Clarion Calls for Peace and Harmony; Alison Jones Looks at the Social History of the Trail-Blazing Clarion Singers

Article excerpt

Anyone who heard the football chants echoing round Wembley Stadium on Saturday could not fail to appreciate the power music has to move people.

It is the very reason we have national anthems, because songs can stir the soul in ways that no other medium can.

This was the lesson learned by Dr Colin Bradsworth after returning from the Spanish Civil War where he had been working as a field surgeon for the Government forces.

He was so moved by the inspiring songs sung by the anti-Fascist international brigade that when he returned to Britain, he decided to start his own Socialist choir to raise the spirits of a city hovering on the brink of another world war.

The Clarion singers were formed 60 years ago as a small 'weapon' to raise morale in Birmingham and they held their first rehearsals above the Old Contemptibles pub in Edmund Street.

The aims were to make good music 'accessible to all in the belief it can help men and women work for the improvement of society'. It was a workers' group and had close links to the Labour and Trade Union movements.

Among the singers above the pub was Elsie Marshall, who is now in her 80s and still performs with them today. 'The choir was open to anybody, although the people who came were mildly political,' said Mrs Marshall. 'But then most people were more interested in that sort of thing in those days.'

The group soon found themselves raising people's spirits as they huddled together in air-raid shelters or worked in hospitals, on factory floors and in army barracks. Even during the most trying circumstances, the Clarion standards were not allowed to drop.

'The composer Alan Bush worked with us right from the beginning,' said Mrs Marshall. 'I remember we were rehearsing Figaro when a bomb dropped and the pianist missed a note. All Alan said was, 'play the right note, David'. He was a great character.'

Also still heavily involved with the Clarion Singers is Katharine Thomson, who joined them as a conductor in 1940. A skilled musician, she was the wife of eminent Birmingham scholar Professor George Thomson.

The singers were committed to taking music to the masses and as part of this performed excerpts from the Marriage of Figaro from the back of a lorry in Balsall Heath and staged Bach's Peasant Cantata on Bournville village green.

They also presented the Beggar's Opera in the Big Top that Birmingham Council erected on a bomb site in New Street during the summer of 1944 when city residents were encouraged to 'holiday at home'. …