Tony Clarke's Choral Music

81 Years – 1926-2007

by Tony (Edward Anthony) Clarke

October-November 2008

[Edited Dec-Jan 2010-11 /Jan 2020]

It has been suggested that since so much of his life has been associated with choirs, a summary would not go amiss. It has to be said that in an unremarkable life his one success is that he has always been welcomed in any choir from the Australian country through a variety of social and church choirs to the Sydney Philharmonia under world class conductors. There were also a number of staged musicals by the Bundaberg Players in which he had solo parts. At one point he was asked to take over as conductor of a Male Choir which was quite an accomplishment.

Portsmouth – 1926-39

So where did it begin? It is already recorded that he talked himself into St. Jude’s choir at around 7 yrs [so from 1926 until at least 1930-31, but possibly until as late as 1933]. It consisted of 22 boys and 16 men with the Organist and Choirmaster, "Merryfield" a Headmaster of a local school. Discipline was thorough. Choir practice for the boys was Mon/Tues/Thurs and Fridays with 3 Services on Sundays. These were according to the almost now almost-defunct King James Prayer Book with Matins and Evensong and a Children’s afternoon service.

The quality was equivalent to most Cathedral choirs of today, with the alto, tenor and bass sections having only an 8 to 9 Friday rehearsal but as experienced sight readers new works were no problem. This constituted almost his sole musical training apart from the various conductors along the way.

He also sang in the St Cuthbert's church choir after he moved to Copnor in 1930, ending up as Top Boy [1930-33?]. [St Cuthbert's still has a choir.]

But he missed out on the school choir, because he was nervous when he auditioned, and his voice came out as a squeak.

He returned to St Judes in 1938-39, by then as a bass. [But it appears that St Judes no longer has a choir, nor even an organ.]

By the late 1930s he had successfully auditioned for the high-quality Portsmouth Choral Union, which was formed about 1880 and was run in Tony's time by Bertram (Bertie) Bradshaw. Bradshaw came from Gt Yarmouth, but taught at Portsmouth Grammar from 1926, and was French Master in the early 1930s, and Tony's teacher. [Bradshaw was the Conductor from 1933, aged 30, until his unexpected death in 1962, aged 59. He conducted 112 times, including radio and a TV broadcast. PCU is still very active, but if it appears to lack a functioning web-page.]

Some further details of pre-Australia choral activity are already in Tony’s Story.

Alexandria – 1941, 1943-44

During the war, after brief encounters with France, the North Atlantic, Greece and Crete, there was a stay of two sessions of months in Alexandria, Egypt, and he was able to be in St. Mark’s choir. It was of course a mix up of members, almost all servicemen and available when duty permitted. Being from various choirs in England and the customary services being used it caused little trouble to the organist, "Wilkinson", and in fact Stainer’s Crucifixion was performed.

Portsmouth 1946-51

He rejoined the Portsmouth Choral Union [sometime in 1946, possibly before he was demob'd in August]. He offered to belatedly pay them for the sheet-music of Verdi's Requeim that he'd received in 1939 just before enlisting. They said not to bother. [There's a copy in the files that appears to be the music in question.]

St. Jude’s had changed with most of the boys gone, female sops. and altos and fewer men. He and Rene met there on Sun 9 Mar 1947. (His elder brother Fred had met May about 10 years earlier in the St Jude's bible study class).

Tony recommended Rene for the Portsmouth Choral Union, and Bertie Bradshaw accepted the recommendation on 1 Oct 1947.

According to an entry in Rene's 1948 diary, he also sang in the Orpheus Choir, at least in one performance at Copnor Methodist Church.

Kingaroy – 1951-53

[They migrated on 6 Jun 1951.] In Australa, first stop Kingaroy, Queensland where a choir was formed under Jim Christiansen. (Then only 20, James later made a name on the national stage as a baritone). They didn’t profess to be world beaters but enjoyed the work and put on concerts. [These local newspaper clippings report on what appears to be two separate performance of Stainer's 'The Crucifixion' at the same local CofE during the 2-3/4 years they were in Kingaroy, one a septet that included Rene as well as Tony and Fred (with May, as ever, at the piano). The adjacent headline for the septet performance is 'Sorrow at Queen Mary's Passing', which places that clipping soon after March 1953.]

There were also the C. of E. choir and the Lutheran Church choir to make up the 3 years there.

