When Clarion met Vaughan Williams

84adf861-5f6c-47eb-8ae2-8dd122aad5f1 Ralph Vaughan Williams

In 1945 Katharine Thomson wrote to Ralph Vaughan Williams, a Cambridge friend of her father, and asked him if Clarion could perform excerpts from his opera ‘Sir John in Love’. She mentioned in particular one member of Clarion, a baritone called Martin Marshall. Vaughan Williams replied, saying “I would like to meet your baritone”.

In August, Katharine, Martin and his wife Elsie went to Vaughan Williams’ house in Dorking where he gave them a warm welcome. In the composer’s study, accompanied by him on the piano, Martin sang Vaughan Williams’ beautiful song ‘Silent Noon’.

‘Sir John in Love’ was first performed by Clarion in its entirety in March 1949 at the Birmingham and Midland Institute. The director was Tom Harrison, Regional Director of the Midlands Arts Council. The opera was conducted by Professor Anthony Lewis from the University of Birmingham.

from The Birmingham Post 19th March 1949:

Composer Goes To Rehearsal: Vaughan Williams in Birmingham

With no fanfares of trumpets such as might fittingly have heralded the arrival in the city of our greatest composer to hear his own music rehearsed by Birmingham’s Clarion singers, Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams was welcomed here yesterday by his friend Tom Harrison, Midland Director of the Arts Council.
Undeterred by the most wintery of days the 77-year-old composer had left his Dorking home in the early morning and when he emerged from the 1.40p.m. train at Birmingham his natural bear-like proportions were made more massive still; for his grizzled head was alone visible above a mass of overcoats and rugs.
Refusing any rest Dr Williams went straight to the University annexe for the first orchestral rehearsal of his rarely heard opera “Sir John in Love” which is to have its first Midland hearing from the Clarion Singers in the Midland Institute on March 18 and 19.
He listened to this until 5.30 and after a quick cup of tea returned for the cast’s rehearsal which he followed until 9 o’clock.
“He could hardly be dragged away” said Mr Harrison today.
Asked his opinion on the reading of the work, which he followed on the score, Dr. Williams said: “It is such a long time since I heard it myself that your reading is probably better than mine. I enjoyed the experience enormously.”
This was the first visit to Birmingham by the composer since he came to hear Elgar’s work: “The Kingdom” in 1898, but his has been a familiar figure at Worcester meetings of the Three Choirs.

see also: Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1895-1958
edited by Hugh Cobbe

The Big Top

The Big Top site in Birmingham became home to a circus and a fairground

The Big Top site in Birmingham became home to a circus and a fairground

With the war moving into its final year, Clarion, along with the rest of the residents of Birmingham, were reflecting on the damage done to their beloved city. An area in the heart of the shopping centre had been particularly badly hit, and a circus and fairground were erected on the bombed site. This provided some well-needed relief from the trauma of war, and provided an accessible venue for the many emerging talents in the city.


Drawings of the Big Top performance from a letter by Martin Marshall to Katharine Thomson’s daughter, Margaret.


In 1944, the Choir were proud to present a performance of Professor Edward Dent’s new score of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” at the Big Top in New Street, Birmingham, as part of the Brighter Birmingham programme, produced by Tom Harrison, with accompaniment on harpsichord by Katharine Thomson.

Katharine Thomson: musical director and piano accompanist

Katharine Thomson: musical director and piano accompanist

Read more about

Birmingham’s Big Top here.