Thursday, 27 September 2007

Radical Conduct: How Sir Hugh Roberton created the 'People's Choir' and overcame a BBC wartime ban

During the early year of World War II, the BBC found itself at odds with Winston Churchill’s government over the issue of freedom of expression. This was not because the government objected to the Corporation’s news reporting, or because of any plans to broadcast the 1940s equivalent of Jerry Springer – The Opera. Rather, controversy blew up because the BBC itself had silenced the famous Glasgow Orpheus Choir, on account of the pacifist convictions of its founder and conductor. The man in question was Sir Hugh S. Roberton, known as ‘the Red Knight of Clydeside’, and the ban became a cause célèbre. When questions were asked in the House of Commons, Churchill weighed in decisively on Roberton’s side. ‘I see no reason to suppose that the holding of pacifist views would make him play flat’, he said.

For Roberton, music and radical politics were inextricably intertwined. One obituarist described him as ‘a man of an agile mind, a facile pen, and a caustic tongue; gifts which can be dangerous when turned in the direction of impulsive politics.’ The writer went on to suggest that ‘Music saved him from a possible misdirection of his energies.’ But this showed a fundamental lack of understanding of the man’s career. For Roberton – ex-undertaker, musical autodidact and inspirational choirmaster – music was not an alternative to political struggle, but was in itself a means of social progress. As he put it in 1913, a few years after forming the Orpheus: ‘Our mission is to illumine and enkindle. … We stand with the flower of our art held high in flaming protest against all that is false, against inanity, sordidness, affectation, pride, greed, misery, poverty, wantonness, ignorance, snobbishness, insincerity – against everything that tends to keep humanity from the consummation of a high ideal’. Roberton’s belief in leftwing causes was not a distraction from the pursuit of his gifts, but stood at the heart of his musical commitment.

Roberton was born in 1874 in Glasgow, the third child of a family of six. Not much is known about his early life, but according to his brief entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he learnt hundreds of folk songs from his mother, Mary, who was an enthusiastic singer although she had no formal training. He demonstrated exceptional musical skills at an early age. When he was ten years old, he conducted a group of children. Everything he learned about music he taught himself, as he picked up experience singing in and directing church choirs. Later opinion judged that he had a genius for conducting, ‘since he evoked from his fingers the feeling for the natural expression of every song.’ He was also to become a prolific composer, writing around three hundred pieces (his best known is All in the April Evening). He was not immediately able to use his talent professionally, though. His father, James Roberton, was an undertaker, and Hugh was trained in the family business. In 1895 he took up the post of general manager of the Glasgow Tramway and Omnibus Company’s funeral department. It does not seem unreasonable to fancy that he may have felt about this the same way that H.G. Wells’s hero Mr. Polly felt about his apprenticeship in hosiery and gentlemen’s outfitting: ‘At times, indeed, he urged himself to a spurious curiosity about that trade, but presently something more congenial came along and checked the effort.’

Roberton’s opportunity to do something more congenial on a full-time basis came along in 1901. In that year, he applied, for the second time, for the Conductorship of the Toynbee House choir. (When he had applied the previous year the letter inviting him to interview went astray; but the post had become vacant again.) He got the job. The establishment at 25 Rottenrow, Glasgow, had been set up by a group of social reformers eager to imitate the example of Toynbee Hall in London. They had the idea of founding their own club for workingmen. Its choir had around forty members, and met in the club’s basement. At his first rehearsal, Roberton found the singing very rough and ready. But afterwards the group’s Secretary, Tom McDougall, declared to him ‘This is going to be a great Choir’. Roberton could not work out the grounds for this excitement, but McDougall was to be proved right.

The basement room soon became a hive of activity, as the choir practiced intensively, in an atmosphere of evangelical fervour. At times, Roberton’s acerbic nature made itself felt. One night, when he had at last got the choir to perform a particular phrase as he wanted it, the singers showed their delight. He later recalled: ‘I told them not to preen themselves, reminding them that dogs and cats and parrots and fleas and elephants could be taught to do things.’ One man, who objected to being compared to an elephant, left in a huff. But the methods paid off. In December 1903, the choir made its public breakthrough, bringing down the house at the City’s East End Exhibition. Then, in 1906, the group broke free of what it saw as the restrictive influence of the Toynbee club. In January of that year a members’ revolt led to the choir declaring its independence. Roberton suggested the name ‘Orpheus’, after the mythical poet and musician. In this new situation, the conductor’s conviction that music could contribute to the moral reformation of society remained constant. The ‘lawless individualism’, of the Scottish musical scene as he then perceived it was to be replaced with discipline, coordination and control. The workers who joined his choir, Roberton argued years later, ‘had discovered a loyalty, an abiding something to which they could dedicate themselves, and through that dedication, found expression for the gold that was in them.’

