Opera Scotland

Trautman's painting of the Burning of Troy

The Trojans: the first performances in the British Isles

Posted 27 Aug 2014

The first UK performances of the Trojans by Hector Berlioz were given in March 1935. Held in Glasgow's Theatre Royal, this historic and ambitious production was performed by Glasgow Grand Opera under Dr Erik Chisholm. 

This was at a time when there was nothing in Scotland that could be called a professional opera company. However, Chisholm believed that music of all kinds can and should be performed by amateurs and that audiences would gain greatly from the experience, despite the imperfections inherent in any live performance. But the standard realised was surely a high one; the musicians of the Scottish Orchestra were in the pit, and some of the best singers Scotland could supply were on stage. "...skilful handling of chorus and orchestra had much to do with the successful presentation. The chorus appeared to be thoroughly familiar with the music, and responded promptly." (Scotsman 20 March 1935)

No effort was spared to make Trojans a success, though resources must have been strained to the utmost. William Henry, the producer, and his assistants from Glasgow School of Art were responsible for the colourful settings and costumes. Knightswood Brass Band had been enlisted, and there were two bands and hidden chorus for the moments when the wooden horse passed across the stage.

The venture attracted considerable attention. John Purser noted in Chisholm's biography that amongst those in the audience were Hamilton Harty, Donald Francis Tovey and the renowned critic Ernest Newman. Newman wrote that '(Chisholm)..had the orchestra and chorus well in hand: there were some ticklish moments, but his resource never failed him.'

Generally speaking other reviews concentrated on the positives, stressing the creditable nature of the results. The Glasgow Herald critic praised the high state of readiness. The Evening Times reviewer was perhaps more critical, but also complimented the company, stating that great credit must be given to their enterprise and courage in staging this opera.

The Trojans represented a landmark in the history of opera in Scotland. The success of Glasgow Grand opera was remembered and many years later Trojans was also to become one of the early achievements of Scottish Opera.

More details are available here.  Scottish Opera's 1969 production is detailed here.

Sadly no images seem to have survived in the archives of the Glasgow School of Art and so our illustration is of the Burning of Troy by the German artist Trautmann.

For further reading, see John Purser's Erik Chisholm, Scottish Modernist 1904-1965 Chasing a Restless Muse  Boydell Press 2009

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