On this Day 20th December 1870

Nunn's Messiah Wows Penzance

The Tuesday before Christmas, 1870, was a big day for the musical community of Penzance. As well as putting up their newly-fashionable Christmas trees and sending their Christmas cards with the halfpenny post, buying little presents and getting the goose or the turkey ready to be cooked, there was a big occasion to attend in St John's Hall. Mr J.H. Nunn, the esteemed director of the Penzance Choral Society, had a 'rich musical treat in store' for the town – Handel's 'undying oratorio', The Messiah. And not just a run-of-the-mill performance of it either, but with a set of highly distinguished first-class oratorio singers, of national fame.

Too many notes Herr Kappelmeister? History would suggest not!

Miss Edith Wynne (soprano) was already well known in Penzance; she was a Welsh operatic soprano and concert singer, who had studied at the Royal Academy of Music and in Florence, and had made her London debut eight years earlier. Miss Julia Elton (contralto) was of similar reputation and had sung at the Three Choirs Festival among many other engagements. Mr W H Cummings (tenor), had been a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral at only six years old. After that he sang in the Temple church in London, Westminster Abbey and the Royal Chapels, and later in his career he was to become Principal of the Guildhall School of Music, as well as composing many songs and writing and lecturing on music. And Mr Michael Maybrick (bass) was perhaps the most colourful character of them all….. he trained as a baritone in Milan and appeared regularly at London and country-wide concert venues. He also wrote his own songs and was already performing them in 1870, but it was after this date that his main fame arrived, and possibly notoriety as well. Under the pseudonym Stephen Adams, he wrote The Holy City, one of the most popular religious songs in English (often sung in Cornwall to this day). He was a keen amateur cricketer, yachtsman and cyclist, and a Captain in the Artists' Rifles. At the age of 52 he was to marry his 40 year old housekeeper and settle down with her on the Isle of Wight, where he was a magistrate and five times mayor of Ryde, and a Freemason. But his brother James Maybrick, and later Michael Maybrick himself, were both accused (among many, many other suspects) of being Jack the Ripper…… However, in 1870 all this was still to come, and no one disputed the quality of Mr Maybrick's voice or his performance on this occasion.

Handel's Messiah, completed in 1741, was written for modest vocal and instrumental forces, but during the 19th century, when amateur choral societies became so popular, it came to be performed by ever-larger choirs and orchestras. This excited the contempt of Bernard Shaw in his capacity as music critic: “The stale wonderment which the great chorus never fails to elicit has already been exhausted”, he wrote. However the Cornish Telegraph lists the members of Mr Nunn's choir and orchestra for this concert, and they seem to have been a relatively small group, probably more in keeping with Handel's original intentions for the work.

The Trumpet Shall SoundAll seems to have gone very well. Miss Elton captivated the audience, apparently, with her 'richness, mellowness, and compass of her voice', in the solo 'But who may abide'. Miss Wynne triumphed in 'How beautiful are the feet' and 'I know that my Redeemer liveth'. Mr Cummings seems to have had some 'slight huskiness and flatness of voice', but he managed, and 'warmed to his work' in 'Thou shalt break them'. The chorus did its job with excellence and 'unflagging vigour'. And Mr Maybrick gave of his best in the wonderful bass solo 'The trumpet shall sound', which also brought into prominence the 'silvery tones' of Mr Fly, Bandmaster of the South Devon Militia, as the trumpet soloist.

One imagines the performers and audience all leaving the hall, in the damp night air, the immortal tunes of Handel's great oratorio running through their heads, humming snatches of it as they put their instruments away and walk home or to their waiting carriages. Christmas is very near now, and to this day, there are many who think that Christmas is not complete unless they have heard (or sung or played in) a performance of Handel's Messiah. And of course, there will be one this Christmas too, in Penzance…...


The performance was given a good built up in the Cornish Telegraph of 7th December 1870 and 14th December 1870

The concert was reviewed in the Cornish Telegraph of 21st December 1870 which includes a complete list of all ingers, players and a selection of notables in the audience.

Information on Mr Maybrick can be found on Wikipedia

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Penwith Local History Group
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Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

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