The choir’s repertoire was not overtly political. It focused on glees and other part-songs, and on simple arrangements of folk songs. However, the Edwardian era was a heady time for the young British Labour movement, and for the fledgling Independent Labour Party (ILP). Nowhere was its radicalism more pronounced than on Clydeside. Roberton, who acted as a Liberal Party agent in 1900, did not join the ILP himself until 1914. But he was sympathetic to it and played host to Ramsay MacDonald (who in due course was to become the first Labour Prime Minister) on the frequent occasions he addressed ILP meetings in Glasgow. Roberton became one of MacDonald’s few close friends. Moreover, in artistic terms, as Keith Middlemas notes in his book The Clydesiders, ‘Probably the finest flowering of the movement was the Orpheus Choir’.

The choir also gained national prominence. In 1945, Roberton recounted how, thirty-seven years before, the enthusiastic Tom McDougall secured its first London booking, after a ‘dictatorial interview’ with the Secretary of the Sunday League, which organised regular public concerts.
SECRETARY: ‘But we don’t want choirs; they’re of no interest to the public.’
McDOUGALL: ‘But you haven’t heard the Orpheus!’
SECRETARY: ‘No!’
McDOUGALL: ‘Then you don’t know what you’re talking about. Believe me, it is quite different, and it does interest the public.’
The Secretary relented, and the positive reviews of the concert led to the Orpheus taking on a tour of Britain. It spawned many imitators; and, by the 1920s, the fame of the ‘People’s Choir’ had spread abroad.

Roberton married in 1895 and again in 1909, and had a total of nine children. One of his sons later recalled growing up in a home where you could expect to find James Maxton, Keir Hardie and other visiting Scottish socialists arguing about over breakfast about the great issues of the day. The Great War further radicalised Roberton’s politics. At first, although no jingo, he supported the war effort. He wrote in The Lute, the choir’s monthly magazine, that ‘We want the British arms to succeed because we want our brothers everywhere to realise a greater freedom, and a greater freedom means greater art and greater life.’ But he stuck by MacDonald, who was vilified and hounded because of his opposition to the war. (MacDonald was subject to police surveillance, and when he came to stay with Roberton a bobby watched outside.) And soon, he too became a pacifist. By 1916 he had concluded, ‘War and art is an impossible combination’. In his view, war was ‘an insidious poison’ that brutalised people without them being conscious of it. This was why the work of the Orpheus was so important: ‘It holds aloft a torch-flame of beauty that the people may “open their eyes” and see, amid the darkness some light. When they see “a great light”, they will make short shrift of war makers.’ This was a utopian vision, but the pursuit of it led to some practical good. The Orpheus did concerts for soldiers in both world wars. Having witnessed a performance one military surgeon said that ‘never till then had he realised the healing power of music.’

By 1924, MacDonald had achieved political rehabilitation and reached the premiership. This brought Roberton and the Orpheus further into public prominence, when they performed at 10 Downing Street in April of that year, in the presence of the Duke and the Duchess of York (the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth). A royal command performance at Balmoral followed two years later. There was a tour of Canada and the USA, where the Choir found a warm welcome, although Roberton found the audiences were not ‘educated up’ to ‘the type of work we present’. This remark indicated, perhaps, an excessive earnestness on his part. This was reflected in the choir’s performances. Some British reviewers felt that, in spite of the Orpheus’s technical virtuosity, it had almost too much discipline, leading to a lack of musical spontaneity. The often melancholic nature of the repertoire also came in for criticism. One critic wrote: ‘Mr. Roberton’s crusading spirit has as its obverse a touch of that self-conscious pity which is the wrong kind of sentimentalism.’ Some might say that this comment could be applied to his politics as much as to his music.

That, perhaps, would be an unfair to a man who undoubtedly did much through his art to promote community and active citizenship. There is a perception that, during the interwar years, radio, gramophone, and the Americanization of the music industry made Britain a nation of listeners rather than performers. Although the Orpheus made regular broadcasts, the fact that its members were ordinary people challenges that idea. They were, it should also be noted, out for more than enjoyment. Duncan Hall, author of a book on the labour movement and music, writes that although for many on the left music was just ‘a pleasant change from politics’, it was also thought useful as ‘a weapon in the struggle.’ E. Rosslyn Mitchell was a Glasgow solicitor who sang in the Choir until, defeating the former Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, he became a Labour MP. Years later, he wrote to Roberton that ‘the Orpheus to me is a way of life, a life itself. It is philosophy, religion, politics, culture set to music.’

In 1929, MacDonald became Prime Minister for the second time, and in 1931 Roberton was knighted at his behest. In August of that year the Labour Party hit a crisis that was to tear it apart. In the face of a run on sterling, the cabinet split over whether or not to cut unemployment pay as part of a package of measures to restore financial confidence. MacDonald, who supported the cut, handed in the Labour government’s resignation, only to accept a commission from the King to form a ‘National Government’ in alliance with Liberals and Conservatives. Many socialists accused him of betrayal, and he was expelled from the Labour Party. Roberton stuck by him, however. ‘I should have written earlier but I was not sitting on the fence’, he told his old comrade, a few days after the formation of the National Government. ‘I wish you to know that we trust you absolutely.’ Remarkably, Roberton also managed to stay on good terms with his old ILP comrades. Towards the end of MacDonald’s life, after he had stepped down as Prime Minister, he invited him to a party, to which he persuaded some reluctant ILPers to attend. Although the idea was kindly meant, the result was inevitably awkward. When MacDonald died in 1937, the Orpheus sang at his graveside, heads bowed.

