The Sound of Swindon

For two decades Harry Stanley Fairclough turned the Wiltshire town into a leading centre of opera

Norman Lebrecht

Along the southeast coast of England lies a string of small towns where people leave relics of their useful lives. It’s a common habit. A couple reach retirement age and, anticipating visits from friends, children and grandchildren, move to the seaside. They grow frail, the grandchildren grow up and away, the husband dies. The widow, with immaculate hair, measures out time in bridge mornings until her hour also comes and the house-clearance van pulls up outside.

The van carries off books and albums and distributes them down a trail of second-hand stores in the down-at-heel town centre. Every year or two, in need of sea air, I travel down to the coast and find myself driven off the front by blustery winds to browse through the detritus of lost lives.

I begin at the music shelves, bulging with well-thumbed scores of Handel’s Messiah and the Beethoven piano sonatas, nothing more adventurous. Signed copies of Edward Heath’s Music: A Joy for Life abound for a couple of pounds (unsigned are scarcer). Here and there, I find a scrapbook in which someone has lovingly pasted a programme of every concert and opera they attended. The ephemera, suburban and provincial, are of negligible interest. Why did people need to be reminded of such routine performances? Depression kicks in.

Then, in a Beethoven stack, I find an album so rich in creative activity that it blows away my preconceptions and breaks open a window into a lost age of idealism, an age that propounded art for all. The sticker on the scrapbook cover reads: “Swindon Playhouse opera programmes, 1932-1954”.

Swindon was a railway town, serving since Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s time for the repair and maintenance of locomotives and rolling stock. It flourished until the 1960s when inflated wage costs and the growth of motorways ended the age of rail; the last works shut in 1986. Swindon had no function or purpose beyond rail, no cultural footprint. I do not expect much of its Playhouse operas. How wrong I am.

The first item in the scrapbook is a death announcement, on June 26, 1965, for Harry Stanley Fairclough, aged 71, beloved husband of Muriel of 41 Westlecot Road (“donations may be sent to the British Empire Cancer Campaign”). Opposite, we see the late Harry, baton in hand, “musical director of the Swindon Musical Society”. 

Harry Stanley Fairclough appears in no music dictionaries, nor is there any trace of him on the internet. He is a provincial conductor, teacher of “the choral and orchestral classes of the Swindon College”. I turn a page, expecting Gilbert and Sullivan, at best a Dream of Gerontius. Harry, however, has wider horizons.

His first production, in October 1932, is The Legend of the Tsar Saltan by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a colour-filled piece seldom seen in London, let alone in railyards. It must have gone down well, because the next opera is Sadko by the same composer, followed by Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor. Then come three more Rimsky-Korsakovs: Mlada, Ivan the Terrible and The Snow Maiden. Where else in the world, outside Russia, could you have seen a Rimsky cycle in the 1930s? Swindon has become the epicentre for an underrated composer of quiet influence, most decisively on Igor Stravinsky.

The singers are local amateurs; Mrs Muriel Fairclough gets a credit in minor roles. Costumes and scenery are handmade by society members. “The devotion to Russian Operas is almost entirely due to the fact that they are folk operas and provide an opportunity for a large number of people with a diversity [sic] to take part,” the programme explains, warding off any suspicion of Soviet sympathies. 

By 1939 the Society is booming. Its list of patrons has swelled from one page to three and the booklet is thick with consumer advertising. Frederick Ashton and Constant Lambert come from London’s Sadlers Wells Opera to see Massenet’s Cinderella in Swindon, the final ball before the war.

Opera resumes in Swindon in 1946 with Borodin’s Prince Igor and an “augmented” orchestra. A revival of Mlada is reviewed by The Times, which belatedly acknowledges that Swindon is now “the place to look” for Russian opera.

Harry Fairclough has other ideas. In 1948, he puts on an English folk opera, Hugh the Drover by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The grand old man of English music turns up at the premiere and is seen in the scrapbook, taking a bow with the cast. VW becomes patron of the Society. Before the year is out, Swindon receives a grant from the Arts Council of Great Britain. Harry Stanley Fairclough has become an engine of national policy, raising arts from grass shoots.

Swindon’s Festival of Britain opera, The Travelling Companion by C.V. Stanford, is praised by The Times. It is succeeded by a rare staging of Goyescas by the Spanish composer Enrique Granados, together with one of the first performances anywhere in the world of Kurt Weill’s naive American singspiel Down in the Valley.

And then, after two more revivals, the scrapbook stops. The only further item in the album is a loose sheet from Harry Stanley Fairclough’s memorial concert in St Luke’s, Swindon, a performance of the Fauré Requiem. 

Why Swindon opera had to end can only be conjectured. It may be that the cushion of an Arts Council grant caused the society to collapse on its withdrawal. Perhaps the conductor’s energies were sapped by the cancer that killed him. Or maybe the times had changed, so much so that young people were no longer prepared to spend evenings singing in a chorus and sewing costumes. They sat now in cinemas and coffee bars, absorbing commercial, imported American culture. Homemade had become a dirty word. Working-town England in the 1950s lived off the peg, on the never-never. Harry Stanley Fairclough was a man out of time.

We can only guess how his album came south nearly half a century later, with a £15 price tag knocked down to £10. Muriel must have left it to a daughter or niece who kept it among her unclaimed effects in a damp flat, not far from the sea. But this is no cause for pathos. Few book discoveries have given me such profound joy, illuminating on a cloudy afternoon a truly useful musical life, a life for the arts.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"