Portsmouth – 1954-55

[They returned to the UK because of illness in Rene's small family, leaving Australia on 4 Jan 1954. He was employed as a travelling salesman for Beechams, and he had no intention staying in the UK any longer than he had to. But it's possible that he re-joined the Portsmouth Choral Union while he was there, because his records included a copy of the Notice of AGM held on 5 July 1955.]

Bundaberg – 1956-68

[They re-migrated to Australia on 1 Jan 1956.] Next to Bundaberg, Q’land and assistance to the C.of E. choir and the Methodist church choir plus a mixed choir, under Mrs. Kendall, Messiah of course. Bundaberg Methodist choir under Cyril Wells was a pleasure. With fellow basses Tom Price and John Killer, he shared in the solos in the variety of work undertaken.

When the Bundaberg Male Philharmonic was formed (in mid-1956?), he was invited to conduct it, and did so for about 3 years [until he had a falling-out with the Committee over choice of music, and re-joined the ranks]. With soloists brought up from Brisbane and Sydney, the concerts were always a sell out. A joint undertaking with male choirs in Gympie and Maryborough with just over 100 men on stage and performed at all three cities was also a great success. [The 'Bundaberg Male Voice Choir' lasted c. 1956-65, and was no longer running in the city's centenary year of 1967.]

He also joined the Bundaberg Players [where Rene had sung in the chorus in Merry England in 1956 – within months of arriving in Bundaberg – and in The Merry Widow in 1957, before she took up a job in the cinemas]. He was in 8 successive annual musicals, initially in the chorus, but soon as major support and even lead – 1959 - Iolanthe, 1960 - White Horse Inn, 1961 - The Count of Luxembourg, 1962 - Bitter Sweet, 1963 - The New Moon, 1964 - Waltz Without End, 1965 - Oklahoma, 1966 - The Desert Song. [A photo in the Players' 1991 History booklet also shows him in a rehearsal for the chorus of HMS Pinafore in 1955. But he only arrived back in Australia in Feb 1956, and it's most likely Iolanthe in 1959].

Since being in the musicals with the B’berg Players was his own choice he made the most of his numbers. His only disappointment was in being badly cast in 'Bitter Sweet' – he disagreed with the director of how the part should be played and it was the only negative report he ever had in the local paper.

Meanwhile, the Kingaroy Choir had expanded some years later under brother Fred, and Tony took the solo part of 'Crucifixion', with Herb Grother, who was lead-tenor with the Bundaberg Players). [We have a Kingaroy Choral Society programme for another concert, on 23 July 1960, with Fred conducting, and Tony as Baritone soloist.]

Twelve years of satisfying music. With a celebratory year performance of his favourite 'Elijah' with all the local musical joining together, he took part in the chorus but also learnt the whole of the baritone solo to assist the accompanists’ rehearsal. The soloists came up from Brisbane for the concert.

[We have a Bundaberg Musical Society concert programme from 2 August 1962, where he's the Baritone among the 5 "Assisting Artists" and Pianist, singing 'The Lute Player' and 'Goin' Home'. And he did quite a few other solo appearances.]

[He also performed in 10 full-length plays and 2 One-Act plays with the Players – 1961 - Love's A Luxury, 1962 - Wanted One Body, including colleagues Tim Kimber and Gordon Dick (back wings), Andrew Robb and Jean Axam (front left), 1963 - Among Those Present (One Act), including Gordon Dick second from left and Harriet Perryn in the centre next to Tony, 1963 - The House by the Lake, 1964 - Wild Goose Chase, 1965 - Make It Murder, 1965 - Drums of Deliverance (One Act), 1965 - Laughter in the Dark, 1965 - Mother Goose, 1967 - E&OE, 1967 - Cinderella, 1968 - The Miser (the first production on stage in the New Playhouse).]

Sydney – 1969-84

[They moved to Sydney in Aug 1968.] With the move to Sydney things become a little complicated because, with Rene, at least six choirs were attended. There were 3 church choirs, most likely being

He had early applied for an audition for the Sydney Philharmonia, was successful. Formed in 1920, most Philarmonia concerts were with full orchestra (usually the Sydney Symphony), under renowned conductors, in the Sydney Town Hall including with the organ, and, from the Opening Night on 20 October 1973 onwards, at the Opera House . He’d reached the top. [His acceptance letter was dated 27 Mar 1969. His performances included two before the Queen, on 2 May 1970 and at the Royal Opening of the Sydney Opera House on 20 Oct 1973. He resigned in Feb 1977, but re-joined in 1978 [in time for Verdi's Requiem,again. A program from Jul 1981 was in his records, but he remained for some time after that, probably until 1984.]

