My first 'vocal' solo - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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My first 'vocal' solo

The Law of Unforeseen Consequences came into play one day in 1946, at the start of my final year at St James’ Junior School. Mum, Dad and I were invited to a party in a house on Avondale Street that I passed every day when I walked to and from both my primary and junior schools. Although I had no idea who lived there, and I had certainly never been inside, someone who knew I was keen on classical music and had a good treble voice, must have made sure I was invited so that I could be auditioned without my knowledge. Sneaky what?

After a rather boring half hour when nothing seemed to be happening except grown up talk, the hosts announced that their daughter would entertain us with a rendition of her favourite popular song and after that I could regale the party with my favourite song. I was dismayed because I was very shy and I particularly did not like singing in public. Despite my protestations, I was made to do it and I said that I would sing ‘You are my sunshine’, a popular song of the time regularly played on the wireless in Forces’ Favourites. My Mum, however, insisted that I should sing the religious song ‘Bless This House’. The BBC also regularly played that on the wireless, with Count John McCormack the famous Irish operatic tenor as the soloist so, fortunately, I knew the tune and all the words from memory.

When it was my turn to perform, one of the ladies went to the upright piano, sat down and gave me a starting note. I noticed that she already had the music ready on the piano: coincidence or what? Once I started, I found that I was actually enjoying myself. I was then asked to sing it again. The second time through, the pianist transposed the song up three notes from the original C Major to F Major: “To see if you can do the high notes at the end of the second verse in this key”, the pianist said to me with an encouraging smile. In my second rendition, by then unashamedly showing off, I added an acciaccatura, a very short grace note, to the word ‘Lord’ in the penultimate line of the final verse. John McCormack always did that. I remember hitting the highest note, a B flat, clearly and effortlessly and thinking smugly to myself, “That showed her!”

Bless this house, O Lord we pray, Make it safe by night and day.
Bless these walls so firm and stout, Keeping want and trouble out.
Bless the roof and chimneys tall, Let thy peace lie over all.
Bless this door that it may prove, Ever open to joy and love.

Bless these windows shining bright, Letting in God's Heavenly light.
Bless the hearth a-blazing there, With smoke ascending like a prayer.
Bless the people here within, Keep them pure and free from sin.
Bless us all that we may be, Fit O Lord to dwell with thee,
Bless us all that one day we may dwell, O Lord with Thee.

Someone, I never found out who, must have told Mr Paterson my Head Teacher at St James' about my singing because only a couple of days later he visited our house, unannounced, to float the idea of my competing for a Choral Scholarship. That would have meant leaving St James' more or less immediately and continuing my education as a choral scholar at the Wakefield Cathedral School. It was, apparently, deemed to be a great honour. Mum was desperately keen for me to go to the Cathedral School; Dad, as I recall it, was ambivalent. I was stubbornly opposed to the idea and indeed I remember absolutely refusing even to countenance it. I probably stamped my feet; it was yet another manifestation of my alleged 'Irish temper'.

On reflection, I believe there was one over-riding reason why I didn't want to go to the cathedral school in spite of my obvious aptitude for, and love of, classical music. My ambition for some years had been to win an academic scholarship to the highly-regarded Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in the centre of Wakefield. My Mum was both aghast and dismayed about my petulant refusal to countenance the Choral Scholarship but I have always suspected that Mr Paterson agreed with my decision, although he never said so in my presence. The idea was dropped but, for many years afterwards, Mum used to say to her friends with a wistful look towards me, "Tony could have gone to the Cathedral School, you know."

Curiously, while I was proof-reading this page on 18 May 2014 I heard 'Bless This House' beautifully sung by Lesley Garrett on BBC Songs of Praise coming from a Leeds church just nine miles from the house where I now live. It must have been over 60 years since I had last heard that song but I still remembered all the words - and Lesley Garrett included the acciaccatura.

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