Hugh Blair: Worcester’s Forgotten Organist
by Kevin Allen
329 pages, including appendices and index.
With black & white illustrations
ISBN: 978 0 9531227-7-6
First published 2019
Devotees of the service of Choral Evensong will almost certainly be familiar with the noble setting of the Canticles known as Blair in B minor. If you know something of the life and works of Sir Edward Elgar you may well have encountered the name of the composer of those Canticles, Hugh Blair, as a friend and early champion of the great composer. Beyond that, though, most people will know nothing of Blair. I was certainly among those whose knowledge of him was negligible until I received a review copy of this new biography by Kevin Allen. Mr Allen is well qualified to explore the life, work and music of Hugh Blair; he has previously written Elgar in Love (2000), an account of the composer’s late-life affection for the young violinist, Vera Hockman. He is also the author of August Jaeger: Portrait of Nimrod (2000).
Hugh Blair was born in Worcester in 1864. His father, Robert, was a prominent figure in the city, both as a clergyman and as a schoolmaster. Young Hugh studied with the Cathedral organist, William Done (1815-1895) from 1878, soon becoming an articled pupil. Done, an important figure in this story, was born and bred in Worcester and spent his entire life in the musical service of its cathedral, becoming Organist in 1844. In 1884, at the age of 19, Hugh Blair went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he was appointed College organist almost immediately. With the post came the important responsibility for twice-daily services in the Chapel. Kevin Allen also points out that Blair’s time in Cambridge coincided with part of the period when Stanford was exerting great and beneficial influence on musical life through his direction of the Cambridge University Music Society. Allen suggests, plausibly, that some of Stanford’s insistence on high standards and sense of musical enterprise must have rubbed off on Blair.
Hugh returned to Worcester 1886 and was appointed Assistant Organist to William Done at the cathedral. It is clear from Allen’s narrative that this was far from a well-defined role. However, Blair seems to have been diligent in his work for the cathedral and, in addition, he made his mark on the wider musical scene in the city. In 1889 Done asked to retire. The Dean and Chapter were generous in their financial treatment and they also allowed Done to retain the title of Organist. Blair was Organist-in-Charge for the next six years until Done died. It might be said that Blair was in office but not in power because not only did the Precentor of the Cathedral exert final authority over the music but, in addition, William Done was a respected background figure who still played some active part in the musical life of the cathedral and city. One consequence was that when the Three Choirs Festival was held in Worcester in 1890 Blair played an important role but far less so than would have been the case had he been formally in the post of Organist. One significant event at that Festival was the first performance, under the composer’s direction, of a concert overture entitled Froissart by a local man, one Edward Elgar.
The friendship - and musical alliance - between Hugh Blair and Edward Elgar runs like a thread through this book. The friendship really began to blossom when Elgar and his wife returned to live in Worcestershire in the summer of 1891 after Elgar’s first, abortive attempt to establish himself in London. Blair became a regular guest at Forli, the house in Malvern Link where the Elgars set up home. Even when living in London, Elgar had returned to Worcester for musical engagements as a violinist and one such was in late 1890 when Blair, who was by then running the Worcester Festival Choral Society, invited Parry to come to conduct a performance of his oratorio Judith. That was typical of Blair’s ambitious programme planning. The performance was a success.
The Worcester Festival Choral Society (WFCS) became the focus of the Blair-Elgar musical alliance. Blair was the Conductor – as with the Cathedral, William Done remained the titular head - and in due course the Society resolved to establish its own orchestra with Elgar as its leader. The first fruit of their collaboration was Elgar’s cantata The Black Knight. Kevin Allen shows the important role that Blair played, firstly by encouraging Elgar to complete the work and then by arranging for WFCS to give the first performance in 1893. Elgar conducted the premiere but it was Blair who prepared the chorus.
Blair promoted his friend’s music again the following year. The Duke of York (later King George V) paid a visit to Worcester and Blair commissioned Elgar to write a piece for the civic service in the cathedral. Sursum Corda for strings, brass, organ and timpani was the result and Blair conducted its first performance. He did Elgar further service in 1896. First, he promoted the premiere of Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands with the WFCS, which Elgar conducted. Then, in what would turn out to be Blair’s last Three Choirs Festival, he put an important commission Elgar’s way: his first oratorio, The Light of Life. Elgar conducted but it was Blair who assiduously rehearsed the chorus. The Light of Life is a work that is dwarfed in every respect by Elgar’s three subsequent oratorios but the work was an important staging post for him on his way to composing those masterpieces.
