Last week’s article on Derry City Cemetery made mention of Victorian era engineer Abraham McCausland Stewart who with his brother Charles Edward Stewart were leading engineers in the city and beyond at the height of the Victorian era.
However, Abraham Stewarts wife also made an invaluable contribution to the cultural life of Derry for many decades by championing singing and music as part of being at the heart of the creation of many of Derry’s annual musical festivals and organisations.
Alexandrina (Alex) Elsner was born at Stillorgan, Co Dublin on June 13, 1865 and was the daughter of Frederick Wilhelm Elsner, a renowned German cellist who had come to Dublin from Frankfurt in 1851 as Professor of Violoncello at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.
With her sister Pauline, Alex became a pioneer of Lieder – romantic songs, of an intimate and refined nature that were generally for solo singers with piano accompaniment that required a virtuoso technique. The two young Elsner sisters greatly promoted those type of songs at private musical recitals at their aunt’s house at Wilton Street in Dublin, performing works by Brahms, Peter Cornelius, Strauss and Wolf for very select audiences.
Interestingly, Wilhelm’s daughters also ran a kindergarten at the family home in Stillorgan as well as maintaining the school of music long after his death and which was then inherited by his widow Elise. Amongst the pupils at the house which was called Tanus, was a young Samuel Beckett who attended there between the age of five and nine.
The school was located on the Leopardstown Road between Foxrock and Stillorgan and in his later years literally giant still recalled that the place had a big lawn where, between classes, he and his brother Frank would play with the other children.
Also, whilst they were attending the school, the Beckett’s father acted as a surveyor for a new building that the Elsner’s had constructed at the end of their garden to act as a gymnasium.
Having obviously inherited her father’s undoubted musical talent, Alex attended the Royal College of Music in London where she honed her contralto voice and on her return to Ireland in 1884 and took part in concerts with many of Dublin’s musical societies and remained an extremely popular choice for private recitals in the fashionable houses of the capital.
Later in the 1880s Alexandrina Elsner was travelling north to sing in Belfast and the North West as well. Amongst her first memorable appearances in Derry was a performance as a soloist at a St Columb’s Choral Union concert in February 1887 and at another concert in October 1889 at the city’s new Opera House on Carlisle Road.
The stature of the appearance of Miss Elsner at Derry’s Opera House, which had opened in 1877, should not be underestimated since there were very few venues of this stature in Ireland at the time that attracted only the top acts of the time. In fact, the Derry newspapers - the Standard, Derry Journal and Londonderry Sentinel lauded her as one of the most favoured performers of the local audiences.
Renowned Italian opera companies regularly visited Derry to perform and such was the popularity of the city’s Opera House that late night train services for audiences were often laid on from Inishowen and in the city late evening tram services allowed audiences to travel more easily to the shows.
When she married Abraham Stewart on June 28, 1898 Alex Elsner moved to Derry where she wasted no time in throwing herself into the cultural life of a city esteemed for not only for its love of music but its wealth of talent as well.
Just two years after her arrival in her new home, Alexandrina had established the Londonderry Philharmonic Society and Londonderry Feis. The Feis, beginning as a single day event on April 7, 1900 eventually bloomed into a week-long festival of music and singing by the 1920s and she herself took lead roles in the bi-annual performances of the Philharmonic Society.
The budding impresario wisely took counsel from the organisers of the Feis Ceoil (Festival of Music) in her native city of Dublin and invited a representative to Derry to advise on how to establish a local version. As a result, Derry became the second place in Ireland to establish such a festival, beating Sligo (1903) and Belfast (1908) to the punch.
Initially, there were just a few competitions – for church choirs, factory choirs, school choirs, drum and flute bands, brass bands and for solo singers as well as special medals for songs sung in Gaelic awarded by the Derry branch of the Gaelic League. The interest of budding competitors was immediately taken as the workers of the famed city shirt factories quickly scrambled to form choirs specifically for the Feis.
