in hospital following an operation, at two weeks notice it fell to Herbert Bardgett to step into the breach. The 200 members of the choir, known as ‘Der Liebefrauen Chor von Irland’, travelled by liner from Cobh to Bremerhaven and on by train to Bonn. This allowed them to sing in Cologne Cathedral en route. The journey was completed by air to Berlin. Two days of rehearsals were scheduled. The soloists were now regulars, Constance Shacklock, Ronald Dowd and Marian Nowakowski.

It would seem that the choir gave a performance as though Barbirolli had been there. This is in no way to belittle Bardgett’s achievement. The choir knew him well by this time, as he had also conducted Messiah with them on two occasions (and would do again) and Elijah. But Barbirolli did seem to get something special from them. In any event the Berlin Press was ecstatic. Der Abend said “Large oratory choirs as guests at the festival are a rarity. Here then is one. From Dublin came Our Lady’s Choral Society. Relatively young still, yet of tremendous qualities, exemplary…….To remain true to the atmosphere (of Elgar’s work) is no easy mission for the choir. It demands inner readiness and power. And it must be conceded that the choir possess them without qualification”. The Kurier described the choir as “an exquisitely picked ensemble, singing clearly and precisely… comparable to Berlin’s St. Hedwig Cathedral Choir”. High praise indeed. The audience reaction was described as changing from indifference to sympathetic appreciation, through the conviction and sincerity of the singing. Fr. Griffith said the choir “had brought The Dream of Gerontius to Berlin, uncertain of its reception and we are now overwhelmed by the reaction of the Berliners”.

Against doctor’s orders

In fact it was to be almost another year (and four years since their last concert together) when Sir John next stood before them in Dublin in June 1957. He was appearing against doctor’s orders, having fallen from the rostrum in Manchester two weeks previously. But he did not wish to disappoint the choir he now regarded as “part of the Hallé family”, as he had been forced to do the previous year. Asked whether he would have a special rostrum for the performance he replied: “As long as I get something to lean on, I’ll be alright”.

As it was the Elgar Centenary Year, The Dream of Gerontius was the work, but the orchestra was the Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestra in their first performance with him. The R.E.S.O. was now in its tenth year, having been expanded from the Radio Eireann Orchestra in 1947. Its ranks included a number of musicians from the continent, particularly central Europe, who had taken the opportunity to escape the aftermath of the war and re-locate to Ireland. In an interview Sir John said he was looking forward to renewing his acquaintance with the orchestra’s leader, Renzo Marchionni, whom he had known in Florence. The soloists were the regular team of Constance Shacklock, Ronald Dowd and Marian Nowakowski.

The Irish Times critic, Charles Acton, recently appointed, thought the choir’s whole performance was better than he had ever heard either in this work, or from them. Similarly he felt the R. E. S.O. played as they rarely had before: “It is a lift to our spirits that they can play like this – when will it be their habit?” In the Irish Independent Mary MacGoris felt it had been a performance of deep intensity from soloists, choir and orchestra, but had some remarks to make about small points of diction. She also had some harsh words for the theatre’s organ. Its tone, she said, was a sad distraction. Robert Johnson in the Irish Press thought the interpretation magnificent and virtually flawless. For him Ronald Dowd’s interpretation of the name part was possibly the finest he had heard.

At the conclusion Sir John thanked the audience for their receptive listening and said how moving it was to give the centenary performance of the work of a great man in Catholic Ireland, and thanked the choir for giving him the opportunity to conduct it. In a press conference the day before the performance he had also said he was sorry not to be able to conduct the Society in the Verdi Requiem in September, but was looking forward to his next visit in December to conduct Messiah.

Messiah with drama and passion

Then, as now, an important musical event in December for many in Dublin each year was Our Lady’s Choral Society’s Messiah. Sir John returned for this, on December 18th conducting the Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestra once more. The soloists were Lois Marshall, Constance Shacklock, Richard Lewis and Marian Nowakowski. Playing in the violins in the orchestra on that occasion was the Hungarian Janos Fürst. He remembered the performance vividly, to the extent that when, in 1986, as Principal Conductor of the Orchestra, he came to conduct Messiah himself with the choir, he said he had modelled his interpretation on Barbirolli’s because of its drama and passion.

