In Manitoba Spring Really Does Mean Music

This huge prairie musical competition is “the greatest festival in the English-speaking world.” It’s even more than that for twenty thousand youngsters who giggle, squirm, throw spitballs and—most important of all—make the most of their chance to soak up good music at first hand

BETH PATERSON April 1 1954

In Manitoba Spring Really Does Mean Music

This huge prairie musical competition is “the greatest festival in the English-speaking world.” It’s even more than that for twenty thousand youngsters who giggle, squirm, throw spitballs and—most important of all—make the most of their chance to soak up good music at first hand

BETH PATERSON April 1 1954

In Manitoba Spring Really Does Mean Music

This huge prairie musical competition is “the greatest festival in the English-speaking world.” It’s even more than that for twenty thousand youngsters who giggle, squirm, throw spitballs and—most important of all—make the most of their chance to soak up good music at first hand


IN MOST SCHOOLS spring means a heady mixture of Easter holidays, bare knees, chalked love notes on the sidewalk, hockey play-offs, marbles in the mud and a skipping game called double dutch. In Manitoba all these delights pale during the month of April when the prairie province is engrossed in its annual craze for music, a spring fever known as the Manitoba Musical Competition Festival.

The Manitoba Festival is a musical colossus running for two weeks from morning to midnight about seven sessions a day in five halls and reeling off 315 competitions. The Men’s Musical Club of Winnipeg, which sponsors the festival, estimates the cost of the mammoth show at $11,000. During the last few years the 35-year-old festival has been run at a deficit, tapping heavily the club’s reserves.

The festival, the largest of its kind in the British Empire in point of audiences and number of participants, last year drew more than twenty thousand contestants to the Winnipeg Civic Auditorium and four other halls. All but 15 percent of the competitors were youngsters, jiggling with excitement. Every spring they soak Winnipeg in well-melded choirs, trembling violins, powerful orchestras, rippling pianos and multi-gestured opera arias in a madrigal that sometimes turns up an

international concert star and always gives Manitoba a good time. Twenty-seven thousand people, half of them children, watch the annual struggle for 65 silver trophies with a fascination that leaves their ears tingling until t he middle of May.

The Manitoba Festival, one of the first on the continent, is judged every spring by four distinguished musicians from Great Britain. One of them, Dr. Frederick Staton, once commented that the Manitoba Festival is “the finest festival in the British Empire, especially on its children’s side,” and another, Sir Hugh Roberton, observed that it is “the greatest festival in the English-speaking world.”

Last year Hon. R. F. McWilliams, then lieutenant-governor of Manitoba, described the festival as “a representation of the whole life of Winnipeg. If measuring its importance by the number of individuals taking part and providing pleasure, then indeed it can be called the major event in Winnipeg.”

For twenty years parts of Winnipeg’s major event have been carried on a national network by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Since 1948 highlights have been recorded and relayed by short wave to Britain and Europe. Winnipeg’s four radio stations broadcast port ions of the program 1 hroughout the two weeks and sprinkle their regular schedule with spot announcements of the winners. Both Winnipeg newspapers, the Tribune and the Free Press, devote several columns daily to each session and have donated some of the trophies. Their reporters cover the festival with the same enthusiasm and adjectives generally reserved for the sports pages, referring to “straight knockouts” and “dark horses,» to choirs “romping away with top-flight honors,” to sessions being “field days” and to the festival “gathering pace for the home stretch.”

Admission to the festival has a fifty-cent top for adults and ten cents for children, and the latter are given a school holiday so they can attend when their school choir or orchestra is due to compete. By the thousands they pour out of buses in front of the auditorium, surge shrieking and bumping through the doors and find seats in the horseshoeshaped balcony with a maximum of rearrangement..

I he competitors, on t he other hand, are feverishly tense. Their faces reflect juvenile anguish, broken with stifled self-conscious giggles. Singers earnestly suck on lemons in the hope that their throats will be clear. They swallow, wipe their hands on their clothes and swallow again.

In the centre of the auditorium, seated on

cushioned wicker chairs before a long collapsible table, are the four judges, men of august dignity. When the hall is comparatively still, one of them strikes a classroom bell with the flat of his hand. The choir, if it happens to be a choir-competition day, tiles onto the stage and mounts a tier of scuffed wooden steps against a backdrop of crossed Union Jacks. They sort themselves out in as many as seven stiff rows and the choir leader a teacher wearing a tinsel-ribboned corsage or boutonniere gives the signal. The choir sings two songs and is followed by 16 or so other choirs, each singing one compulsory song and one song of its own choice.

