Hubert Mortimer Eisdell, an English tenor who settled in Canada in his later years, enjoyed considerable success on the concert stage in both England and Canada. While his musical training and earliest performances took place in England, Eisdell made several visits to Canada between 1907 and 1930. After taking up permanent residence in Ontario in 1933, he became involved in the Canadian music scene as a performer and teacher.
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Childhood and Education
Born September 21, 1882, Hubert Eisdell grew up in Hampstead, London at a time when musical life in England was undergoing what has been described as a "renaissance". This renaissance was characterized by a renewed interest in English traditions of composition and music making.
Until about 1900, English musicians had relied almost exclusively on foreign influences for musical inspiration and educational instruction. Then a new generation of musicians in twentieth-century England began to change the standards for English music, resulting in a movement of growth and freedom in attitudes toward music making in general. Amateur singing became more popular, both in the home and in universities and community organizations. Music began to be accepted as a legitimate subject for study, and institutions like Cambridge and Oxford universities expanded their programs of music study and practice.
Approaches to composition were changing as well. While late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English composers such as Edward Elgar (1857-1934), Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) and Hubert Parry (1848-1918) did not completely reject foreign compositional models, they began to forge links between English music and other European musical traditions.
Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), who studied with both Parry and Stanford, was the first to make a serious study of English folk music and traditional English church music and use these as an inspiration for his own compositions. Vaughan Williams' work had an important influence on other English composers, particularly in the solo songs they wrote. Composers such as Liza Lehmann, Roger Quilter, Cyril Scott, Ivor Gurney and Arthur Sullivan (of the operetta duo Gilbert & Sullivan) also used English folk tunes and poetry as inspiration for many of the songs that they composed in the early twentieth century.
During this time of cultural change, Hubert Eisdell began receiving his earliest education. After attending Highgate School, where he excelled as an athlete in cricket and football, Eisdell enrolled in Cambridge University and graduated with a Master of Arts degree in Classics. He was an active member of the Amateur Dramatic and Footlights Club at Cambridge and appeared in a number of productions as an actor and singer.
Upon graduating from Cambridge in 1905, Eisdell came to Canada for the first time. While there he visited his cousin Sir William Mortimer Clarke, who at the time was the lieutenant-governor of Ontario. Eisdell also accepted the position of games master at the Grove Preparatory School (now known as Lakefield College) in Lakefield, Ontario, and held this position for two years.
After returning to England in 1907, Eisdell spent a considerable amount of time with his friend Gervase Elwes (1866-1921). Elwes had taken up a singing career, against his family's wishes, after working for some time in the diplomatic service. He became one of the most celebrated tenors in England and strongly encouraged Eisdell to become a professional singer.
Elwes descended from a long-established county family, and often entertained the leading musical figures of his day at his estate in England. His circle included composers Cyril Scott, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Roger Quilter, pianist/composer Percy Grainger and composer/conductor Sir Edward Elgar. Eisdell visited Elwes' estate frequently and developed friendships with these individuals.
Elwes proved to be an important influence in Eisdell's life. He coached Eisdell on pieces such as Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge (1909), which Eisdell performed in both England and Canada to great acclaim. A masterpiece of early twentieth-century English music, On Wenlock Edge is a song cycle based on a text by English poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936) and scored for tenor, piano and string quartet.
Elwes also introduced Eisdell to two of his teachers: Victor Beigel, an English pianist who also taught voice, and William Boosey, director of the popular Chappell Ballad Concerts in London. Eisdell studied with Beigel, and through Boosey secured his first concert engagements, making his stage debut in 1909 as a soloist in the Chappell Ballad Concerts at Queen's Hall. Eisdell was frequently engaged for subsequent Chappell Ballad concerts.
During this time, Eisdell met Tasmanian pianist and composer Katharine Parker (1885-1971), a former student of Percy Grainger. They married in 1910, and their only son, Michael, was born one year later. Parker accompanied her husband on numerous occasions and he gave public performances of her compositions for voice, including "Love in Summer" and "As a Star" in Wigmore Hall on April 28, 1919. In 1915, he recorded her songs "Love Ships" and "The Road to Love" with the Gramophone Company.
In 1910, Eisdell went on an 80-concert, 50,000-mile tour to the United States and Canada with a troupe arranged by Liza Lehmann (1862-1918). Lehmann was an English composer and teacher who had also enjoyed a successful career as a singer until she retired from the stage in 1895. The music for this tour featured many of her compositions, including "Ah! Moon of My Delight" from In a Persian Garden, a song cycle for four voices and piano.
Lehmann developed a friendship with Eisdell and Katharine, and she became godmother to their son Michael. Eisdell would later record other songs from Lehmann's In a Persian Garden with the Gramophone Company, including "They Say the Lion and the Lizard Do", "Wake, for the Sun", and "Alas! That Spring Should Vanish with the Rose".
Eisdell also enjoyed working relationships with other composers of his day. Robert Coningsby Clarke, Roger Quilter, Cyril Scott and Teresa del Riego composed music especially for Eisdell's voice. Healey Willan, an English composer who later settled in Canada, dedicated his song "Brigg Fair" to Eisdell.