Kevin Allen also relates the story of one other Elgar premiere. In March 1895 Blair invited his friend and colleague to write a large-scale organ piece to be played when a large group of American organists was due to visit Worcester in July of that year. In response Elgar produced his Organ Sonata. Unfortunately, as Allen tells us, the composition proceeded in fits and starts because Elgar was distracted by other commitments and a bout of illness. As a result, Blair received the full completed manuscript just five days before the scheduled premiere and had little time to learn and practice a complex, demanding piece. Almost inevitably, the premiere was far from flawless. Rosa Burley, a great admirer of Elgar’s music, was present at the performance and delivered a fairly damning verdict: “His performance of the sonata showed that he had either not learned it or else had celebrated the event unwisely for he made a terrible mess of poor Elgar’s work.” (My italics.) Presumably she was ignorant of the difficulties under which Blair had laboured; had she known she might have delivered a more fair-minded verdict. However, the words I have italicised are highly relevant, for here we have the first reference in the story to Blair’s Achilles heel: his weakness for alcohol. Kevin Allen indicates that this problem had been known about but, it seems, hidden under the carpet. The very next month, in August 1895, William Done died and Blair was duly appointed Organist of Worcester Cathedral. But even as he achieved his ambition trouble lurked around the corner. On Christmas Day, it appears that he celebrated too well and too early in the day and as a result he was unfit to play for the afternoon service.
Mr Allen indicates that this incident was hushed up but Blair, perhaps seeking refuge in a drink or two as a respite from a continually punishing schedule, was unable to mend his ways. Formal warnings from the Dean and Chapter followed and in June 1897, sensing probably that he was on borrowed time with his employers, he tendered his resignation. Oddly, he cited his imminent marriage and consequent wish to move away from Worcester as the reason for his resignation.
Blair married Catherine Mary Dorrell on 24 June 1897. His bride, who always went by the name ‘Cill’, came from solid Worcester roots: her father owned a drapery store in the city which in the years that followed became a large department store in the city. (In passing, I presume that Cill Blair was a direct antecedent of the former Cabinet minister, Stephen Dorrell, who served as a Conservative MP from 1979-2015.) There was a major falling-out with the Chapter when Blair returned from his honeymoon and his resignation changed into dismissal.
After what seems to have been a financially stretched period, the Blairs turned up in London in 1899 and Hugh’s fortunes recovered. He secured the post of Organist at the fashionable church of Holy Trinity, Marylebone. He also became Borough Organist and Music Director for the London Borough of Battersea and his experience there is very interesting. It seems that Blair pursued an enlightened and energetic programme of providing musical enrichment for the people of the borough and in this he had the support of the councillors. However, the Council ran into trouble with the District Auditor who more than once ruled their expenditure on these activities – including Blair’s salary – to be outside the Council’s powers. Eventually, the Council had to give in and bring Blair’s employment to an end: a victory for Jobsworths?
One very interesting aspect of Kevin Allen’s book is that the Worcester connection does not, as you might have expected, come to an end with Blair’s departure from the city. For one thing, he clearly retained great respect there, even to the extent that some of his future doings were reported in the local Worcester papers. Even more interestingly, one gets the feeling that perhaps the Dean and Chapter experienced “seller’s remorse” at having got rid of Blair. He was succeeded by Ivor Atkins (1869-1953), who held the post of Organist until 1950. Atkins became a pillar of the Three Choirs Festival and was eventually knighted for his services to music. However, from the story related here it would appear that at least his first years in Worcester were somewhat rocky. There were frequent arguments with the Dean and Chapter and some of the contemporary comments quoted by Mr Allen suggest that both the Cathedral authorities and the Worcester Festival Choral Society may at times have hankered after the Blair days. In fairness to Atkins, he appears to have been scrupulously courteous to his predecessor.
The narrative of Blair’s later life is much less full than is the story of his life and career prior to his departure from Worcester. Without doubt that will be because he went from being a prominent fish in the relatively small pool that was Worcester to being one of very many musical fishes in the London ocean and so source material is greatly reduced. He gradually abandoned the composition of works on a large scale, though he continued to compose smaller-scale pieces until his last years. His friendship with the Elgars continued, though contact lessened during World War I and became even less frequent after Lady Elgar’s death in 1920. Cill Blair died, aged 73, in June 1929 and Blair himself died in July 1932 at the age of 68. A small but telling tribute was paid to Blair at the Three Choirs Festival, which took place in Worcester in September 1932. The Thursday morning concert in the Cathedral began with Elgar himself conducting The Music Makers. At the end of the piece (there was no applause in those days) Atkins arranged for a quartet of trombones to play Beethoven’s Equali. The musicians were placed in the cloister and, with the doors into the cathedral left open, their solemn sounds could be heard by the audience inside. It must have been a poignant moment, not least for Elgar on the rostrum.