Here's an article on the Philharmonia's 100th year in Jan 2020.

During a year or so break from the Philharmonia, (it was hard going getting to weekly practice from Nth. Syd. to the city centre, in heavy traffic and finding parking and daily travel for a week when concerts were on), he switched to the Willoughby Choir and Orchestra which practised and performed in Chatswood much closer to home. Yet once again 'The Crucifixion' cropped up and not for the last time! This lasted only a year and he rejoined the Philharmonia.

Campbelltown and Camden – 1985-2010

[They moved to Ruse on 30 Oct 1985.] Retirement and a move to Campbelltown. He joined the St John's Anglican Church choir in Camden [25km west] soon after arriving in Campbelltown. He spent 5 years or more there [c. 1985-90], but because of the so-called service format and general conduct of the congregation, he finally handed in his notice. [This photo appears to be from about 1988. Tony at rear left.] [It appears that the choir may have subsequently lapsed.]

He joined Macarthur Singers within a month of leaving the Camden Anglican (c. 1990). Macarthur Singers had been formed in 1977. He was particularly active after Lesley Challender took over (c. 1995). [I subsequently heard that he filled a void in about 1992-93, when a Conductor left without arranging succession. He was about 72 at that stage, and wanted to be a chorister not a conductor.]

He retired from the choir after Lesley left in 2005 [aged 85], but returned in 2007 [aged 87] when Jillian Bridge took over as conductor, and looked promising. He passed on to her his sheet-music, some CDs and a book on choirmastering that Roger had found at Ely cathedral in 2007. [It's no surprise that he thought Jillian looked "promising" as a conductor. She'd been conducting the Fisher's Ghost Youth Orchestra for the previous 15 years ... He had the temerity to 'coach' her, but she accepted his boldness in excellent spirit, and urged him to keep coming to rehearsals and performances, even arranging a stool when he could no longer stand. He'd always stood in the First Basses close to the Second Tenors, so he could switch parts when appropriate; but by then his voice – to the very end, in tune and with good tone – may not have been strong enough to make the difference it had in earlier years.]

[His last solo part in a church was a very difficult Bach piece performed in a concert at St John's Camden in c. 2000 (at about 81). His last lead-appearances were a solo performance of 'Where'er You Walk' and the baritone part of the famous 'The Pearl Fishers' duet, in a Macarthur Singers Christmas concert in 2005 (at not quite 86). He'd sung it just once before with a tenor (Frank Davies, in Bundaberg, c. 1965). This one, 40 years later was with a mezzo from the choir called Melanie.

His voice was still working well, but standing had become a big problem. So he performed in his last concert in late 2007 (at 87, going on 88). During 2008-10, at 88-90, he sat through many rehearsals with the Macarthur Singers, the last only 3-4 months before a carcinoma hospitalised him for the last time in early December 2010.]


[That seems to be about 20 choirs in all, some for extended periods, and several more than once, in some cases separated by long intervals as a result of absences for warfare and peripatetic migration.]

Apart from a multitude of small songs, the major works would be quite a list. Spread over his lifespan, 'Messiah' would average around every three years. The two Bach 'Passions', Beethoven’s 9th, Mass, Requiem, 'Elijah', concert version of 'Aida' and a variety of composers – Mozart, Berlioz, Brahms, Vivaldi, Bruckner, Haydn, Rutter, Faure, etc.

He never considered himself a soloist [although he was the lead baritone while he was in Bundaberg], but was often asked to do oddments at church. These were usually unsatisfactory and uninteresting pieces which he found trying.

[His commitment, from the beginning to the end, across a little over 8 decades, was not to solo parts, but to choral works, primarily church music, and especially oratorios.]

List of Major Choirs

St Jude's Anglican, Southsea, 1926-30/31 and 1938-39 (c. 6 years?)

Portsmouth Choral Union, 1937?-39 and 1946-50 (and 1954-55?) (c. 7 years?)

St Mark's Anglican Cathedral, Alexandria, 1941 and 1943-45 (c. 3 years?)

Bundaberg Male Philharmonic, 1956?-65?, incl. Conductor 1956?-59? (c. 10 years?)

Sydney Philharmonia, 1969-77, 1978-84 (c. 14 years)

St John's Anglican, Camden, 1985?-90? (c. 5 years)

Macarthur Singers, Camden, 1990-2010 (c. 20 years)

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Contact: Roger Clarke

Created: 7 Nov 2008; Last Amended: 1 Mar 2011, 19 Jan 2020