Archive’s got talent

If an Archive could talk then I am certain it would boast about the wealth of stories it holds within its walls. Perhaps it would even shout out, drawing our attention to a hidden gem which has lain dormant, patiently awaiting its rediscovery. Sadly this is fantasy, but exciting stories are stumbled upon in due course whilst  Archivists go about their daily work. This is exactly what makes working in an Archive fantastic, as I found out during one of my early tasks as a trainee in St George’s Chapel Archives.

Among the printed music collection is an aged and mottled, but nonetheless beautiful, ‘Choral Songs in Honour of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’. The idea was conceived by St George’s organist Sir Walter Parratt and poet Arthur C. Benson to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday. Published in 1899, the work contains the contributions of some big names in British art, music and culture. Etonian Robert Bridges, later Poet Laureate, wrote beautiful words to ‘Hark! Thy world is full of praise’ and composer Edward Elgar contributed with ‘To her beneath whose steadfast star’.  Other famous contributors from the local area also appear, including Etonian Hubert Parry, the Chapel’s assistant organist H. Walford Davies, and, of course, Walter Parratt. Perhaps this work inspired Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ written in 1916? Perhaps it also brought together the future successful collaboration between Benson and Elgar who in 1902 composed ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ – another little number which you might have heard of!

What makes this book even more charming is that the owner has gone to the effort of turning it into a scrapbook and autograph album. The owner of the book appears to have been R. F. Martin Akerman, assistant organist at St George’s Chapel (1900-24). Most of the works have been signed by both the lyricist and composer, including Benson, Parry and Elgar. Some of them signed the book in Windsor on 29 May 1900 when there was a performance of the Choral Songs.  The programme which was apparently used by Walter Parratt has been fixed into the inside cover.

There are also some letters to Mr Akerman from some of the contributors who speak about the experience. One of these is a rather scrawled letter from 1931 signed by Elgar, then Master of the Queen’s Music, in which he tantalisingly says he was there when they performed the songs to Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, this is the only glimpse into the actual performance this book reveals. Also included is a letter from Robert Bridges, who is a little scathing about a performance of George Elvey’s choir he had heard in Windsor.

Although somewhat of a conservator’s nightmare, the personal touches which have been added to this significant collection of late 19th century music really make the book come alive and fill the music with even more grandeur. It is a real piece of St George’s archival treasure.

I shall remember this discovery for a long time, and look forward to the next!

Gemma Martin (Archives Trainee)

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.