Kevin Allen has written a detailed and most interesting account of the life and work of an English musician who deserves to be better known. The impression one gets from these pages is of a highly talented and extremely committed musician, one who was keen to make his mark, though not for selfish reasons. Hugh Blair was anxious to ensure that music was performed to the best possible standard and equally keen to give audiences and the amateur musicians who played under his direction a stimulating and varied musical diet: his programmes could not be described as lacking in ambition. (It was Blair, for instance, who introduced the Three Choirs Festival to Verdi’s Requiem in 1896.) Mr Allen paints a pretty rounded picture of his subject, I think. He does full justice to Blair’s energy and musical enterprise and, rightly, emphasises how encouraging he was to those who sang or played under his baton – it seems that Ivor Atkins, who followed him in Worcester, was more of a taskmaster. On the other hand, Allen is even-handed in discussing Blair’s weaker areas. His dependence on alcohol is not dodged, even if, probably with fairness, Allen suggests that it may have been Blair’s way of coping with excessive work demands. He also quotes extensively from contemporary reports of Blair’s concerts, many of which suggest that he was insufficiently experienced as a conductor to overcome the many practical obstacles to presenting concerts in the late nineteenth century, especially when an orchestra was involved; without question, he was over-ambitious in the scope and number of works he tried to present in individual concerts. Blair’s relationship with Elgar – and the importance of his support for Elgar at the start of his career – is very thoroughly detailed. Incidentally, Elgar devotees will note that a few of the characters portrayed in the ‘Enigma’ Variations are frequently mentioned in these pages: George Robertson Sinclair, the Organist of Hereford Cathedral (Variation XI); Richard Penrose Arnold, whose writings in the Worcester press were supportive of both Blair and Elgar (Variation V); and, most of all Winifred Norbury (Variation VIII) who sang as a soprano for Blair in both the WFCS and in the Three Choirs chorus and whose contemporary journals include a significant record of Blair the conductor.
Mr Allen paints a vivid picture of musical and cathedral close life in Worcester at the time. From other accounts that I’ve read I was already aware that an enterprising conductor faced an uphill struggle in those days and Allen confirms this point strongly; Blair’s efforts could fairly be described as heroic at times. That said, I do think that sometimes Mr Allen is rather too extensive in his quotations from contemporary correspondence and press reports. To be sure, these convey a good flavour of the times, and solid primary sources are crucial to historical and biographical writing. I have to confess, though, that there were times when I grew a little weary of reading orotund Victorian prose.
The reader of this book will get a strong portrait of Hugh Blair the man and of Hugh Blair the executant musician. I’m less sure that they will obtain sufficient evaluation of Blair the composer. In one of the appendices, Mr Allen lists Hugh Blair’s compositions. It’s a lengthy schedule and it covers almost all genres other than operatic and stage music. Unsurprisingly, the list is heavily tilted towards choral, liturgical and organ music but several orchestral and chamber pieces are mentioned also. I wish Kevin Allen had discussed some of these pieces in more detail and given his readers a flavour for what the music is like. I’m familiar with the B minor Canticles – albeit in a heavily edited version by Ivor Atkins: how does that compare to Blair’s original, I wonder? However, as Allen says, there are six other sets of Canticles which are “virtually unheard and unknown”. Two works that Mr Allen does discuss in a little detail are the Short Sonata in G major for organ (1903) and the Piano Trio in D minor (1899). The latter is described as “a large-scale four-movement work in the Brahms-Schumann mould, one of Blairs’s most ambitious compositions; a reflection of his recent trials and upheavals.” Though the work was published, Mr Allen comments that it is “unknown and unplayed to this day”. His description made me curious to hear it and it sounds to me as if it could be worth the attention of Trio Anima Mundi if they have any thoughts of a follow-up to their recent disc of unknown English Piano Trios which was so highly commended by John France in January (review). I think it’s a pity that Mr Allen doesn’t bang the drum more loudly for Blair’s music.
The end of the book seems rather to peter out. After describing the Three Choirs concert at which Blair was commemorated, there is no concluding evaluation of Hugh Blair, which I would conventionally expect in a biography. To be fair, this has been covered to some extent in the Preface but even so I would have liked to read Mr Allen’s summary of Hugh Blair’s life, shortcomings and, especially, his achievements after he has guided us through his life and career so thoroughly and sympathetically.
In that Preface Kevin Allen says this of Hugh Blair: “He was a man ahead of his time, executant, conductor, composer, educator, visionary, a true leader of music in his community and a precursor of the many-sided figure that a Cathedral organist is now expected to be.” In the carefully researched, thoroughly detailed and fairly argued pages that follow I think he makes that case persuasively. He achieves this, moreover, in a very readable style. I came away from this book feeling that the description of Blair as “a true leader of music in his community” was singularly apt, and it applied not only to his activities in Worcester but also to the work he later tried to do for the residents of Battersea. Hugh Blair may be Worcester’s forgotten organist but Kevin Allen ensures that anyone who reads this book will come to feel that they know and appreciate far more about this gifted musician.