With a record-breaking year for the Elora Festival, and the appointment of Noel Edison as director of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, 1997 was a notable year for music in Elora.
During Edison’s 20 years in Elora, and with his creation of the Elora Festival Singers, Elora has gained a reputation for choral music unrivalled by any other town of its size.
This is not a new path for Elora. It is one of the coincidences of our local history that serious vocal music has a tradition in Elora of more than 140 years.
The diminutive figure of Margaret Geddes Gilkison dominated the early musical history of Elora. She was the daughter of Andrew Geddes, the Crown Land agent, and she married David Gilkison, eldest son of the founder of Elora.
No details of her education or musical training seem to have survived, but she was accomplished at both the keyboard and as a vocalist.
The Geddes family was closely associated with the founding of St. John’s Church, but David and Margaret Gilkison moved to Toronto before the first St. John’s was built. David worked in the registrar’s office at the University of Toronto, and Margaret worked with the choir at St. James Church, and occasionally played the organ there.
She had not severed her connections completely with Elora. She returned a number of times through the 1840s to direct the choir at St. John’s, sometimes bringing with her a couple of the choir members from St. James. She also gave recitals. Her visits and inspiration aroused interest in vocal music in the village.
David Gilkison died in 1851. For a couple of years Margaret and her daughters Maggie and Frances returned to Elora to live with her father, Andrew Geddes. Three years later Margaret married M.M. Derry. It is something of a challenge to trace her movements after this time. At various times the Derrys were in Toronto; upstate New York; Newark, New Jersey; and Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Margaret’s daughter Maggie inherited her mother’s musical ability, and while in her teens assisted her mother in giving music lessons. Around 1856 or 1857 Maggie returned to Elora. Within months she married Rev. C.E. Thomson, the newly ordained 25-year-old minister who replaced John Smithurst as the rector of St. John’s.
Mrs. Thomson turned her attention to the choir at St. John’s, and she helped to organize the Elora Choral Society. This group, which drew from the St. John’s Choir, her private students, and from musical residents, offered concerts beginning in 1858.
For one concert in June 1859 Margaret Derry returned to Elora to play the piano as accompaniment for the choir. John Bain, the pugnacious proprietor of the Commercial Hotel, played violin on several pieces. This concert drew more than 150, an impressive audience in a village of less than 1,000 population. John Smith of the Elora Observer commented that “as vocalists the choir has few equals in Canada.”
Though not active every year, the Elora Choral Society existed in one form or another for more than 25 years. The membership drew very largely from the St. John’s congregation, and there is little doubt that Rev. C.E. Thomson and his wife Maggie held it together.
Membership in the Choral Society cost $1.50 in the 1860s, more than a day’s wages for most workers. The society brought in a Mr. Kerrison from Guelph as director. In the days before the railway this involved frequent overnight trips for him. Typically, the Elora Choral Society practiced weekly from November to May each season, and gave two concerts annually.
A fresh generation of vocalists and performers appeared in the 1870s, instructed by Mrs. Thomson and Mary Newman, daughter of Elora banker Walter Newman. The concerts of the 1870s, often advertised as by “the pupils of Miss Newman,” featured the Scottish and sentimental songs that became popular in the latter part of the 19th century.
Choral music in Elora suffered a setback in 1877, when Rev. C.E. Thomson and his wife Maggie left Elora for All Saints in Hamilton. No one in Elora had either the zeal or ability to instruct others in vocal techniques. Both the Elora Choral Society and St. John’s Choir fell on hard times.
While serious vocal music declined in popularity, instrumental music rose in esteem. The Elora Philharmonic Society took to the stage in the 1880s with regular concerts of orchestral music. The bulk of the orchestra consisted of local amateurs, with a sprinkling of better musicians from Guelph and elsewhere. This highbrow music seldom filled the old Armoury Hall (now the Elora LCBO), but there was a consistent and enthusiastic audience for it.
The Elora Choral Society rose from the ashes in 1909. This time the inspiration came from W.M. Clarke, the choir director of Knox Church. The emphasis on music in this congregation shifted dramatically over 25 years. In the 1880s there had been opposition to the installation of an organ in the church. Most Knox members at that time believed that hymns should be sung plainly and without accompaniment.
Under Clarke, music at Knox came to the fore. His revived Elora Choral Society offered several concerts during the 1908-09 season. The vocalists consisted of the better members of his own choir, supplemented with members of the other local choirs. In February 1910 he staged the cantata Joseph, featuring soloists from Toronto. This performance filled the Armoury Hall.
Knox Church continued to dominate vocal music in Elora through the 1920s under Clarke’s successor, H.M. Paton. He organized the Elora Senior and Junior Choir, which gave occasional performances of popular and sentimental music at the Armoury Hall. These programs often combined instrumental music and recitations.
More serious music was offered by the choir of Knox Church, usually during the Christmas and Easter seasons. Paton continued the tradition of bringing in featured soloists for these performances.
There is no direct historical line from Margaret Geddes Gilkison to Prof. Clarke and H.M. Paton and on to the early 1980s, when Noel Edison and the Elora Festival Singers revived choral music in Elora.
It is therefore remarkable that Elora has been able to provide both vocalists and an audience for choral music over such a long period of time.
Those readers who listen to classical music are likely to hear selections from the St. John’s Choir recordings on the radio frequently.