Charles Acton thought the performance was a great tribute to Barbirolli (and to Oliver O’Brien). “Sir John can do just what he wants with the choir. What an experience it would be to hear them in a better building, not half-muffled by the proscenium”. He thought Barbirolli’s control of the orchestra equally complete. “Each time he seems to transform them”. The Theatre Royal organ, however, he thought should have been heard by Barbirolli from the audience’s perspective. Its effects “ranged from the unfortunate to the extraordinary”. The writer in the Irish Press thought that the acoustic problems presented by the vast stage of the Theatre Royal worked against the performance and that Sir John’s performing version would be better suited to a smaller hall.
Manchester at last

The next year brought the fulfilment of a now long held goal for the choir, an invitation from Sir John to perform with the Hallé on its home turf.1958 marked the orchestra’s centenary and in his introduction to the 1957/58 season’s programmes Sir John expressed himself as being most gratified that what he called “this great Catholic Irish choir” could join the Hallé for The Dream of Gerontius. He thought it “a gesture of friendship and gratitude to invite them to share in our centenary celebrations”. He had written to the choir saying that, for the centenary season, he wished to surround himself, not only with the greatest artists, but also some dear friends. “I need not say with what pleasure I would welcome you here”. Ten days before the concert Barbirolli flew into Dublin to rehearse the choir. On May 18th 1958 the choir travelled over for what for some would be just a one-day, flying visit, to perform with Norma Proctor, Richard Lewis and Hervey Alan as soloists, in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall.

The Irish Independent sent their critic, Mary MacGoris, to hear the concert. She noted that “the clear acoustics gave the full measure of the choir’s quality and volumes of tone in a fashion that has not been possible in Dublin”. She praised, as she had not always done before, “the wonderfully sure intonation”. The choir’s spontaneous sincerity and deeply felt expressiveness impressed her. Of Sir John she wrote that he “drew spectacular playing from the orchestra” realising “all the rich and varied colour of Elgar’s music”.

The Irish Times shared the services of the critic of the Manchester Guardian, Colin Mason, who wrote a separate piece for each paper. He expressed the view that “the enjoyment of Gerontius is only to be attained by a hard and unceasing fight to get past Newman to Elgar. Here Sir John carried the day by a fineness and sensitivity of response to the music that kept us engrossed in every bar”. He thought the performance exceptionally fine. He drew attention in the Manchester paper to what he termed “the lusty tone colour of the throats of the women’s section of the choir, …which they could temper when necessary to a lovely sweetness and expressiveness”. In the Irish Times he called it “the vigorous and attractive half tone”, reminding him of the magnificent choirs of Bulgarian or Hungarian peasant girls that had been in England recently. Overall the incisiveness of the choir’s pronunciation he found equally stimulating, “giving a keener sense of the relationship of the music to the words”. The performance was, he said, “an outstanding success with the Manchester audience, in a work where critical standards in Manchester are high”.

But perhaps the most cherished notice came from Michael Kennedy in the Manchester edition of the Daily Telegraph. “I have not heard a finer performance of this work”, he wrote. Noting that this was the choir’s first visit to England he continued: “They gave us a virtuoso display of expressive singing. Their diction was beyond praise and their attack, especially from tenors and basses, something one had thought only existed in Huddersfield on special occasions”.
At the end of the concert Sir John made a speech thanking “his Irish friends “. It had given him great pleasure to invite the choir to Manchester and it had been a great experience for the people of Manchester to hear what he termed this Roman Catholic work “sung from the hearts and throats of ardent Catholics”.

The choir, once more with applause ringing in their ears, returned by air and sea to Dublin for a week off before re-commencing rehearsals for their next adventure with Sir John, to Italy in September. 1958 would prove to be a high point in their relationship with Barbirolli and a very busy one.

Italy and Pope Pius XII

The invitation had come for the choir to perform with Sir John and the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino at the Sagra Umbra Festival in Perugia. The works to be performed were once more The Dream of Gerontius and Messiah, on consecutive evenings, with two new soloists in the line-up, the contralto Kerstin Meyer and the tenor David Galliver. Lois Marshall and Marian Nowakowski completed the quartet for Messiah. Sir John had given a broadcast performance of the Elgar work from Rome the previous year with an Italian chorus, but this was to be its first public performance in Italy. Messiah was an outstanding success with the Italian audience. The Hallelujah Chorus was heard twice and there would have been a third, were it not already well after midnight. Sir John and the choir were cheered through the streets to their hotel. One choir member recalled all this and added a personal post script. She had come down to breakfast one morning in the hotel in Perugia and been waiting to be served when Sir John appeared and was served ahead of her. Subsequently late for rehearsal, she was reprimanded in front of the assembled gathering by Sir John. As the Hallé knew 3, in these circumstances his wrath was to be feared, but she was not to be cowed and reminded him precisely of the reason why she was late.

