One Hallelujah too many - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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One Hallelujah too many

On a couple of occasions when I can have been no more than 7 years old, I walked with Mum and Dad, and possibly Grandma and Grandad, the short distance across the fields to Stourton Chapel. It was renowned in the 1930s and 1940s for its amateur performances of sacred oratorios. On one of those occasions there was a performance of Stainer's oratorio The Crucifixion (scored for tenor and bass soloists, four-part choir, organ and congregation) and on the other an amateur performance of Handel's Messiah where the organ substituted for an orchestra, as frequently happens for amateur performances. I was absolutely spellbound. It was the first time I had heard performances of either work but my parents had, apparently, discerned that I was already very keen on classical music. The chapel was eminently suitable for public choral performances because it had a large area at the front to accommodate the choir, a pulpit that could be used for the soloists when necessary, a splendid pipe organ, and a balcony that extended around three sides of the hall, providing another 100 seats or so, all with an excellent view of the 'stage' area.

Many times my parents regaled me with the story of one amateur performance of Messiah when a soprano in the choir accidentally added a solo fifth 'Hallelujah' in what was supposed to be a half bar of complete silence after the four fortissimo Hallelujahs just before the triumphant plagal cadence Hallelujah at the end of that famous chorus. How embarrassing that must have been for the unfortunate lady. Then there was the story of the visiting amateur tenor, a certain Mr Varley, and his fall from grace when performing the solo aria Thou Shalt Break Them. Twice in the course of this aria the tenor soloist has a precarious leap to a high A on the word 'break' in the phrase 'Thou shalt break them in pieces' (only one note lower than the top note in Nessun Dorma). Everyone who knows the aria waits for these two notes: they are the highlight of the piece and a severe test for tenors, professional as well as amateur. On the occasion in question, Mr Varley apparently hit the high A perfectly first time, but he missed the second completely as his voice broke into a croak. The members of the congregation were very unforgiving and apparently the story did the rounds for years afterwards. Even today when I go to performances, or listen to recordings, of Handel's Messiah, as I frequently do, I always think of those two unfortunate singers of more than 70 years ago.

On returning home to Wakefield after our visits to Leeds, we normally got off the bus in the Bull Ring and walked down Market Street. Halfway down Market Street on the right was the General Post Office. It was the only main post office in Wakefield and was always referred to simply as "the GPO".

Above: This image of Market Street was taken in 2012. In the 1940s the GPO occupied the low-roofed building behind the street lamp.
One evening, extremely dark because of the blackout, an elderly lady stopped us as we neared the GPO and asked Dad if he had a torch. He had. She asked if he would carefully shine the light onto a letter she was about to post. "I have to put a stamp on the envelope but I don't want to put it on upside down," she explained. "That would be such bad manners - and so disloyal to the King." she added.

Continuing down Market Street we passed the famous cattle market on the right, across Ings Road where Denis Parkinson, the legendary Isle of Man TT motorcycle rider had his garage, and then continued along Denby Dale Road - passing under another of the LNER 99 Arches, probably about Bridge 80, and past row after row of grotty back-to-back terraces, on the way to Cotton Street. In a tiny shack on the left in the shadow of the LNER bridge, alongside the beck, a cobbler plied his trade. Whenever we needed repairs to our shoes, we took them to him. My shoes needed repairing frequently. "Sole and heels" was the order and that was understood to include new metal studs at the toes and under the heels. Nominally, the soles were made of leather, carved from larger sheets of the stuff, but my soles seemed to wear out so quickly that I wonder now whether it was real leather or some artificial wartime substitute. The beck, recently dredged to try and reduce the flooding risks, still flows slowly along on its way to empty into the Calder on Thornes Lane Wharf. If you know where to look, the shell of the cobbler's shack, now almost hidden from view by a large fence, is still where it always was but it is now in a totally decrepit state.

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