The auditorium becomes really still for the first time as one of the judges slowly leaves his chair, climbs to the stage and stands studying the assortment of notes he has been making. He remarks, usually, that the singing has been wonderful, briefly enlarges this observation and then reads the names of the winners. Pandemonium breaks loose in the auditorium. Close to 4,000 competitors and observers jump to their feet shouting, throw their hats in the air, stamp their feet, whistle piercingly through their teeth and pound one another on the back. They erupt through the doors, some sliding down the balcony stair railings, and pour into nearby ice-cream and snack bars. In Winnipeg

no symptom of spring is surer than a crumpled music-festival program on a wet sidewalk.

The Manitoba Festival follows a tradition hundreds of years old. The Welsh in the eighteenth century used competition to decide who would hold the Bardic Chair, and Wagner in the middle of the nineteenth century wrote an opera about a musical contest, Die Meistersinger. The modern festival is a direct descendant from a village competition in Kendal, England, in 1885 on a covered tennis court. Local festivals sprang up all over England after that and in 1908 a nostalgic immigrant started the first Canadian festival in Edmonton. Saskatchewan followed the next year and Manitoba in 1919 a few months after the armistice.

Manitoba’s Musical Festival started modestly with a four-day program in two churches and a small recital hall. It was sponsored by the city’s influential Men’s Musical Club, which also sponsors the Winnipeg Male Voice Choir, two boys’ choirs of a hundred voices each, the Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir, and helped found the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The festival started with 2,500 contestants, the first of whom was a bass soloist from Brandon who sang Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind. He was followed by twenty tenors, all singing, I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby. The program, faithfully patterned after a number of old British musical-festival programs, required competitors to sing or play the same piece of music, a system still in use which gives a sound basis for comparisons at the expense of audience appeal. The first festival drew only 2,000 people and aroused small interest.

With the Men’s Musical Club working diligently to stimulate interest, particularly in the field of school choirs which the sponsors noticed drew the largest crowds, the festival soon had to move to a larger building and settled on an inelegant structure with sawdust on the floor, next to a freight yard. The building belonged to the Winnipeg Board of Trade. Most of the festival committee were members of the board. Until 1933, when the 4,000-capacity auditorium was built,


My work isn't clever Nor glamorous, ever.

Jl merits no cheers from the gallery. It troubles and tires me And seldom inspires me.

This also is true of my salary.


shyers gallantly raised their voices against a background symphony of hissing steam pipes and shunting trains.

Pioneers of the Manitoba Festival were the late George Mathieson, who was its secretary from the beginning until 1944 and was then president until short ly before his death three years ago, and George Price, a former member of an English choir, who drew up the bylaws and regulations severely on British models. Mathieson, who has been called “the father of music festivals in Canada,” helped form festivals across Canada and was the first honorary president of the Federation of Canadian Music Festivals.

The founders selected as their motto: “Not to gain a prize or defeat a rival but to pace one another on the road to excellence.” In spite of the constraint in the sentiments, the Manitoba Music Festival has started some resounding careers. Zara Nelsova, a world-famous woman cellist, played for the first time in public in the 1928 festival. A small, auburn-haired nineyear-old, she played Campagnoli Romanza and was stunned by the prolonged applause. The judge awarded her 99 points. With her sisters, Ida and Anna, she also played a Beethoven trio. The girls had been taught by their father, a violinist in a movietheatre orchestra. Winnipeg raised enough money by public subscription to send the girls to London to study and they became known all over England as “The Canadian Trio.” Zara

alone continued professionally.

The Trepel sisters, Freda, Shirle and Anne, won an award in 1935 fc violin, cello and piano. Shirley is no' first desk cellist with the develan Symphony Orchestra, and Freda, pianist, has made concert tours i North America and Europe. She is th w¡fe of Walter Kaufmann, conducte °f the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestre I he best known of all the festival’ Protégées is Donna Grescoe, who wo e highest praise of any contestant i e festival’s history. After she playe

two movements of a Bach \ iolin concerto in 1940, the judge, Bernard Naylor, a British composer and former conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, commented that her performance had been a “surprising, remarkable and shattering thing.” Two years later when another British composer, Arthur Benjamin, also exclaimed over her, the Winnipeg Tribune sponsored a public subscription which enabled her to study in New York.

