From the desk of Helena Whitbread: Anne Lister at a Georgian music fest

From the desk of Helena Whitbread: Anne Lister at a Georgian music fest


Miss Stephens, one of the vocalists at the festival, drinks hard, they say, & is kept by the editor of the Times.

From Helena Whitbread:

In writing the biography of Anne Lister there are times when I get really carried away with various topics which arise in the course of my research. The most recent instance concerns the four-day Grand Musical Festival held at the York Minster in September 1823, the aim of which was to raise money for the York County Hospital, a charitable institution for the relief of the poor people of the city who could not afford private care in times of illness. Anne attended each day of the Festival along with her many friends in that city. Both Anne Lister’s account in her journals and John Crosse* in his exhaustive analysis of the event, are fascinating, not least because of the little social details which their observant eyes and ears pick up on.

Crosse is almost as deeply interested in the beauty of the women and their dress as he is in the music. He writes of how the number of ‘…beautiful and elegantly attired females’ filled the gallery and centre seats, giving an added lustre to the occasion despite the management’s request to refrain from wearing high head-dresses. The aisles, which were only moderately full, did not, said Crosse, who obviously had a penchant for female glamour, ‘…afford equal gratification to the eye.’ It is to be hoped the modest caps worn by Anne’s party and the sombre black of Anne’s own clothes did not trouble the fastidiously discerning eye of Mr Crosse to any great extent.

There was a disturbing note in Anne’s account of the Festival when she noted that pickpockets were busy at their nefarious trade among the people crowding the Minster. ‘…Pick-pockets in the gallery. Dr Blomberg told us this evening at the concert it was true – he had his pocket picked in the gallery of £20. It is said 2 or 3 suspicious people have been taken up.’ Tidbits of scandal also went the rounds. Miss Stephens, one of the vocalists at the festival, ‘…drinks hard, they say, & is kept by the editor of the Times.’

Around 4,000 people attended each day’s performance and the entire ‘band’, as Crosse called the orchestra, consisted of over 450 ‘performers’. To open the proceedings ‘…the Bishop rose from his seat in the front of the gallery and signified, by the waving of his hat, that the performance should begin’. An encore was signalled by the dean of the Minster hoisting a white handkerchief.

The four evenings of the Festival were filled with entertainments at the Assembly Rooms, which were given over on alternate nights to concerts, where Madame Catalani and other Festival singers once more gave of their best, and to celebratory balls attended by some 1600 people. John Crosse was at hand again to express his appreciation of the glamour of the occasion. ‘…Long as these rooms have been appropriated to uses of this nature, on no preceding occasion were they ever filled with so brilliant an assembly of rank, fashion and beauty, as was now presented to the delighted eye. The dresses of the ladies were many of them exceedingly magnificent, and the display of diamonds was splendid beyond any former precedent within those walls. For some time the room was too crowded to admit of dancing, which did not commence until a late hour, and was confined chiefly to quadrilles…’

Meanwhile, at the York Theatre, for the whole week there was a full programme of Shakespearean drama. Such a week of culture perhaps would never again be visited upon the ‘antient city’ in the Georgian era – and we are fortunate to have both John Crosse’s and Anne Lister’s eye-witness account of these events.

* An Account of the Grand Musical Festival, Held in September, 1823, in the Cathedral Church of York; for the Benefit of the York County Hospital, and the General Infirmaries at Leeds, Hull, and Sheffield: To which is Prefixed, a Sketch of the Rise and Progress of Musical Festivals in Great Britain: with Biographical and Historical Notes, 1825, the original of which is held in the Bavarian State Library. It was, however, digitalised on 18th June 2010 and is available online.


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