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The Toronto Music Scene During World War I

At one of our meetings a couple of years ago, I bought a bundle of old "Globe" newspaper pages. All of them were in excellent condition and most related to music in Toronto during World War I. They were grim reminders that war affects every aspect of human endeavour, even music and its performance.

The "Globe" of September 25, 1915 reported that the "Magic Flute", an opera by Mozart, could not be performed because "so many of the stage hands employed in the scenic department had gone to the front". Wagner's "Tannhauser" was cancelled, not because it was German, but because of the large chorus of monks needed in the finale and men were not available. Some operas could get by with "beauty" choruses composed mostly of women but that was thought to be unacceptable in the "Tannhauser" case.

In the early days of the war, Belgium refused to give in to the Kaiser's threats and chose the promise of "complete destruction" rather than surrender. Because of this, everything Belgian was given a special place in the hearts of the Allies. Eugene Ysaye, the Belgian violinist, was given a hero's welcome at Massey Hall on March 19, 1917 - (three of his one- sided Columbia records went for a song at a recent meeting of CAPS). And Alice Verlet was billed by Edison as the "Belgian soprano", which probably increased her sales.

Of course, there were those who capitalized on the wave of Belgian popularity. Wilfred Douthitt, an English baritone who was singing in New York when the war broke out, grew a beard, changed his name to Louis Graveure and claimed to be a Belgian Count. He was the possessor of a very ordinary voice but he became very popular and made dozens of records for Columbia. The "Globe" of September 29, 1917, presumably swept away by "Belgiumania", called him the "John McCormack of baritones".

Another country in favour was Russia. General Linevitch, in charge of a visiting Russian choir had this to say about the powers of music for the Russian soldier:

"Music is one of the most vital ammunitions of the Russian army. Without music a Russian soldier would be dull, cowardly, brutal and inefficient. From music he absorbs a magic power of endurance and forgets the sufferings and mortality. It is a divine dynamite!"

On September 8,1917, Loew's Theatre in Toronto advertised a stage show headlined by the "Shrapnel Dodgers", a group of returned, maimed Canadian heroes, while the "Winter Garden", (now being refurbished), presented an act of nine juveniles called "The Birthday Party". The "Globe" reported that "the scene opens on a girl giving a party, when the guests take part by impersonating Eva Tanguay, Bert Williams, Weber and Fields, Mr. and Mrs. Castle, Caruso and others." I hope they were talented juveniles!

The same week Shea's was offering the celebrated American tenor, Orville Harrold. Without explanation the article adds: '"Mr. Harrold is one of the artists whom the war has caused to forsake the concert tours and to enter vaudeville."

Canada's own Geoffrey O'Hara (who wrote "K-K-K-Katy"), wrote many patriotic songs among which was a ghastly fighting song called "Highlanders, Fix Bayonets"! (recorded by Albert Wiederhold, who changed his name to Herbert Stuart, Columbia A1766). Instead of stressing O'Hara's musical accomplishments, the reporter to the "Globe" of May 29, 1915, took another tack:

"Geoffrey O!'Hara, the composer, is of a family whose outstanding profession for many years was war. He is descended on his mother's side from John Dobbs, an officer in Queen Elizabeth's army, who married a granddaughter of Hugh O'Neill, the "fighting Earl of Tyrone". etc. etc.

John McCormack sang at Massey Hall on October 14, 1915, and the papers were full of comments. One reporter had heard that McCormack had said that Ireland would be better off under the Germans, but this was emphatically denied by McCormack, who had donated a quarter of a million cigarettes to the Allied troops at the front.

On April 28, 1917, there was an article about a young composer called Ivor Novello, who had written a popular war song called "Keep The Home Fires Burning". "His song", wrote the reporter, rivals the world famous "Tipperary". It has also been recorded by the leading English and one American talking machine companies." Before the war's end, many more would record it.

On May 22, 1915, the "Globe" reported that "Mr. Ernest J. Seitz, the young Canadian pianist, who won such praise at his debut in Massey Hall in January ... will from September 1 accept a limited number of pupils". Four years later he would write one of Canada's most beautiful songs, "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise".

Some of the news items appear to us today as either humourous or down-right insulting. On January 6, 1917, the "Globe" reported that Mr. Asa Huyke "has just published his march, 'Irresistible', which is selling well in his home town of Peterboro." (There is no indication as to how irresistible it was in the rest of Canada.) On February 3, 1917, Mrs. MacKelcan, described as a mezzo-contralto, gave a recital which "delighted a select circle of listeners with her old charm". And in May, 1917, the "Globe" advised Torontonians to hear the great Galli-Curci "before her voice has become to a certain extent worn."

Oratorio was very popular in Toronto during the war years. However, one performance of Handel's "Messiah" did not fare too well. The "Globe" of April 10, 1915, reported that:

"The Oratorio Society Thursday night, at Massey Hall, repeated their production of Handel's "Messiah" for the benefit of the soldiers of the second contingent, to whom admission was free. Owing to an order for a night march to the Exhibition Camp, the attendance of the soldiers was not as large as was anticipated ...."

And another article mentioned that James Dodington would sing the tenor solos in an oratorio. Two of his sons, John and Paul, both singers, are well-known members of the Gramophone Society.

There can be little doubt that World War I had a profound effect on the musical life of Toronto and that music, serious and comic, helped many to live through those sad years.