The Xaverian College Orchestra

Some Reflections on the Xaverian College Orchestra 1959 – Bob Postlethwaite

Robert Postlethwaite
Robert Postlethwaite

My first experience of ‘Chuck’ Sellars’ ‘ambition’ for the orchestra was Speech Day 1958.  The programme included the chorus ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’ from Haydn’s Creation.   This was well above my pay grade in more than one way and it was many years before I came to realise what a magnificent piece it is.  In many ways, this is a paradigm of Mr Sellars approach to introducing students to music.  We bashed through (massacred) all manner of sublime pieces, held together by Mr Sellars sitting at the piano and filling in the parts.  But what an experience and how it sowed the seeds for the later enjoyment of music.  There is nothing to compare with playing a piece, no matter how badly (and often it was worse than badly), to get you into the music.   I am always grateful for the foundation that ‘Chuck’ Sellars gave me to enrich my life with the enjoyment of music.

Mr Charles Sellars

Mr Sellars had another profound effect on my life.  In Autumn 1964, the Royal Opera House came to Manchester for a season, this never happened again.   You could pay on the night to stand at the back of the stalls for £5.00.  On one of the nights I attended Mr Sellars was there and he talked me through Verdi’s Othello.  We also discussed my plans for university.   I had always had an ambition to do chemistry and that is what I had put on my UCCA form.  A number of experiences were inclining me to something medically related and I was considering changing to biochemistry.  For some reason I don’t understand, Mr Sellars was very strongly of the opinion that I should change to medicine. I revised my UCCA form and went to see Brother Cyril.  He advised that as I had done no biology and had no family connections in medicine there was no chance of getting into medical school.  He informed me that very few pupils had got into medical school and they all came from medical families.  His clinching argument is that I had spelt medicine wrong on the UCCA form which was a fair point!!  I followed Mr Sellars advice and the rest is history.

Xaverian teachers who joined the choir

Mr Crotty has featured in some of the previous posts and his teaching ‘method’ has been very accurately described.   Remarkably he was singing at the front of the choir on the above occasion but I never saw him take part in any other musical event.  He was form master of 3B when I started in 1958.  The first thing he said was, ‘my name is Crotty, don’t call me potty’.  A little later in the lesson, he ceremoniously took the black board off the wall and lo and behold, ‘Mr Crotty is potty’ was inscribed on the wall.  I am sure this routine had been repeated year after year.  I think this is all I learnt from Mr Crotty.

Mr Crotty

The operas that Mr Sellars staged have already been commented on. As have ‘Chuck’s’ explosions which erupted with increasing frequency and vehemence the closer the performances loomed.  His tortures even extended into the first night of the Magic Flute.  The person singing Tamino was laid low with what was termed a ‘grumbling appendix’.  He was being revived in Mr Newton’s office at the back of the stage and eventually was deemed to be recovered sufficiently to start the performance.  In the Magic Flute after the overture there is a long introduction to the first aria when Tamino runs on to the stage chased by a dragon.  This commenced with Tamino running on to the stage in front of the curtain which should have opened to reveal the dragon at the appropriate time.  The cues were missed and the dragon wasn’t revealed!  Mr Sellars, furious with rage, had no option but to stop the music and start again!!   The curtain opened on cue at the second attempt.

A teacher who contributed considerably to music was ‘Lippy’ Marsden.  He seemed to have the title of geology teacher, though I never saw much evidence of geology on the curriculum.  He, however, had the most amazing bass voice almost a basso profundo.  I am sure he sang Sarastro in the Magic Flute.

Another teacher seemed to have attended the same (non)-teaching finishing school as Mr CrottyJeff (don’t call me Hitler) Finan goose-stepped into the laboratory, flung his briefcase onto the bench top with a unique flourish and then uttered the only words he would in the whole lesson, ‘Weaver where were we up to the last day?’ He then turned to the board and wrote continuously in what seemed like Joycean stream of consciousness, though Joyce is easier to follow.