By the time of World War II, Roberton’s choir was an established national institution. It broadcast regularly on the BBC. But Roberton soon noticed a changed attitude on the part of the Corporation. There was, he later recalled, ‘a definite reluctance about arranging broadcasts.’ In April 1940, the Orpheus’s annual London concerts ‘were passed over for the first time since the early days of broadcasting.’ And the choir was not asked to broadcast to the troops. Roberton took the matter up, and towards the end of 1940 was invited to talk the issue over at a meeting of the BBC’s Glasgow HQ. The regional director told him ‘that by order of the Board of Governors, no person known publicly to hold pacifist views on the war would be allowed to broadcast’ but that if he had, by any chance, changed his views on the war ‘the matter could be there and then reopened.’ Roberton was outraged. He had not changed his views, he replied, which were his own business and which the majority of the Orpheus’s members did not even share. ‘I deprecated strongly this attempted interference with the liberty of the subject.’ He added that the Board’s attitude was ‘dictatorial and unjust’ and that he was ‘prepared to carry the matter to the bar of public judgement.’

The Corporation was subjected to a storm of public and press protest. Its justification for its actions was that ‘The B.B.C. does not in time of war invite to the microphone anyone publicly known to be opposed to the national war effort.’ The Manchester Guardian, coming down on Roberton’s side, argued that this principle was open to criticism. A pacifist thinker could not easily be asked to speak to a nation at war, it opined, ‘because his work is to persuade people to his views.’ But, ‘if a pacifist doctor offers his services to the state they can be accepted because his work is relieving the sick’. Such work was unaffected by the doctor’s opinions, and, the paper suggested, the same logic applied to musicians: ‘Sir Hugh Roberton, in spite of being a pacifist, was offering something valuable to the “national war effort”.’ The Glasgow Evening News reached a similar conclusion, in rhyme: ‘though his views invite disaster, he’s quite a decent wee choirmaster.’

In March 1941, forty members of parliament tabled a motion objecting to ‘political discrimination’ when state organizations gave employment. Neil Maclean MP raised Roberton’s case directly with the Prime Minister. Churchill gave his response – that he did not see why a man’s views should affect his musicianship, and that he would endeavour to make the BBC governors ‘play up’. By April, though, the ban had still not been lifted. Roberton appealed to Churchill’s former colleague David Lloyd George. The ex-Prime Minister wrote back: ‘It is a scandal. I will once again get into touch with those concerned and see whether the thing cannot be put right.’ This proved unnecessary, though, because another MP, G.R. Strauss, put in a further question to Churchill. His response was that he had now received an assurance from the governors that the ban on the choir had definitely been removed. The battle was over, and the Orpheus broadcast again in June. Its warm relationship with the BBC was in due course restored. ‘We have every reason to be proud of our success’, Roberton wrote. ‘Not only have we justified our position, which from the beginning was unassailable, we have established once and for all the principle of no political discrimination in matters of art.’

In the post-war years, the choir’s success continued unabated. Roberton’s radicalism was undimmed. In 1946, he gave the funeral oration for James Maxton, the fiery ILP leader who, like him, had opposed the war. He described him as ‘a good man, a just man, a true man and a man without malice.’ Giving the speech, Roberton wrote afterwards, was ‘the greatest trial and the greatest honour of my life.’ He himself was growing old, and came to feel that he was no longer able to give the Orpheus the energetic leadership it needed. In 1950 he took the tough decision to disband the choir while it was still at the height of its achievement. Appropriately, its final event, a Ceilidh in tribute to Roberton, was held at the Festival Hall, an emblem of Attlee’s Britain, a few weeks before the fall of the Labour government in 1951. Roberton’s last political act was to sign a letter to The Times, jointly with Vera Brittain, Donald Soper and others, opposing the new government’s support for German rearmament – an important issue in the Cold War. In October 1952, he died in Glasgow at the age of 78.

His musical ideals survived him. The ‘Phoenix Choir’ was born out of the ashes of the Orpheus and remains a Glasgow institution to this day. But this is not his only legacy. He deserves, of course, to be credited as a champion of free expression in time of war. Today, when civil liberties are increasingly challenged in the name of security, his principled stand is worth commemorating. He also should be given credit for his broader vision. His pacifist and socialist opinions may be thought unrealistic. But without his sense of mission he could never have built his community of singers, brightening not only their lives but also the lives of others. Radical conduct, in both music and politics, is dependent on the ability to dream.

2 comments:

Mary Irvine said...

Am writing a biography of peace campaigners Margaret and Bobby Harrison of Dumbarton. During an interview a friend of theirs mentioned going to a concert in Glasgow in the 70s and meeting a suffragette. I know Roberton was log gone by then but could his wife have survived. The lady says she thinks the suffragette was the wife of a conductor of the Orpheus (Phoenix in 70s). Can you throw any light on the allusion, please?

Paul said...

His son Hugh Roberton became Minister for Social Services in Australia for the conservative National/Country party in the 1960s in the Robert Menzies led Coalition governments