Mary Morrison, soprano with the CBC Opera Company; Belva Boroditsky, who last year won second place in the International Music Festival at Geneva; and Gladys Kriese, who last year won a Chicago Theatre of the Air career contest, have all won the festival’s Rose Rowl for the best singer.

But the festival produces a quantity of heartaches, headaches and earaches along with its triumphs. All through the winter, school, business office and church choirs concentrate on the festival and practice for it until they are breathless. Military bands, collegiate and studio orchestras rehearse at queer hours of the day and evening, amateur composers stare dolefully at the snowdrifts in search of inspiration, flautists, violinists, cellists, pianists, accordionists, tenors, basses and sopranos are flogged on by amateur and professional teachers and their mothers with cries of “the festival is only weeks away!”

In 66 Winnipeg schools, teachers with tuning forks gather up the pupils least likely to sing flat and rehearse for the Earl Grey Trophy awarded every spring to the best school choir in the city, Kelvin and Daniel McIntyre high schools each enter choirs with 250 voices and they are so evenly matched that sometimes only one point separates them.

Almost every child in Winnipeg’s schools has a chance to compete in the festival for a trophy donated in 1934 by Daniel McIntyre, a former superintendent of schools. This trophy, tbe second highest award for public-school choirs, goes to classroom choirs which must consist of 75 percent of the children on the roll and must have the teacher for conductor. One such teacher, Glen Harrison, a twenty-fouryear-old who used to sing in a school choir himself, has developed a theory that practices for the festival shouldn’t start until the middle of February.

“Starting the festival pieces too early is fatal,” he explains. “The children lose their zest. I generally start with them in class, running over notes, getting their harmonies. Two weeks before the festival we’ll practice every noon hour; they bring their lunches.”

While the majority of the contestants come from Winnipeg a third of the province sends its best to the big festival, many of them winners at the some twenty other Manitoba music festivals. Last year 37 rural Manitoba towns were represented and three in Ontario. Throughout the years Alberta, Saskatchewan and North Dakota have sent competitors. The University of North Dakota has sent, its glee cluhs.

One year a school choir from the small community of Film Creek got up at dawn, drove over bad roads to reach the festival in time to sing, ironically, “I’m a lazy robin. I have a cot, a weeny, teeny, tiny cot.” An Indian school in Kenora, 140 miles east of Winnipeg, once sent an Ojibway band to play a selection from Iolanthe. The Winnipeg Day School for the Deaf and the Institute for the Blind have entered children’s percussion bands. In 1949 a sleeping-car porter on the CNR run from Montreal to Halifax sang the high priest’s song from The Magic Flute.

The school choirs present their nearly exhausted teacher-conductors with a neat psychological problem—they must be severe enough to calm the nearly hysterical excitement and frivolous enough to relax the tension. One teacher recalls the big event with mixed emotions. “The choir goes through the motions of its normal school lessons in the morning until eleven o’clock when they have another practice and go home to have lunch and change.

“After lunch they run through their songs again and T give them a peptalk. Then they present me with a corsage and we leave for the auditorium in a bus. That’s when it starts. They line up outside after they’ve first run around in circles until they calm down. Inside they are so excited that they are ceaselessly trotting in and out. You don’t know what to tell them. You’re in a dilemma.

“Then you catch them imitating other conductors, some of whom are like animated windmills, and you try to restrain that. If a choir ahead of them handles their song differently they ask me anxiously if they should, say, take the pause the same way. I say ‘No, do it the way you were told,’ and hope they’ll remember.”

On stage some of the teachers try to help the children relax by telling them a joke. Sometimes this backfires —the children start to giggle and can’t stop.

The Judges Are the Stars

The festival has produced considerable comedy, the best-remem bered bit of which was a duet by a big basso and a small tenor, the dialogue from Handel’s Samson. Neither knew the music by memory and they had to share a single copy of the piece, handing it back and forth. This worked poorly and near the end the tenor was so occupied with his own part that he was oblivious to the efforts of the basso to see the score. “Go, baffled coward, go,” he was thundering. The basso turned on his heel and left the stage.

George Waugh, festival vice-president who acts as doorman for the evening session, recalls the time a small, urgent boy tried to get past him just as the first of two competitors in a piano class was going to the platform. “You can’t go in, you know, until the class is over,” Mr. Waugh told the boy, who began to pace up and down the corridor until the piece was finished. Then he rushed for the door again. “You can’t go in until the other competitor has played,” Mr. Waugh insisted. “But I’ve got to get in,” cried the boy. “I'm the other competitor.”