In advance of the first year of competition, by February of 1900 three of the factories established four choirs. Welch Margetson & Co and Hogg & Mitchell both entered a choir each, whilst the much larger workforce at Tillie & Henderson entered two choral groups.
With the passing decades the Feis gained more and more competitors and its repertoire of competitions expanded as a result not just from all over Ireland but from Scotland and England as well. As its prestige also increased, many of Derry’s businesses were glad to be associated with its success and donated beautiful gold and silver cups and medals. Bursary schemes for those intent in pursuing a professional life in music and singing also began.
In 1922, just a year after partition, another woman Mrs Edward Henry (Rose) O’Doherty founded Feis Doire Colmcille along with Fr Joseph McGettigan. The Derry Feis centred more upon Irish music, dancing and singing but despite the obvious cultural differences, competitors from the Catholic and Protestant communities competed in both feiseanna without exception.
Alexandrina Stewarts devotion to the Londonderry Philharmonic Society was equal to her commitment to the feis. Apart from featuring her own distinguished performances, the concerts also featured many distinguished musical names from both London and Dublin.
In an era long before manufactured television vehicles, the twice-yearly Derry concerts also attracted talent scouts from far and near seeking bookings for their concert halls and opera houses.
And, a major talent was spotted as the result of the Philharmonic Society’s concert in Derry on March 31, 1938. James Johnston, a native of Belfast was well-known as an amateur singer in his younger days but was practically untrained at the highest level. Instead he concentrated as a career in butchery in his father’s shop and supplemented his income as a semi-professional singer at venues around Ireland.
It was after his performance in Derry that he was snapped up by the Dublin Grand Opera Society and so began a huge career as an opera singer. It was after highly memorable performances in Rigoletto in Ireland’s capital in 1940, the globally renowned theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie offered him a contract at Sadler’s Wells where he became principal tenor for well in excess of a decade.
During his career Johnston played a wide range of roles which included his Covent Garden debut in La Traviata in 1949 and also appeared with Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Johnston retired at the height of his fame in 1958 and simply returned to working in the family butcher’s business in Belfast’s Sandy Row where he lived out the remainder of his life until he died aged 88 in 1991.
Johnston’s success however was entirely based on being spotted in Derry and to the efforts of Alex Stewart’s in establishing the city’s Philharmonic Society. It too sprang from relatively humble beginnings, with having just over 100 in the chorus and nineteen strong orchestra in 1900. By the 1920s the society accounted for 12 voices and a 40 strong orchestra that drew its membership from all classes across Derry.
The pinnacle of Alex’s own musical career had perhaps come in March 1914 when she was soloist for the celebrated Halle Orchestra at St Columb’s Hall. The orchestra had been founded in 1857 in Manchester by Sir Charles Halle to perform at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in January 1858. The orchestra exists to this day and has been in residence at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester since 1996.
Abraham Stewart died suddenly in 1924 and as a result, Alexandrina returned home to her family in Dublin, but returned to Derry every year without fail during feis week. The Feis Committee awarded her the honorary title of administrator and offered to pay the fare for her return journey for life.
On May 16, 1942 Alex McCausland Elsner Stewart died at a nursing home in Dublin and her remains were brought to Derry and buried beside those of her husband in the city cemetery. The couple had two sons and a daughter. Her daughter, also called Alexandrina, had been killed just a few weeks previously whilst on active service in Burma during World War II.
Abraham and Alexandrina had lived at the prestigious Crawford Square in Derry and it was there on April 1, 2016 that the Ulster History Circle unveiled a blue plaque marking her life and contribution to the cultural life of her adopted city.
Commenting on the unveiling of the blue plaque, Chris Spurr from the Ulster History Circle said: “When Alexandrina Stewart embraced Ireland’s city of music, the result was a harmonious partnership founding the first Londonderry Philharmonic Society and the Derry Feis Ceoil.”
CAPTION: The Londonderry Philharmonic Society on stage at the Guildhall.
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