Eisdell made his first commercial recording in November 1912, on the HMV label: a ballad, "Somewhere a Voice is Calling", by Arthur Tate. He went on to make many recordings, consisting largely of popular ballads by songwriters such as Eric Coates and Francesco Paolo Tosti. They proved extremely popular and sold in the tens of thousands.
Eisdell's recordings on the Columbia label include Coningsby Clarke's song "Daphne" and del Riego's songs "O Dry Those Tears" and "The Reason". The latter pieces were recorded with del Riego at the piano. Percy Grainger greatly admired Eisdell's voice and commented, "He is one of England's most lovely and famous singers, with a pure, ringing voice, exquisite style and perfect diction" (Horwood, p. 15-16).
Eisdell continued to secure engagements in England, performing as a soloist with the Royal Philharmonic Society, Royal Choral Society, Hallé Orchestral Concerts, Bach Choir, Royal Amateur Orchestral Society, London Choral Society and Bach Cantata Society. He also sang at the Leeds Festival with director Sir Thomas Beecham, at the Norwich Festival and Queens Hall Promenade Concerts with Sir Henry Wood, and at the Three Choirs Festival with Sir Edward Elgar and Sir Ivor Atkins. In April 1914, he performed at the Torquay Festival Pavilion, appearing with soprano Carrie Tubb and conductor Aubrey Brain in a program that included Percy Grainger's "Colonial Song" and "Molly on the Shore".
During First World War, 1914-1918, musical activity in England decreased significantly. Conscription was not enforced until 1916, but at the beginning of the war, optimism was high, and many enlisted voluntarily, including English composers Ernest Farra, George Butterworth, Denis Browne and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Of these, all but Vaughan Williams were killed.
Hubert Eisdell's singing career was temporarily interrupted during the First World War when he served as a lieutenant-at-sea with the London Division of the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve (R.N.V.R.) from 1915 to 1917. In 1918, he joined the staff of the Admiralty as the secretary to Commodore H. Douglas King, C.B., where his duties included securing the coast from a patrol boat.
After the war, the expanding recording industry and the development of broadcasting helped to reconstruct musical life in England. Just before he completed his term as secretary, Eisdell signed a contract with the Columbia Graphophone Company (later the Columbia Gramophone Company), agreeing to record exclusively for them. He recorded prolifically for the company until his last recording session on March 31, 1933.
Eisdell's recording repertoire included Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (directed by Felix Weingartner); Messiah (directed by Sir Thomas Beecham); Sir Edward Elgar's The Apostles; and art songs by Roger Quilter, Katharine Parker and Liza Lehmann. He also recorded "Dear Love of Mine" from Arthur Goring Thomas' Nadeshda and "Megan" by operetta composer Ivor Novello (1893-1951). In November 1923, he was the tenor soloist in the recording of the piano quintet arrangement of Roger Quilter's song cycle To Julia, one of Quilter's most acclaimed vocal compositions.
On the live stage, Eisdell's repertoire was also widely varied, and included performances of oratorio (Elijah and Messiah), and Bach's St. Matthew Passion and B Minor Mass. He also performed in a number of operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan.
In 1921, tragedy struck when Eisdell's close friend and mentor Gervase Elwes died as a result of injuries from an accident during a tour of the United States and Canada. His memorial service took place at Albert Hall in London on May 24, 1922, and Eisdell honoured Elwes by singing "Our Dead", a sonnet for tenor and orchestra by Edric Cundell, and the last work Elwes performed in England.
The 1920s proved to be a particularly fruitful time in Eisdell's career. In addition to a busy recording schedule, he made a recital tour of Australia and Tasmania in 1921.
In 1923, he sang at the Aeolian Hall in London in a program that included songs by composers from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as well as songs by Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Gabriel Fauré, Hubert Parry, Arnold Bax, Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky.
Also in 1923, Eisdell appeared in the first performance of one of Roger Quilter's finest songs, "Go, Lovely Rose", at a Promenade concert in Queen's Hall. Based on a text by poet Edmund Waller (1606-87), "Go, Lovely Rose" was dedicated to Eisdell. The following summer, Eisdell appeared as the character Harlequin with Marie Tempest and Frederic Ranalow in the Clifford Bax/Armstrong Gibbs fantasy Midsummer Madness. He also played the lead in Almond Eye at the Scala Theatre in London.
While Eisdell's concert repertoire was widely varied, he became known for his performances of folk songs and popular ballads, or "potboilers" as he called them and some critics questioned his choice of repertoire. Eisdell defended his choice of music in an article entitled "Trials of a Tenor":
Singing in practically every part of the country I find a constant demand for old favourites. The public never tires of the familiar folk songs and ballads like Tosti's "Parted". I am asked to sing these everywhere, and their reception is always very cordial….The English public has … been brought up on melody, and it is fully aware of the fact that music can be good, and even 'highbrow' without losing its melodious qualities….
