Recalling my Father’s reminiscences on Hiawatha

Richard Gordon-Smith writes:

Albert Memorial, Royal Albert HallMy father David Gordon-Smith* was born in 1915.  In the very class-conscious (by today’s standards) 1920s and ’30s my father’s parents would have been considered ‘lower middle class’.  Their cultural aspirations included occasional theatre and concert attendance, musical evenings in their home for friends, participation in amateur operatic performances and the acquisition of moderately good antiques.  Attendance at the Royal Albert Hall during the 1924-1939 period was probably not frequent, but Hiawatha was something that everyone went to, so they duly ‘feathered up’ with thousands of others to take the train from Brixton to Kensington.  1929 onwards was the time of the Great Depression and, as today, anyone with a job clung to it. Cheap, affordable entertainment on the spectacular scale of the annual Hiawatha fortnights were therefore greatly valued.

My father told of one such expedition and said that the performance reminded him more of a circus than a concert, with conductor (Sir) Malcolm Sargent as the ring master.  The audience, most of them in versions of Native American fancy dress – axes, bows and papooses included – joined in with some of the better-known numbers, which participation Sargent partially encouraged.

There was a charming naivety about the whole proceeding which would probably make us cringe now, but at that time audiences were in some ways less demanding than today – although greatly admiring Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’ music, they equated Hiawatha with Gilbert and Sullivan (‘G&S’) opera rather than Handel’s Messiah in the expected level of sophistication.  My father saw people actually dancing in the isles until asked to refrain.

What annoyed him later was that his parents had invited a large party of friends back to their house after the performance, where they continued to carouse, play the piano and sing SC-T and G&S numbers until the early hours of the morning.  He went to bed, having an exam the following morning, but his room was next to the lounge where the impromptu party was taking place but, even after the guests had come into his room and casually thrown their coats onto the bed where he was trying to sleep, renditions of ‘Onaway, awake beloved!’ kept this particular beloved from his dreams for most of the night.

I don’t know if any of this ramble through second-hand memories is of use, but I hope it gives you the rather jaundiced view of a young man of the time.  I feel my father, who died in 1991, sitting at my shoulder telling me I have rather over-embellished this account, so I had better end there!

*David Gordon-Smith was born in Brixton and claimed to be technically a Cockney, having been born ‘in sound of Bow Bells’.  Looking at the map, I should say that the wind would have to be in the right direction on an otherwise quiet day!  He moved to Croydon with his young family, including me, around 1950.  He was ordained fairly late, at the age of fifty, having previously had a career in advertising.  David Gordon-Smith was a curate in South Croydon, then Priest-in-Charge on the Isle of Dogs, before becoming Vicar of St Peter’s Church in Bethnal Green, East London.

>>  Do you have memories of Hiawatha events?  If so, we’d love you to share them in the Comments box below!

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1 Response to Recalling my Father’s reminiscences on Hiawatha

  1. jean2371 says:

    While I was never lucky enough to see any performance of “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast”, my late singing teacher and life-long friend, tenor Webster Booth, took part in many performances of the work under the baton of Sir Malcolm Sargent. His first performance was in July 1937 when he and the rest of the cast were clad in American Indian costumes and I have an imposing photo of Webster in his full regalia. He later sang in the fiftieth anniversary performance of the work. Malcolm Sargent chose him as soloist in the work to celebrate his sixtieth birthday. Webster’s recording of “Onaway, awake, beloved” (1947) is one of his finest recordings.

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