Sir Edward Elgar said “I shall always cherish my associations with Birmingham, where I have learned all the music I know when a member of Mr Stockley’s Orchestra” [1]. As part of that orchestra he was exposed to “classical” and “romantic” instrumentation that would put him in good stead for his future compositions. 
Who was Mr Stockley and how did he form his orchestra?  
William Stockley came to Birmingham in 1856 after being appointed conductor of the Birmingham Festival Choir [2]. At that time the choir provided most of the choral work associated with the Birmingham Triennial Festival. During a performance of Handel’s Messiah accompanied solely by the Town Hall Organ he felt the performance could be enhanced by the depth provided by an orchestra. His suggestion was not greeted with enthusiasm by the Festival Choir Committee but when put to a vote it did narrowly get through [3]. Musicians were recruited and the orchestra took to the stage in 1856. For the first 2 years of the orchestra their presence was seen as ‘a risk to finances’ and therefore the arrangement was such that musicians would only be paid pro-rata from 2/3 of the profits and only there to support the choir. By 1858 the success of the venture was assured, and the musicians were paid a pre-arranged fee. 
 
The stature of the orchestra remained as support to the choir until 1873 by which time the choir were being declared by the Times “Champion Choristers of England” [4]. Whilst the choir excelled William Stockley felt the Orchestra could do more had it not been for the lack of opportunity to shine.[5]. To address this, he launched a series of Subscription Concerts at Birmingham Town Hall. The first season saw a financial loss of £100, however local business people came to the rescue and a society was formed which kept the Orchestra afloat and the continuation of the concerts for many years [6]. In 1885 the London based Musical Times described the orchestra “A really first-rate band of 80 skilled players who achieved a unity, precision, and perfect balance of parts which any metropolitan organisation would envy” [7] 
 
Edward Elgar having no outlet in Worcester as a professional musician would frequently travel to Birmingham to perform with Mr Stockley's Orchestra as a violinist. His first concert with the orchestra was on the 30th November 1882 with a performance including the Suite from Delibes’ Ballet Sylvia [8]. He then participated in every concert performed until the 7th November 1889. 
 
Elgar had already started composing pieces for an Orchestra by the time he joined Mr Stockley’s orchestra. However, William Stockley was completely unaware of the additional talents that his violinist had. The composer Herbert Waring had met and heard some of Elgar’s first work and introduced it to William who was immediately taken by the score.[9] That piece was Intermezzo Moresque for full orchestra. It was performed on the 13th December 1883 to great acclaim [10]. Stockley later recalled “On my asking him if he’d like to conduct, he declined, and further, insisted on playing in his place in the orchestra. The consequence was that he had to appear fiddle in hand, to acknowledge the genuine and hearty applause of the audience [11]. 
 
Over subsequent years a number of Elgar’s’ pieces were played in the Town Hall. In February 1888 Elgar himself conducted the orchestra in a performance of his suite in D [12]. 
 
Although Elgar had left the orchestra in 1889 it carried on until 1899 when it disbanded. The year the Enigma Variations had been published. William Stockley retired from the orchestra and festival Choir in 1897. 
 
Elgar was commissioned to produce the “Dream of Gerontius” for the Birmingham Triennial Festival scheduled for October 1900. Although recognised by its critics as a piece of genius the premiere at the Town Hall was a disaster. Several things conspired to contribute to this poor performance. Elgar had been engrossed in the success of his Enigma Variations released the year before and had not therefore produced the manuscript in a timely manner, the final score not being available until the 3rd August 1900 [13]. It is a difficult piece for any choir to master and therefore rehearsals didn’t go well. To compound the problems the choir master that had replaced Mr Stockley, Charles Swinerton Heap, died suddenly in the run up to the performance. Mr Stockley who was now into his 80’s and a physically frail man was bought out of retirement to complete the performance and it is said that he was not a great fan of the composition. 
 
Elgar was totally disheartened following Gerontius despite some of the warming words of the critics. It did however receive acclaim over following years and parts of it were recorded for the first time in February 1927 at a concert in the Royal Albert Hall. 
 
[1] Moore 1999p325 
[2] Allen, Gordon C (2000), William C Stockley, Birmingham: Birmingham Festival Choral Society 
[3] Handford 2006 p107 
[4] Handford 2006 p108 
[5} Harlow 1999 p49 
[6] Handford 2006 p167 
[7] Young 1995 p100 
[8] Moore 1999 p96 
[9] Moore 1999 p99 
[10] King-Smith 1995 p2 
[11] Moore 1999 p102 
[12] Moore p124 
[13] Mundy 2001p86 
 
• Moore, Jerrold Northrop (1999), Edward Elgar: A Creative Life, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0198163665. 
• Handford, Margaret (2006), Sounds Unlikely: Music in Birmingham, Studley: Brewin Books, ISBN 1858582873 
• Harlow, Martin (1999), "Mr Halford's Orchestral Concerts 1897-1907. Conductor at Large.", The Musical Times, Musical Times Publications Ltd., 140 (1867): 49–53, JSTOR 1193895 
• Young, Percy M. (1995), Elgar, Newman, and The Dream of Gerontius: In The Tradition of English Catholicism, Aldershot: Scolar Press, ISBN 0859678776 
• King-Smith, Beresford (1995), Crescendo! 75 years of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, London: Methuen, ISBN 0413697401 
• Simon Munday (2001) “The illustrated guide to Great Composers, Elgar.ISBN 0711989214 
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