The following was written by David Bruce, a founder of the Helensburgh Music Society on the occasion of the Society’s 30th anniversary in 2010.
To begin with, it wasn’t going to be a music society at all – at least that was only going to be part of it. In the late 1970s, there was a feeling that Helensburgh was underprovided with opportunities to make and hear good music. True, the Oratorio Choir and the Dorian were doing well, the Helensburgh Orchestral Society was growing and the Operatic Society was enjoying its annual success. There was also the long-running series ‘Sunday at Seven’ at the West Kirk but there were still major gaps to be filled. One of these was dealt with in 1977 with the founding of The Helensburgh Saturday Orchestra (now Lomond and Clyde Community Orchestra) which catered for beginners of all ages.
However, conspicuously, there was no regular platform for professional performances of chamber music. There were also wider questions concerning access to the arts in Helensburgh and the first idea to be discussed, by a group led by Alan Berry, Walter Blair, Peter Vaughan, and David Bruce, was that there should be an Arts Guild to promote new activities and co-ordinate what already existed.
In that context, discussions were held with the Scottish Arts Council but during a visit to the town by SAC’s Music Director, Christie Duncan (at the ‘Gang of Four’s’ invitation), it became obvious that whatever the wider ambitions, there had to be a starting point and that starting point was surely a music society. With Duncan’s encouragement and support, the Helensburgh Music Society was formed in 1980 with Alan Berry as its first Chairman (followed in turn by the other three Gang members), and with Barbara Bruce and John Tasker as Secretary and Treasurer.
In fact, the Music Society had its precedents. Such societies flourished in other towns nearby, notably in Milngavie, Bearsden and at Erskine where Park Mains provided a useful model for Helensburgh. But Helensburgh itself had once had a music society of its own. In the 1940s, The Ministers’ Art Club had presented chamber music concerts of astonishing quality in the Victoria Halls.
The list of performers included Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Julian Bream, Denis Matthews and Denis Brain. And, before the war, Percy Grainger had played in the town. There was even a legacy of those days in the shape of the Victoria Halls’ piano which had been donated by the ministers (as a plaque on it proudly declared). By 1980, the piano was no longer at its best and one of the most problematic issues for the new society was what to do about it. For most concerts when a piano was needed, it was decided that the best thing was to hire one in, a necessity that continued for most of the next twenty years until the acquisition of the Grotrian-Steinweg which the Music Society and other users of the Victoria Hall (with the Society’s agreement) now enjoy.
Having created the Society, there was of course the matter of programming. With an enthusiasm born of inexperience, it was decided that each committee member would choose a performer or group and be responsible for all the arrangements to do with it. The first season’s concerts, put together in some haste and occupying only the spring of 1981, did rather reflect the individual tastes of The Gang but a more mature approach was soon established and, crucially, recognition of the importance of collaboration with other societies and agencies, particularly SAC. It was as a result of that, that the second season ended with what remains one of the most memorable musical events ever presented in Helensburgh – the recital given on Friday April 2, 1982, by Victoria de los Angeles and Craig Sheppard.
In reflecting on the Society’s origins, it is interesting to consider what traces remain of the initial ambitions. One admirable principle adopted then was that there should always be a regular rotation of committee and officer membership to ensure renewal of ideas and enthusiasm in the running of the Society. Another, reflecting the first activists’ wider ambitions, was the idea of producing an annual leaflet listing all Helensburgh’s musical dates for the year and the agreement of each of the groups not only to avoid clashes of dates but to advertise each others’ activities. That initiative, too, continues to this day. An innovation that seemed radical at the time was to avoid using the hall stage whenever possible but present performances ‘in the round’ so that, for example, a quartet might find itself with its audience on three sides. Just as significant was the proposal that concerts would include an interval exhibition.
Although the ‘Gang of Four’ had been the main activists at the outset, they were by no means alone. Crucial to the success of the venture was the involvement of others whose interests included, but also extended beyond, the musical. As well as Robert Kirk and Jill Braid, the first committee included Tony Vogt who, with his wife Berit and MaryJane and Kim Selwood, originated the exhibition idea. It was also their notion to invite Sandra Munro to prepare flowers for each performance, a special addition to these occasions much appreciated by audience and performers alike.
Perhaps the most touching memento of the exciting beginnings of the Society is in its logo designed for us by another of the great Helensburgh enthusiasts, the late Ted Odling. It is his image of the horn that appeared on the first poster, the first programme, and has been with us ever since. But most important of all, in terms of continuity and enjoyment, has been the Society’s commitment to maintaining the highest standards of programming and presentation from the very beginning to the present day. Long may that continue!