Glowing tributes were paid to the choir in the Italian papers and it was announced they had been invited to sing at La Scala, Milan in 1960. When they left Perugia to travel to Rome, the town turned out for “a tumultuous send-off” at the railway station.

However the climax of the trip was yet to come. It was an event those who were there never tired of telling about, and that included Barbirolli. The British Ambassador in Rome had arranged for the choir to be received by the Pope in his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, and to sing for him. With David Galliver and Marian Nowakowski and accompanied by Oliver O’Brien on the piano Sir John conducted Part One of The Dream. It was the last live music Pope Pius XII heard; he died ten days later.

The Dream in a Cathedral

A month later Sir John was back in Ireland once more, with the Hallé. They began on October 26th in Wexford, where they appeared as part of the Wexford Festival. The orchestra then joined the choir for performances of The Dream of Gerontius in Dublin, Mullingar and Limerick. The tour finished with an orchestral concert to open the Cork Orchestral Society’s season. The soloists for Gerontius were, as in Italy, Kirsten Meyer, David Galliver and Marian Nowakowski.

The Dublin performance in the Theatre Royal on October 28th was given as a tribute to the late Pope. At the end of Part One, at the request of Barbirolli, the audience stood in silent prayer and no applause was allowed. After the performance Sir John told the choir that he was taking steps to have their performance recorded. Sadly his recording company at that time, Pye, were not persuaded and the preservation of the partnership on disc never happened.

The Mullingar concert was of particular significance, quite apart from being attended by the President of Ireland and many dignitaries, as it took place in Mullingar Cathedral. It would be the first time Barbirolli had conducted the work in a Catholic cathedral. It was also the first performance in a Catholic cathedral since 1903, when Elgar conducted the first London performance in the then newly built Westminster Cathedral. One member of the Mullingar audience with connections to the Cathedral recalled showing Sir John around a couple of hours before the performance. Having spent some time looking over the Cathedral and particularly admiring the mosaics, they returned to the sanctuary before the high altar. Barbirolli was asked what he thought of the Cathedral as a setting for The Dream. He said he thought it so inspiring that it must inspire the choir to even better than usual efforts. “And yourself, Sir John, I suppose this magnificent setting will inspire you to give of your best”. Having realised what he had just said, our guide looked for the nearest pew to crawl under, as he received the cold reply: “I always give of my best”, with the gentle addition “but tonight I will give my best – plus”. They all did and the next night, in Limerick Cathedral, they gave it again.

Mahler and a Festival

At the beginning of January 1959 The Dublin International Festival of Music and the Arts, under the Presidency of Sir John Barbirolli, was announced for June of that year. The Choir of the Sistine Chapel and the Virtuosi di Roma would be what we would today call the headline acts, but the highlight would be the first performance in Ireland of Mahler’s Second Symphony, ’The Resurrection’. This would involve both the Hallé and the Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestras and Our Lady’s Choral Society. Concerts conducted by Barbirolli were to be given by both orchestras, plus a ball in Skerries, in north County Dublin, at which Sir John would conduct the Hallé in Viennese waltzes.
The Gaiety Theatre in Dublin was the venue for the orchestral concerts. The Hallé’s was scheduled the day after its appearance at the ball, perhaps to its detriment. Sir John was criticised for not including a modern Irish work in either concert, having offered John F. Larchet’s Carlow Tune and Tinkers Wedding with the R.E.S.O. and Harty’s With the Wild Geese with the Hallé. The critic of the Evening Press thought the Harty unendurable, “a dreary patchwork of bits and pieces”. And that from a Dublin critic!

However the Mahler, staged in the Theatre Royal, offered scale and spectacle. Mary MacGoris felt the symphony to be “trite” and wrote that Beethoven had made more cosmic statements with less resources. Altogether she was much more impressed by the performance than the music, an opinion which seems very regressive today. RJ in the Irish Press noted that Mahler was quite unknown apart from some performances of the fourth and first symphonies. Sir John’s “inspired conducting certainly brought Mahler into his kingdom”. Charles Acton, admitting to hearing the music for the first time, thought it forbidding in prospect, but was totally won over: “What a wonderful and soul-satisfying event”. The choir’s small but powerful contribution was duly noted. They had opened the concert with Handel, Zadok the Priest, in a “fat, rich performance” that was not helped by their placement, back behind the theatre’s proscenium. Eugenia Zareska and Victoria Elliott were the contralto and soprano soloists.

