Frederick Robert Spark (1831-1919)
Journalist and first Secretary of the Leeds Musical Festivals

Frederick Robert Spark (1831-1919)For over a century the triennial Leeds Musical Festivals brought to the city a glittering array of composers, conductors and performers, to enchant and entertain. In the early years Edward Elgar, Arthur Sullivan, Serge Rachmaninoff, Anton Dvorak, Hubert Parry, Ralph Vaughan Williams and many others came here to conduct or perform their work, sometimes specially commissioned. Choral works predominated: star soloists were engaged and the huge Festival chorus was recruited from the best voices in the West Riding, famed for its choral tradition. For the four days of morning and evening concerts Leeds took on a carnival atmosphere, with crowds gathered outside the garlanded Town Hall to admire the great and good promenading in their finery – full evening dress recommended, large feathered hats banned!.

All this took immense organisation, and for the first 50 years of the Festivals the key man behind the scenes was the journalist Fred Spark. Music was in his blood. Originally from Exeter, he had been a cathedral chorister there and like his brothers had studied the organ under the famous Samuel Sebastian Wesley. But Fred took another career path: at 16 he was apprenticed to the local newspaper (4 shillings a week), then left for London as a printer in a music business. Meanwhile his older brother William had followed Wesley to Leeds and was organist at St George’s church and later city organist. It was at William’s suggestion that Fred came to Leeds in 1851, where he landed a job as reporter for the Leeds Mercury newspaper.

He was soon involved in William’s various musical enterprises: the thriving Madrigal and Motet Society (in bitter rivalry with the existing Choral Society); and a series of popular ‘People’s Concerts’ designed for working people. Fred sang in the choir and helped organise the concerts. But in 1858 his life took a new turn and he resigned his job at the Mercury.

In that year the long-awaited Town Hall was to be opened by Queen Victoria, and vast celebrations were planned. Now Leeds would finally have a performance space for major music events. William Spark and Henry Smart from London were commissioned to design the massive organ (an essential) and a great four-day musical festival was proposed to follow the Royal visit, profits to be donated to the Infirmary. Fred Spark was appointed Hon. (unpaid) Secretary to the organising committee. The timescale was tight and subject to last minute change, but the Festival was successfully staged and hailed as a triumph. £2000 went to the Infirmary while Fred got a frugal 20 guinea honorarium. But for him it was a labour of love.

The next Festival was planned for 1861 but petty bickering and rivalry forced it to be abandoned: it was to be 16 years before the idea was revived. Meanwhile Fred had taken over the management of a small weekly newspaper, the Leeds Express, aimed at working people and promoting reform; he reduced the price to an affordable 1 penny. He later borrowed money to buy it, started a halfpenny evening paper, the first in the country, and set up his own printing business. He married Eliza Sanderson, a solicitor’s daughter, and they made their home in Woodhouse. Four children followed.

None of this prevented him volunteering again for the role of unpaid secretary for the second Festival in 1874 and then for every Festival up to and including 1907 – a remarkable record. He took charge of all the practical arrangements and the negotiations with the sometimes temperamental composers, conductors and performers, as well as dealing with the opinionated Festival committee who seldom agreed. He enjoyed a particularly good relationship with Sir Arthur Sullivan who conducted the Festivals from 1880-1898. When Fred resigned, the job became salaried. He was later to write his memoirs and contribute to a history of the Festivals – frank and not without humour!

He was active in many other roles – as a JP, as Liberal Councillor and later Alderman, and on the committee of many worthy causes in Leeds, notably to benefit working people. He was founding secretary of the Leeds Working Men’s Hall where he gave singing lessons to the men after work, and in 1886 he founded the long-surviving Leeds Workpeople’s Hospital Fund to support local medical services. He played his part in the national Press Association and the Provincial Newspapers Society. He gave his spare time to organising and singing in concerts out in the villages around Leeds– and enjoyed some fun, including presenting his 20 minute version of ‘Hamlet’!

He died in 1919 aged 88. The Musical Festivals he had supported so devotedly continued until 1985, and the Festival Chorus which originated with that first 1858 Festival still thrives today.

Eveleigh Bradford