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Felix Corbett: Middlesbrough’s first official Borough Organist

We are delighted to welcome Neil Cooke as guest blogger today. Neil is a Local History Research Volunteer for the Town Hall Refurbishment, Heritage Lottery Funded project. 

Felix Corbett

Felix Corbett

In January 1899 the Concert Organ was installed on the stage of Middlesbrough Town Hall. Almost immediately a search for a professional organist for Middlesbrough Borough began. Initially there were over 30 applicants but these were reduced to just five, and in May 1899 a competitive audition was announced. The five candidates would play in public before an independent adjudicator, Dr A. L. Peace, City Organist of Liverpool, each to perform four tasks. The results of the five performers were close but the Council ordered that Felix Corbett be appointed as Middlesbrough Borough Organist. He fulfilled this role for the next forty years, playing at Civic and Mayoral events and giving recitals to the public of Middlesbrough on Saturday afternoons, to which he regularly attracted an audience of around 700.

St Hilda’s Parish Church
When appointed, Felix Corbett was a well-established gentleman of the town. Born in Gloucestershire and having studied under the Borough Organist of Birmingham Corporation, he came to Middlesbrough in 1881, at the age of only 21, to take the position of Organist and Choirmaster at St Hilda’s Parish Church. With the encouragement of the then vicar, Rev. Bealey, he added major anthems and choral pieces to the Order of Service. These pieces, by composers such as Bach, Brahms, Ravel and others, were normal in Cathedrals and large Minsters but St Hilda’s was one of the first ordinary Parish Churches in England to do this. He held the position for 51 years, retiring in 1933. He received a glowing testimonial from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, on the 50th anniversary of his appointment:

Lambeth Palace, 7th July 1932. Dear Mr Corbett – I have just heard that on Aug 1st you will have attained the jubilee of your appointment as organist of St Hilda’s, Middlesbrough. Knowing, as I do so well, the enthusiasm which you have always shown for the great art of music and the efforts which you have made to give it a true place, not only in the worship of the Church, but in the life of the town and district of Middlesbrough, I cannot refrain from giving myself the pleasure of congratulating you and of thanking you for these long years of devoted service to a great cause. I hope that many years may still be given you to continue your work – Yours sincerely Cosmo Cantuar

Celebrity Concerts

Program Cover: Oct 1889

Program Cover: Oct 1889

Felix Corbett was a composer of songs and light piano pieces and had two of his songs performed at the first season of Promenade Concerts held at the Queen’s Hall, London in 1895. He was performing piano recitals and became a member of Middlesbrough Musical Union almost as soon as he arrived in Middlesbrough.

He became most renowned for the International Celebrity Concerts that he organised in the Town Hall from 1889 until 1939. Felix Corbett started his concerts shortly after the Town Hall had been opened by His Royal Highness, Edward, Prince of Wales, on 23rd January 1889. His first concert, in October of that year, was reported the following day in the NE Daily Gazette as a great success. The principal performers that evening, were opera stars from USA and Ireland, Madame Alwina Valleria and Signor Foli. The Hall was filled and the audience showered each performer, in turn, with loud applause and calls for encores. Encouraged he organised a season of three concerts for the following year (1890/91) and further seasons followed until, in 1894, he presented his biggest star yet: the internationally celebrated pianist, Paderewski. It has been suggested that these earlier concerts, although popular, had not always been financially successful for Corbett. However, after Paderewski the Concerts Series were firmly established. They became known as the Felix Corbett Celebrity Subscription Concerts.

In following years he brought to the Town Hall stars such as Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Clara Butt, Sir Edward Elgar with the London Symphony Orchestra, and then, in 1911, the biggest name to date appeared – Sergei Rachmaninov, the Russian composer and pianist. Other performers included Pablo Casals, Fritz Kreisler, Count John McCormack, Sir Thomas Beecham with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Yehudi Menuhin, Paul Robeson, Moiseiwitsch, Gigli and many others. Local celebrities pianist Cyril Smith and soprano Florence Easton also featured. He declared that his one regret was that he was never able to persuade Caruso to come despite approaching him many times.

A Life in Middlesbrough

Commemorative window

Commemorative window

Felix Corbett married Beatrice Cooper, the daughter of a steel company executive in 1902. They had four children; John, Eileen, Betty and George. Recognising his standing in the town, Middlesbrough Borough appointed him a Borough Magistrate in 1918.

Corbett resigned from the position of Borough Organist in January 1939 due to failing eyesight. He was 77 years old. Concerts were still planned though and in Feb 1939 Rachmaninov performed in what turned out to be the last concert for Felix Corbett. Although concerts were planned from October 1939 the declaration of war in September of that year ended the possibility of further concerts until after the War. Having resigned he left Middlesbrough for Reigate in Surrey and died just one year later in 1940.

Parish Organist and Choirmaster for 51 years, Celebrity Concerts for 50 years and Borough Organist for 40 years he helped to put Middlesbrough firmly in the cultural landscape of England. The Classical Music Concerts that continue today are a legacy of the series of concerts he started.

After the end of the Second World War money was raised by public subscription and charity concerts to install a commemorative stained-glass window in the Concert Hall. Unveiled by his widow in 1948 it is still there today, a fitting memorial to this musical man of Middlesbrough.

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