Barbirolli declared the Festival to have been a big success: “I hope this will be the harbinger of many great festivals in this great and lovely city, so that you can become as worthy of it as you are architecturally and in the kindness and graciousness of your natures”. He announced that he had accepted the Presidency of the Festival for the next year.

The success of the Festival re-ignited the debate regarding the resources needed to stage a festival of this nature, in particular the lack of a proper concert hall. This was a topic on which, as we know, Sir John had very definite views, to which he would return on a future visit.

Messiah once more

After the excitement of the Festival it was a quieter few months for the choir. Compared with the previous year in particular, when Sir John had taken them to Manchester and to Italy, followed by the autumn tour of Ireland it was positively sedate. But he was back once more in December to conduct Messiah in the Theatre Royal.

Charles Acton found it “hard to find words with which to praise the choir. They had the precision and the sensitivity of a far more intimate body, a truly remarkable range of emotional mood, and gave a performance up to the highest standard I have ever heard. Their part in this Messiah was their and Sir John Barbirolli’s glory”. He felt that Barbirolli’s performing edition, he described it as “a compromise between Handel on the one hand and Prout et cetera, on the other”, worked magnificently when the choir was as large as Our Lady’s Choral Society and the auditorium as vast as the Theatre Royal. However, he thought Sir John’s conducting of every note sung by the soloists, including the recitatives, looked singularly discourteous. Ena Mitchell, Constance Shacklock and Owen Brannigan did not escape criticism, but Alexander Young he thought was “outstandingly good all the way through”.

The Royal Albert Hall

1960 saw no visit from Sir John but in 1961 they were back together once again. Barbirolli took them to London, to the Royal Albert Hall to perform The Dream on Easter Sunday. He had been over to Dublin to take the choir’s final rehearsals shortly before they flew to London. In the days when Viscounts, which could carry around 70 passengers, were the regular means of short haul air transport, getting 250 people from Dublin to London within as short a period of time as possible became a precision operation and necessitated four specially chartered flights. It really was a flying visit because, straight after the performance, the whole operation had to be repeated in reverse, with the whole choir back in Dublin by the small hours of Easter Monday, the last flight arriving at 5 a.m. The choir, as ever, paid their way; the cost to each member for the trip was £2.10s. The concert was presented by Associated-Rediffusion for whom Sir John was Musical Advisor. They held the commercial television franchise for weekdays in the London area. The Hallé with Sir John, meanwhile, made their way down from Sheffield. Kerstin Meyer, David Galliver and Marian Nowakowski were once more the soloists.

An audience of 5,500 heard the performance, including the writer of this article, only my second live hearing of the work. Clifford Curzon, the pianist, was also in the audience and said he had been overwhelmed by the singing. The (London) Times critic noted that The Dream of Gerontius, Sir John and Our Lady’s Choral Society were no strangers to each other, having come together on several notable occasions in different places, but never before in London. “It was a carefully moulded, deeply felt and richly expressive performance”. “The choir”,
The Times’ critic said, “sang with an admirable buoyancy and luminosity of tone (notably the splendid sopranos) and even though their clear articulation was sometimes achieved at the expense of a true legato, there was never any danger whatsoever of sogginess or muddiness from them. Their demon laughter was realistically diabolical”. The Daily Telegraph critic did not altogether agree. After noting that “Sir John feels Elgar’s music very forcibly and he obtained full tone and a singing line from his players”, he went on to say “The choir, Our Lady’s Choral Society from Dublin, appearing for the first time in London, also responded with singing of quality, especially in the Kyrie Eleison and the closing passages of the work. Their tone was not quite weighty enough, however, for the tremendous outburst of ‘Praise to the Holiest’ nor was their singing of the Demons sufficiently vehement”.
Barbirolli’s public words after the performance were of praise for the choir. “They were superb and I am glad London has heard them”. He had said in the interval he felt they were uncomfortable in the big Albert Hall and were more scattered than they would have been in Dublin, as we can see from the photograph that appeared in the Illustrated London News. Later to Andrew Griffith he said he would like to perform the Bach St. Matthew Passion with the choir the following year.

