Classical Music, Theatre & Performance in Manchester
(1912-53) Kathleen Ferrier was born in Blackburn, Lancashire on 22 April 1912, and from humble beginnings as a telephonist in the 1930s she went on, within a decade, to become what many consider to be the finest contralto England has ever produced. From the outset she regarded her singing as little more than a hobby. She had no formal music training, but was a fine pianist and a good musician. She was also an accomplished painter. Her singing career really took off in 1942 when, on the advice of Sir Malcolm Sargent, she moved from Carlisle in Cumberland (now Cumbria) to live in London. In 1944 she made her first records. She became very much in demand during the war years and performed in many tours for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), developing an ever broadening repertoire of music, including Handel’s “Messiah” , and Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius” , as well as songs by Brahms, Mahler, Schubert and Schumann. She also performed operatic works by Benjamin Britten ( “The Rape of Lucretia” ). After the war she travelled extensively to perform in Europe, America and Canada. During the 1950s her voice became popular with an ever widening home audience through radio, and songs like “Blow the wind southerly” and “What is life to me without thee?” were ever popular requests long after her death. In the event, her performance of Gluck’s “Orfeo” at Covent Garden in 1953 and was to be her very last and she died on 8 October of that year.
Charles Alexander Calvert
(1828-1879) Charles Calvert is perhaps best remembered for lavish Shakespeare revivals presented in the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester in the 1860s and 1870s, at a time when Shakespearean plays were not very popular. He was born on 28th February 1828 in London, the son of a wholesale silk merchant, who had planned for his son to enter a career in Law. Charles refused this, however, and chose the church – unable to agree, his father eventually allowed him to enter trade, and set him to work in one of his silk warehouses. Calvert was an ardent theatregoer, and inspired by the actor Phelps performance in “Macbeth “, he determined to enter the acting profession. His first walk on role was in a play in Weymouth, and within 2 years he had become juvenile lead and stage manager in a theatre in Surrey. In 1856 he married the actress Adelaide Biddles, who frequently appeared beside him in dramatic productions. In 1859 he was invited by John Knowles to join his company as leading actor and stage manager at the Theatre Royal in Manchester. During his time in Manchester he achieved great acclaim as a Shakespearean actor, starring in most of Shakespeare’s leading male roles – Wolsey in “Henry VIII” , “King Lear” , Brutus, Shylock and Iago. Later he moved on to manage the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester, where his productions were earmarked by their lavish settings, enormous cast lists and elaborate costumes. In 1873, for example, he hired 170 local people as extras for “Henry V” . He insisted on hiring the best available – the best scene painters, costumiers, make-up artists, etc, and insisted that Shakespeare be spoken accurately and word perfect. In 1875 Calvert left for the United States of America and revived his Manchester production of “Henry V” which was met with widespread applause. His last performance in 1879 was at the Queen’s Theatre in Manchester, where he performed in “Aesop” , a play which had been specially written for him.
(1860-1937) Annie Elizabeth Fredericka Horniman, made a great contribution in pioneering work in the theatre and in the repertory theatre movement in Manchester. She actively encouraged writers like Shaw, Yeats and Synge and offered financial backing to their works. Born in Forest Hill in London in 1860, the daughter of a wealthy family, she used what inheritance she had in backing theatrical enterprises, and is responsible in many ways for sustaining much that was creditable in the Edwardian and early 20th century theatre in England. She had been educated at the Slade School of Art and travelled extensively. Her first contact with the theatre was when she supported a season of plays by Bernard Shaw at the Avenue Theatre in London. Later in Ireland she supported Yeats and gave financial backing to the Irish National Theatre Society in Dublin. In 1907 she came to Manchester to form a drama company where they opened in the Midland Theatre at the Midland Hotel. In 1908 she purchased the Comedy Theatre in Peter Street and renamed it the Gaiety Theatre. From then until 1921, when the theatre was sold, her repertory company performed hundreds of plays, many as debut performances of original works commissioned from local playwrights – the so-called “Manchester School”. Amongst these were Stanley Houghton’s “Hindle Wakes” (See below), and Harold Brighouse’s “Hobson’s Choice” . Many famous actors and actresses performed at Horniman’s Gaiety Theatre – amongst them Cybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson. In 1933 she received an honorary MA from Manchester University and was made a Companion of Honour. A plaque inside Television House in Peter Street marks the former site of the Gaiety Theatre.
William Stanley Houghton
(1881-1913) Probably the best known of the so-called ‘Manchester School’ of dramatists, Stanley Houghton was born in Ashton-upon-Mersey in Cheshire. A delicate boy whose family were continually moving house, he was educated at many schools, and excelled as a talented scholar. In 1896 his parents moved to Alexander Park in Manchester, and Houghton attended the high-flying Manchester Grammar School. Choosing not to follow an academic career at university, he went directly from school into his father’s cotton business, while spending every spare moment developing his skills at writing plays. He supplemented his income by writing critical reviews for the “Manchester Guardian” and the “Manchester City News” , though frequently he did this work without pay. He also acted in several small dramatic productions and wrote a few melodramas, a genre which he was persuaded to abandon by Annie Horniman (see above). Eventually, his writing gained popular acclaim, and in 1908 Horniman’s Gaiety Theatre produced his one act comedy “The Dear Departed” , followed by his “Independent Means” in 1909 and “The Younger Generation” in 1910. In 1912, his play “Hindle Wakes” was so successful that Houghton felt at last able to take up playwriting full time. The play, representing a close observation of Lancashire life, and presented by Miss Horniman’s Company, was first performed in the Aldwych Theatre in London. Houghton was hailed as a dramatic genius, and he took a flat in London. Later he moved to Paris. However, after only a few weeks in the French capital, he was taken ill suddenly. After a partial recovery, he worked on a novel entitled “Life” , but recurrent bouts of illness saw his health gradually deteriorate, and it developed into meningitis. He was moved back to Manchester, and he died on 11th December 1913 – only a month after moving to Paris, and a year as a full-time writer. A plaque commemorating Houghton can be found in the Local History Library in Manchester Central Library.