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Trafalgar Day Concert

Chatham Dockyard Church, 21 October 2000

by Mike Bailey

Reprinted from an article in West Gallery no.18, January 2001.

Almost a year ago, Stephen Jones had a vision for a Grand Trafalgar Day Concert in the Millennium Year, and wrote to several other groups inviting them to join the Thomas Clark Quire in the project. A music book arrived at our regular Madding Crowd rehearsal the week before, along with Helen Mitcham and a nearly mute Tony Singleton (lost voice but competent driver). Ros Clements and Alan Weeks were also welcome guests at this rehearsal, when we ploughed through all the music at about twice the normal workshop speed.

Trafalgar Day saw eleven of Madding Crowd arriving at the impressive dockyard entrance arch. It seemed surreal when the guard welcomed us, all smiles: "You must be choir?" I guess they get a lot of choirs. The lovely church lay just ahead, built in 1808 and used for services for only a few years. Many old friends were already there, some even showing a sense of purpose, lots just milling around chatting, but this was not like a singing day. The allied fleet had to be under a single command by the evening concert, just over 6 hours away.

The interior of Chatham Dockyard Church
The interior of Chatham Dockyard Church

The massed choir of about 50 sat on a stage raised a good three feet, with the band on two lower levels in front. (Just getting the people seated took a fair time, but by 2pm we were singing.) Helen conducted from the pulpit, so the band sat on the angle in the hope of catching sight of some distant signal from on high. The choir, when standing, had a reasonable view, at least from the front ranks. Methodically, we ran through each of the 15 items, sorting out instrumentation, intros, interludes, codas, solos, tuttis. Soon after 5pm the rehearsal ended and we meandered out for a quick look at the dockyard, well worth a proper visit on another day.

The tea-room shut to the public and opened to us at 6pm, when we had a meal sufficient to fuel us through a watch at sea, punctuated by impromptu singing of 'Africa', 'Leicester' and the like. Thence to the undercroft, to don our costumes. Entering the church a little later in the cold evening air, one could see through the doorway utterly convincing groups of Georgian ladies and gentlemen dotted around, and as the audience gathered they must have felt transported to those times. We can easily overlook that the church is now much better heated and lit. One couple arrived in full costume as a midshipman and his lady. It didn't do to think of the body of knowledge in the audience, and how it might well in this place outweigh our own.

On the stroke of 8pm, Helen, wearing a splendid new band master's costume, stood in the crow's nest and launched her fleet into Psalm 8 OV to 'Otford'. We had a fair wind. The first half of the concert illustrated West Gallery music, mostly from Kentish sources, with metrical psalm and anthem interspersed with quotation and commentary of local relevance. Bearing in mind the anniversary, both a funeral hymn and Pope's Ode were included. We hove to, while Matthew Bettenson brought the audience back from potential doom and gloom with a lively talk about serpents, including the contrabass "George" and the tiny sopranino "Lucy". The fleet returned to port with Cranbrook , the audience singing with us: "Grace, 'tis a charming sound", but perhaps they sensed shore leave coming, as they didn't give it full sail.

Helen Mitcham in command
(photo: Alan Weeks)

Much fraternising with the enemy during the interval; who were thoroughly decent folk, and enjoying the concert, although by now shaped rather like Thames barges underneath, from the hard pews.

Lord Cornwallis's March sent the fleet into battle. The second half was a celebration of Lord Nelson and especially his victories, hence Thanksgiving for Victory by John Hill for Psalm 18, then Henry Tolhurst's Anthem and New Poole. Readings included some amusing anecdotes about Nelson and Lady Hamilton, and then we arrived at Trafalgar with a grand solo (Chris White) and chorus "England expects... ", to music by the Chatham composer Anton Radiger (also credited with Nos. 11 and 33 in the Union Tune Book). Helen surprised us all with a flight of fancy about the Bellerophon, then the patriotic sentiments continued with Rule Britannia as solo (by Hannah Miller) and chorus, instrumental parts edited by Tim Samuelson as close to Arne's as records permit. Then "God Save Great George our King" as we laid the Admiral to rest in St, Paul's and celebrated our naval supremacy. Finally Stephen Jones read Nelson's moving 'Prayer for the Fleet', The unique occasion, the unique venue, the Thomas Clark Quire assisted by members of Sussex Harmony, London Gallery Quire and others, some from considerable distances, made it a very enjoyable and special day for us all.

Music files:
Hymn for Thanksgiving for a Victory by John Hill   MP3 (905Kb)
Cranbrook by Thomas Clark
Anthem for Thanksgiving after a Victory by Henry Tolhurst



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