In spite of the glory that accrues to the singer who wins the Rose Bowl or the instrumentalist who wins the Aikins Memorial, the real stars of the festival are the judges. Weeks before they arrive Winnipeg buses carry placards announcing that “Four Eminent British Adjudicators” will grace the festival. For the period of the festival they are the biggest celebrities in Winnipeg and there is considerable social activity in their honor.

Their job is a tedious one. One year 92 girls sang Wiseman’s White Birds in a four-hour session that severely taxed the judges’ admiration for Wiseman. Ten White Birds would have been enoogh for him, sighed William Glock, British musicologist and pianist, who wearily commented at the close of tne 1951 festival, “On the first morning I judged 83 young pianists play ng the same piece. Then I listened to 35 preludes and fugues of Bach, 70 pieces at another session and 30 Beethoven sonatas at another.”

Just before the 1954 festival an official looked over the staggering list of entrants—nearly a hundred pianists

in one class—and observed dolefully: “The adjudicators are going to drop dead this year.”

The judges are required to “work like hatters,” Sir Hugh Roberton, conductor of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir and five times a judge of the Manitoba Festival, once observed enthusiastically. “The telephone rings and rings and rings—-newspapermen, fond parents, singers, conductors, would-be hosts and hostesses, secretaries of clubs and societies, all sorts of cranks.

“It starts as early as eight in the morning. A lady rang me up at that hour one morning to ask me, of all things, how she should go about the business of collecting Canadian folk songs. I advised her to tackle the job by automobile.”

The judges attend dinners given by the Manitoba Registered Music Teachers’ Association where they answer technical questions like what to do when a singer’s high notes are husky or what is the attitude of British school authorities toward music. They address women’s clubs and service clubs and sometimes get a chance to view the city from the top of the Fort Garry Hotel.

The judges’ remarks following each class in the festival, when technique and interpretation are discussed along with tone, security of pitch and such fine points as ability to hold an audience, are generally dispassionate but festival audiences will never forget the comments of one judge, John Goss, conductor of the London Singers, who announced bitterly after the close of an opera aria class in 1940: “This

afternoon between two-thirty and what seemed to me doomsday, I heard some screeches and howls which I could hardly believe could emerge from a human throat. I would not have been surprised if the local police had suddenly appeared and stopped the medieval cruelty.”

More often the judges are amused. After a very young school choir had finished, a judge observed: “Some of

the singers are so small I expected them to be brought in a bassinet.” Roberton, a bald and goateed audience favorite, once told a choir that if he had known they were going to wear red bows in their hair he would have tried to put one in his own. A small girl took hers off and offered it to him. Another judge complimented a wartime audience on the number of women who appeared to be knitting for the troops. A few days later a boys’ choir came in to compete, produced needles and balls of wool and followed suit.

Controversy which has accompanied the festival since its beginning in 1919 —-when a church choir entered a formal protest against the award of a shield to another choir—naturally swirls most fiercely around the judges. A few years ago a prominent instrumental teacher withdrew all his pupils from competition because he disagreed with the judging. Two years ago a defeated violinist left the auditorium'in a fury; it was the last time, she said, she would ever compete.

Another controversy raged over the admission into the festival of accordions, which some officials didn’t feel were musical instrumente at all. Three years ago they were admitted and this spring 125 accordionists entered the competition. “One of our reasons for letting them in,” explained an official “is to bring them in contact with the finest type of music in all its phases.”

The strongest feeling generated by the festival is reserved for its almost exclusively British character. Its motto “not to gain a prize or defeat a rival but to pace one another on the road to excellence” is British, its judges are brought in at considerable expense each year from Great Britain and its sponsors are the 150 men of the Men’s Musical Club, almost every one of whom is British by birth. The songs chosen for the competition are so invariably British folk songs that Strawberry Fair, Road to the Isles and Flora Gave Me Fairest Flowers have come to be known over the years as “festival songs.”

A group of younger choral conductors in a movement too discreet to be termed an insurrection have been introducing American and Canadian folk songs and modern arrangements of British folk songs by Benjamin Britten. The novelties were criticized by the judges at first but have been accepted in recent years.