More missed opportunities

In the Dublin International Festival in June of that year Sir John and the choir both featured, but separately. The choir opened the Festival with Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts with the Monte Carlo National Opera Orchestra conducted by Louis Frémaux. This performance was scheduled to take place in the Theatre Royal, but was transferred at the last minute out of doors, to Croke Park. Prince Rainier and Princess Grace attended, with rugs to combat the cool evening air. Later in the week in the Gaiety Theatre, Barbirolli gave an orchestral concert with the Monte Carlo Orchestra, with Szigeti and Evelyn Barbirolli as soloists.

Then followed frustrating years when projects involving Barbirolli were announced, but never came about. One can only surmise that his commitments elsewhere, particularly in Houston, prevented his acceptance of invitations to Dublin. In August 1963 a project was announced in the press to take the choir to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, to sing Gerontius with Sir John and the Monte Carlo Orchestra the following June. Then in February 1964, it was announced that in the autumn of that year Barbirolli would come to Dublin to conduct the choir and the R.E S.O. in a concert to celebrate the centenary of the Synge Street School. Neither project materialised.

The Silver Jubilee

In 1966 the choir celebrated twenty one years, but again without Barbirolli. As the main event Tibor Paul conducted Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts, this time indoors, in the Royal Dublin Society’s Main Hall. However when the choir’s Silver Jubilee season was announced in December 1969, the centrepiece of the celebrations was to be two performances conducted by Sir John, The Dream of Gerontius on May 13th 1970 and the Verdi Requiem on May 16th, both with what was now the RTE Symphony Orchestra.

The venue for these concerts could no longer be the Theatre Royal as that had closed in June 1962 and the much criticised organ advertised for sale. The theatre was demolished to make way for a “modernistic” office building, which now houses the Republic’s Department of Health. From then until 1973 the venue for the choir’s annual Messiah performance was the National Stadium on the South Circular Road. While its principal use was for boxing, it had the undoubted advantage of being able to hold an audience of 2500 people.
Barbirolli arrived on May 4th for an intensive period of rehearsal. “This is like coming home to me” he said on landing at Dublin Airport. “I was very unhappy not to have been able to accept (the choir’s) 21st birthday invitation, but I have had these jubilee concerts guaranteed for the past two years”. He began rehearsals almost immediately, but unlike his previous visits, when he had stayed at the Gresham Hotel in O’Connell Street, this time he first spent a few days with his old friend, Herman Lindars, in Avoca in County Wicklow.

The choir had not sung the Elgar work since the London performance in 1961, and while it had sung the Verdi under other conductors, it had not sung it for Sir John. In all, they had eight rehearsals with him for the two concerts. The choir had changed, maybe not a great deal, but it had been nine years and there were a number of new members who had not had the experience of working with him before. So there was a degree of nervousness among the 150 singers who awaited his arrival.
The full flavour of his first rehearsal with them was caught by Fanny Feehan, in a double page article in Hibernia. It was re-told by Charles Reid in his biography of Barbirolli, so I will not repeat it here. One member of the choir recalls being reprimanded by Sir John, as he entered the hall, for sitting with his legs crossed in front of him. “You can’t sing sitting like that”, not that they did much sitting. The press reports were full of the rigour and thoroughness of his rehearsals. But at the end of the first rehearsal he said to Oliver O’Brien, “Well Oliver, I’ve nothing to do except conduct”.

At a dinner in the Gresham during this period one choir member found himself sitting next to Sir John and was told that they were the best ‘devils’. Barbirolli told him: “When you sing ‘low born clods of brute earth’, you must have in your mind a picture of yellow and green things, absolute filth, crawling out from under a rock”. Later during the same dinner, he said, “You know, I’m a Companion of Honour now. There’s a manuscript of Messiah in Buckingham Palace. It means I can go and look at it whenever I want”.

The orchestral rehearsals were not without incident. Sir John’s practice of ‘borrowing’ the principal cello’s instrument to demonstrate how he wanted a passage played caused outrage and a walk-out was narrowly averted. The principal cellist did not play for the concert.

On Sunday May 10th he attended the choir’s Silver Jubilee Mass in the Pro-Cathedral, occupying a special prie-dieu. The choir sang the Mozart Mass in C. The day before, he and Evelyn, by special dispensation, had been married by Father Griffith. It was a special time with his “favourite chorus” which he said was “world class”.