After all, music, to the average person, is not a matter of cleverness. One may revel in the beauty of a Beethoven symphony without the slightest knowledge of the wonderful technique that made it possible…. The public knows what it wants. From music it wants a thrill; not a shock. Beauty, emotional power, and sincerity those qualities will always give music an irresistible appeal…" (Music Masterpieces, 1926).
Although Hubert Eisdell's Canadian performances date as early as 1932, it is unclear exactly when Eisdell made Canada his permanent home. He made his first Canadian appearance on May 18, 1932 with Miss Winifred Dowell and her string sextet at the Fine Arts Galleries on Grenville Street in Toronto.
On October 6, 1932, he performed at the Eaton Auditorium in Toronto with conductor Sir Ernest MacMillan in a benefit for unemployed musicians. In the same year, he made a soloist appearance with the Mendelssohn Choir in Handel's Messiah on Saturday, December 17. Toronto Star music critic Augustus Bridle reviewed the concert and remarked that "Hubert Eisdell displayed a perfect scholarly knowledge of all the tenor arias and admirable finesse in phrasing, diction and legato," but found Eisdell's voice "a little too dry for the humanism of Handel lyrics" (Bridle, 1932).
In 1933, Eisdell accepted a teaching position at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory of Music). His wife, Katharine, stayed on in England, and then, in 1950, she and her son moved to Australia, where she set up a teaching studio and worked in radio. Eisdell remarried in 1935 to Alva Grieve Graham, a Canadian.
In addition to teaching at the Toronto Conservatory, Eisdell gave song recitals, ballad and oratorio concerts and radio broadcasts. On April 27, 1933, he appeared with the Bach Choir, singing the role of the Narrator in the Canadian premiere of J.S. Bach's St. John Passion at Yorkminster Church in Toronto.
In December of the same year, he was the soloist in a performance of Vaughan William's On Wenlock Edge with the Conservatory String Quartet and Ernest MacMillan at the piano. Augustus Bridle noted in his concert review that Eisdell's interpretations conjured memories of Gervase Elwes' performance of the same work. Bridle wrote further: "Eisdell's perfectly lyric tenor voice brought out with startling severity all the tragedy of this absolutely English drama in five song scenes. No finer presentation of this kind has ever been made here" (Bridle, 1933).
He made several appearances with the Toronto Bach Society, including another performance of Bach's St. John Passion on March 19, 1934 at Convocation Hall. On January 29, 1935 he was tenor soloist for the Bach Society's Massey Hall debut, and was praised for "his remarkable skill in phrase, tone-color, dramatic fervor and enunciation" (Bridle, 1935).
With the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and contralto Eileen Law, Eisdell appeared as a soloist in a production of Elgar's oratorio Dream of Gerontius at Massey Hall on February 27, 1935. In 1936 he sang in Bach's St. Matthew Passion several times in the days and weeks leading up to Easter, including April 1 at the Eaton Auditorium and April 7 at Convocation Hall. His final Canadian performance took place on November 16, 1937 in Mendelssohn's Elijah.
Eisdell eventually left Toronto and became a teacher of English, French and Latin at Lakefield College in Lakefield, Ontario, where he had taught during his first visit to Canada in 1905. He was also the school's organist until 1947. Presently, an award named in honour of Eisdell is given to an outstanding arts student annually at Lakefield College.
Hubert Eisdell died on Saturday, May 28, 1948, in Peterborough, Ontario after a long illness. A welcome addition to the music scene in Toronto, he made a distinct impression on Canadian music lovers through his performances of oratorio and song. Furthermore, through his prolific recording career, his legacy has been preserved in both his native England and in Canada.
Selected recordings available
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- [Advertisement for concert]. Toronto Star. May 18, 1932. P. 26. AMICUS 3491943
- Bridle, Augustus. "Black garbed choir is brilliant in Bach". Toronto Star. January 30, 1935. P. 7. AMICUS 3491943
- Bridle, Augustus. "Eisdell excellent in cycles of song". Toronto Star. December 15, 1933. AMICUS 3491943
- Bridle, Augustus. "Mendelssohn Choir superb in Messiah". Toronto Star. December 19, 1932. AMICUS 3491943
- Caldwell, John. The Oxford History of English Music. New York : Oxford University Press, 1999. P. 258-259, 323. AMICUS 15211640
- Eisdell, Hubert. "Trials of a tenor". Music Masterpieces. June 10, 1926
- The Globe and Mail. March 10, 1934. AMICUS 714810
- Horwood, Frederick James. "The Conservatory portrait gallery". Toronto Conservatory of Music Review. August 1935. P. 15-16. AMICUS 787949
- Langfield, Valerie. Roger Quilter, his life and music. Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K. : Boydell Press, 2002. xvii, 375 p. AMICUS 27330445
- Moogk, Edward. Roll back the years : history of Canadian recorded sound and its legacy, genesis to 1930. Ottawa: National Library of Canada, 1975. xii, 443 p. AMICUS 80154. Also published in French under the title En remontant les années : l'histoire et l'héritage de l'enregistrement sonore au Canada, des débuts à 1930
- Morgan, Robert P. Twentieth-century music: a history of musical style in modern Europe and America. New York : Norton, 1991. xvii, 554 p. AMICUS 9567888