Last year a winning school choir sang about a “bonnie blue handkerchief tied undah, tied undah, tied undah youah chin.” This was another skirmish in what might be called the “Battle of the R.” As early as 1923 the Free Press took exception to a British judge insisting on the English “r” in an editorial under the head “Well Rathaw.” “How,” it asked, “are we going to ask Canadian children to sing about the Canadian beav-ah?”

T. A. Duncan, Winnipeg pianist, composer and professor of English at the University of Manitoba, last year made a CBC broadcast which infuriated some festival authorities. “It may be true to say—-although I doubt it —that one cannot sing the finest English songs perfectly without an English accent,” he stated. “But hordes of Canadian children who have been through the festival will remember with distaste the various kindly attempts to make them forget their bad local habits of speech. The Canadian ‘r’ is a particular bugbear of the ladies who prepare children for the festival.”

They Shoot Water Pistols

Among the judges, Roberton considered the Canadian “r” ugly and protested against the sound of “flar-rs” and “bar-rs”—-for “flowers” and “bowers.” Nor did Canadian Sir Ernest MacMillan like it much. Roberton also urged one school choir to keep “the flag of pure vowels flying.” Other judges criticized the Canadian “t” which made “priddy” out of “pretty.” “It is you, teachers,” cried one judge eloquently, “who are developing the choral singing of the future and you must weed out these colloquialisms now.”

All of these outcries are welcomed by the audiences as spice in a loaf that is otherwise laden with repetitious music. Many in the audience are housewife-mothers, sometimes with small squirming babies on their laps. Some are girls from downtown offices who attendthe twilight sessions after work. For years the late Judge H. A. Robson slipped into the afternoon sessions to hear the school choirs when his court wasn’t in session.

But half of the audience is children, all of them in the same mood of garrulous animation that grips them at a cowboy matinee. They noisily choose a seat, take off their coats and put their feet up, spot a friend across the balcony, put their coats hack on and change seats.

They also eat biscuits out of crackling wax-paper cartons, shoot water pistols when an early thaw provides puddles for reloading, throw spitballs, search the rows behind them with elongated dime-store periscopes and the balcony across the way with bulky field glasses which they fuss with for hours to get focused. They get mirrors and reflect the lights so they glare in the eyes of someone waiting to sing. They read comic books, passing them along the rows as

they finish. They munch gum noisily.

Margery Nunn, head of the balcony ushers, has devised a penalty box, the first row of the second balcony, for the worst offenders. Miss Nunn, a former piano student, lost her right arm at the age of 25 and was helped to find left-hand music by one of the festival judges. One year she entered the festival and took second prize in a concert-piano class.

“In spite of all the apparent disinterest the children show,” Miss Nunn remarks, “you can hear them humming and whistling the pieces they’ve heard when they come out. That’s where the festival is doing a great thing. There are lots of kids who don’t get a chance to hear good music otherwise.”

Most of the festival’s fifty-member general executive comes from the Winnipeg Grain Exchange, a condition which results from the enthusiasm of founder George Mathieson, who was once president of the exchange and called on his friends to help him.

The festival is supervised by five businessmen whose hobby is music. Reginald Hugo, the president and a bridge engineer with the CNR; Richard Cooke, secretary and official of a printing company; James Seaton, treasurer and official of the Grain Exchange; George Waugh and Ronald Gibson, both vice-presidents. Gibson is the only full-time musician of the five; he is head of the department of music at the University of Manitoba.

The festival calls on about 550 volunteers each year to be platform marshals, ticket-sellers, doorkeepers, program sellers, ushers and clerks. Most of the help comes from the Central Volunteer Bureau, a funnel t hrough which pours Winnipeg’s clubwomen. Retired schoolteachers, high-school students and Boy Scouts sell programs at the evening sessions, which are staffed by the Men’s Musical Club.

Many festivals all over the world are either influenced or modeled directly on Manitoba’s supermarket-sized package. A single day’s mail some years ago at the festival headquarters in Winnipeg once brought requests for information and advice from Glasgow; London and Chesterfield, Eng.; Invercargill, New Zealand; Sacramento, Calif.; Tufts College, Mass.; Victoria, Vancouver and Kelowna, B.C.; Lethbridge, Edmonton and Calgary; Saskatoon and Regina; Fort Frances, Port Arthur, Markdale and Stratford, Ont.

As festival judge Sir Hugh Roberton once wrote in some wonderment, “On the prairies there is not only a musical culture of a high kind but a hunger for it.” In the spring, culture is a word for the Manitoba Festival. ★