An occasion of a lifetime

Of the Gerontius performance on May 13th Mary MacGoris wrote that what was generally notable was the variety of tone and expression from the choir, with “a splendour of sopranos that we have not experienced for years”. For her, Barbirolli compellingly realised both the drama and the mysticism of the work. The odd acoustics of the Stadium did nothing to diminish the impact of the performance. “One could not fail to note the flowing phrasing, the colour and the whole expressiveness of the interpretation”. Of the soloists, this was the first time that Bernadette Greevy sang The Angel with the choir, though she had appeared regularly with them since 1961. Charles Acton thought it the finest performance he had ever heard from her. The magnificent, ringing tones of David Ward singing ‘Proficiscere’ took him back to Harold Williams in Worcester Cathedral with Elgar conducting. Ronald Dowd’s Gerontius he thought conveyed all the spirit of the occasion. “But though everyone did so well, it was clear they did so because they were inspired to it by Sir John Barbirolli’s living the music itself”. Fanny Feehan wrote in the Evening Press: “With Barbirolli in control, three soloists who sang with unusual insight, and a choir who sang with a feeling for every nuance, ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ took on some of the aspects of an illuminated manuscript”. She noted it was the close attention he gave to dynamics that gave added meaning to the performance. She concluded, “If this performance sounded so well in a boxing stadium, what would it have been like in a real concert hall? For Elgar, thanks to Barbirolli, it was a triumph”.

The line-up of soloists for the Saturday performance of the Verdi Requiem should have added Elizabeth Vaughan to Wednesday’s team. But on the Saturday morning she was indisposed and was replaced by Janice Chapman. Despite this the critics thought she blended into the ensemble perfectly, even though the opportunity to rehearse had been nil. It was another triumphant evening, perhaps slightly in the shade of Wednesday’s Gerontius, which for many had been one of those occasions of a life time. Of the choir’s performance Charles Acton wrote, “It was clear that Sir John had again taught them to match their colour and quality of tone to the meaning of the text”. However he felt that, more than for Gerontius, the Verdi was dependent on a balanced hearing, which was impossible from where he, and ninety per cent of the audience, was sitting. What these celebratory concerts did show up was what he described as “our shameful lack of a concert hall”.

Sir John addressed this at the choir’s party after the second concert. He hoped that the arguments about the site, about which he had heard, meant that something might at last be done. We know it wasn’t; the debate had been going on it seemed for ever, and it would be another 12 years before a hall fit for purpose was finally opened.

The rest of the story we know too well. He left Dublin the day after and these were the last choral concerts that he conducted. On Wednesday August 5th in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin, Archbishop McQuaid presided over a special Requiem Mass for Sir John. The choir sang excerpts from both The Dream and the Verdi.

As a footnote I should add that when I joined the choir in 1980 there were still upwards of 30 members who had been there at the beginning. Many more had sung for Barbirolli in one or more of the concerts described above. When we came to prepare The Dream for its first performance in the new National Concert Hall in 1982 there were still a few discernible Barbirolli finger prints in the way a phrase was inflected. Today, forty years on from that memorable pair of concerts, there are still three members who sang with Sir John and a number of former members who remember particular occasions with him with great clarity and affection.


1 Sir Hugh Roberton

Sir Hugh Roberton was the founder of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. His tribute ran:

“This is a choir that loves to sing, that dances as it sings, that smiles as it sings…with singing at its purest and best”.

2 The Bob O’Reilly Story

As Private Barbirolli in the Suffolk Regiment in 1918, stationed on the Isle of Grain in Kent, he played his cello in the Battalion’s ‘Voluntary Orchestra’. The oboist was Irish, an ex-Regular from the Indian Army who was “frequently drunk and the most enchanting person you ever met”. Unable to cope with Barbirolli’s name he christened him Bob O’Reilly, “an Irishman like me”.

3 The wrath of Barbirolli

The Manchester Guardian reported in 1961 the case of a member of the Hallé who had left his van in a Huddersfield street while he attended a rehearsal in Huddersfield Town Hall. In a letter to the magistrate’s court, he said “I preferred to face the wrath of the police, rather than the wrath of Sir John Barbirolli”.

Thanks and Acknowledgments

I would like to thank all those who helped with stories and memories. In particular I must thank Donal O’Colmain whose compilation of the concerts of the first forty years of Our Lady’s Choral Society provided an admirable starting place. His archive of programmes, cuttings and memorabilia was invaluable as was Marie Lee’s collection. Father Paul Kenny, the Society’s archivist, found original photographs for which I am most grateful.