Fifty years of music – by Mabel Brown


There will be few dates in these personal jottings which span almost six decades of my membership of the Seaford Choral Society. History does not concern itself solely with dates but with the events that gave them significance, and the people who created links with the past and the present. To be honest, however, I can no longer remember dates! One year will remain, though, the year when I walked into what was then an evening class under the auspices of East Sussex County Council Education Authority. That was my first meeting with the Choir, rehearsing a work that was new and strange to me , by a composer of whom I had never heard – ‘Highways, A Cantata of Travel’ by Gordon Jacob! The year was 1957 – the year of the Asian flu – and I had just joined the Seaford Choral Society, which makes me one of the longest serving members.

I was entering a very different group from the one that exists today. Michael Lane, County Music Adviser for East Sussex, who later became the Society’s first President, was conducting. In those days, we worked from 7.30 until 9.00 with no break for coffee, the venue was free and I cannot remember if we paid anything! We did not give concerts but prepared works for performance in the Lewes Festival, run by the county as a competition during the nineteen sixties, and providing various categories such as madrigals, part songs, oratorio choruses, so that local choirs could compete according to their size and ability. A cup, which we once won, was awarded as an incentive. All choirs could participate in an annual performance in Lewes of a work conducted by such eminent conductors as Peter Gelhorn, Sir Adrian Boult and Eric Robinson, who presided over a concert performance of ‘Carmen’ with Monica Sinclair in the title role. A highlight for me, however, was the wonderful ‘St John Passion’ directed by Dr Paul Steinitz in Lewes Town Hall in 1965.

All good things seem to run out of money though, and the Lewes Festival was, doubtless, no exception, or perhaps the popularity for competitive Choral festivals was on the wane. It probably led, however, to Seaford Choral Society ultimately leaving the protection of the State and going private. In 1963, a committee was formed to organise and provide greater financial security. Cecil Coram was appointed the first paid conductor at £10 per term. In 1970 the Society finally became independent and, round about that time, I began to play a part in the running and organisation of the Society; I joined the committee as Minutes Secretary. In 1984 I took up the reins as Secretary proper and I continued until 2008 when the committee decided to limit the services of its officers to five years.

Music Directors have come and gone over the years, but all have left their mark on the Society and its members. Some have remained on the outskirts of my consciousness because they have forged no permanent links; others have succeeded in creating the kind of relationship, based on mutual respect and trust, which inspires confidence. For example, Michael Lane taught me to sing by introducing me to Rita McKerrow, a member of Glyndebourne Chorus, who discovered that I was a soprano – I had been singing alto all my singing life because I could improvise and liked singing the harmonies! – and she became a wonderful friend until she died at the age of 80. She entered me for festivals; I won cups, after which I was given small solos by the Choral Society, especially at Christmas – I cannot recall which conductor allowed me to sing ‘I Saw Three Ships’ with Anthony (Rolfe) Johnson, and second soprano in Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’ with Elizabeth Lane, who followed her father as President. Glenys Ottaway, now retires in Wells in Somerset, was my duet-partner when Mavis Lister asked us to be the First and Second Witches in Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ with a request that we wear black blouses instead of the usual white, and green scarves! I have a vivid memory of gazing out over the sea of faces in the hall of Seaford Head School and willing the audience to SMILE! I recollect that Charles Spanner did not always remember to choose his own soloists, so the task often fell to me as secretary to go through the piles of C.V.s that came through the post. I was very glad when they were accompanied by tapes! No one seemed to complain about my selections, I am pleased to say. He did me one favour though; he gave me my first paid singing job, to sing at a wedding in Eastbourne, as his regular soprano was unavailable.

And so it continues, some hairy moments for all of us under the baton of Gordon Lawson, who was a composer and liked to use his choir to perform his not always straightforward music; and Margaret Darwall Smith, who joined the Choir at about the same time as I did, and has returned time and again to pick up the pieces both as accompanist  and conductor in her own right. I am proud to count her among my conductor-friends, with John and Val Underhill, our man-and-wife team, for whom I instituted and organised our website. I picture John and me sitting beside a roaring fire on a very wintry evening in my sitting room, taking it in turns to phone 80 plus members to tell them that the rehearsal had been cancelled – I had free evening phone calls! And Sion Parry, our present maestro, with his energy, enthusiasm and attention to detail, who I, as Secretary, helped to appoint.

Finally, I can reflect upon what they, in their turn, have offered me. Not always willingly, I must admit, have I accepted. In return, I have given my time, my effort, my musicianship, my voice to the service of the Society to create the music from which we can all derive emotional and spiritual joy and satisfaction. I acknowledge with gratitude the help and support which I have received throughout my fifty seven years, (less a couple of medically necessary absences) from many wonderful people. Why did I stay? Because singing together brings its own rewards, the companionship of like-minded people, the mutual striving for the impossible, the inspiration and the exhilaration of achievement. If you ask a man why he will climb a mountain, he might reply “Because it is there!”. I am no mountaineer but I would like to hope that the Seaford Choral Society will continue ‘to be there’ for all its members, present and future, to experience and enjoy the same sense of fulfilment as I have done for over fifty years from a task well done!

Mabel D. Brown, April 2014