The Marriage Of Figaro

Pupils who joined the Xaverian Orchestra

John Weaver’s name appears on the orchestra list for 1959.  Inevitably, as he seemed about the only one to pay close attention to Mr Finan, he read physics at university and then did a PhD in Physics.  I think he worked then for a company who established the network for cash machines outside banks.  He maintained some contact with the Circus Troupe (another story).  He died suddenly over 10 years ago.  Tony Smith (the Ring Master of the Circus Troupe), who was closest to John, only learnt of his death some months later and John’s wife did not respond to his messages.

John was one of three pupils from Warrington in the orchestra at that time.  I was the second (with name spelt incorrectly!)  The third was James Higgins who played double bass.  He might have left in 1958.  He won a place at Christ Church College Oxford. It was very rare for somebody from Xaverian to win a place at Oxbridge in those days. He hit the national press in 1963 when he was rusticated, and permanently, not just for a term.   The story was that he had been caught with a young lady in his room.  Not surprisingly he was not unique in this and often the ‘scouts’ would just overlook the event.  It was not clear why Jimmy had been singled out for such draconian punishment. It might be that he had got on the wrong side of the ‘scouts’.   Another postulated explanation is that he had become the president of the JCR, the first grammar school boy to achieve this, and there was perhaps resentment in the establishment at such an incursion.  Jimmy resumed his university education at LSE and I have no further news of him.

It is frightening how many of the orchestral players I have forgotten and how many are just vague faces.  I had forgotten that two other boys from the same year were also in the orchestra, Kevin (?) McKeown and Chris Ryder, the latter a very good footballer.  Frank Lennon has made a number of contributions to this website. 

Peter Larkin was 1st Bassoon when I joined in 1958.  As the lowest of the clarinets, I sat next to Peter who, despite his position in the remote heights of the sixth form, was always very friendly and supportive.  He spent most of his time as a music teacher at Cardinal Langley. This tribute to him was included in an article in the MEN in 2005 about a multitalented professional musician:

‘I had a really great music teacher at Cardinal Langley, Peter Larkin, who got me my first ever pro gig when I was 14. I was playing double bass in the pit band for Rose Marie, staged by the Salford Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society. I got £14 for the week, which was untold wealth at the time and I thought I would be able to retire before I was 25!’

I guess from this that Peter was active in Salford Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society.  He was also prominent in choral and acting groups round Summerseat and Ramsbottom.  He lived in Greenmount.  When my children were young, I bumped into Peter occasionally at school musical events round Bury.  I also remember that Peter was a fine sprinter, starring in the summer athletic games.

Michael Hill was also very friendly and supportive.  His wonderful oboe playing has been noted before.  He was a member of the National Youth Orchestra and I think another member of the orchestra was also a member of the NYO (D Howell?).  It was a remarkable achievement to have two pupils from the same grammar school in this prestigious orchestra.

J Telford had aspirations to be a composer and the orchestra performed  a composition of his  at a concert, Winds of Change.  I not sure if anything came of his ambition.

Antony Constantine has also been mentioned previously and like other contributors I have not been able to find any report of subsequent musical activities amateur or professional.  It was rumoured at one of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas (I guess The Gondoliers in 1963) somebody from the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, who still held the copyright to all the G&S Operas then, attended a performance to run their eye over Constantine.   I am not sure if this was anything more than Chinese whispers.

Peter Maxwell Davies

Some of the senior members of the orchestra would talk in hushed, reverential, whispers about ‘Max’ and what he had said and done.  As over the years I became more informed about the Manchester music scene I began to wonder if they were referring to Peter Maxwell Davies, the foremost of the Manchester School of Composers (cf. the First and Second Viennese Schools).

Michael Hill was without a doubt the stellar musician in this orchestra.  Good as he was on the oboe, his first instrument was the piano and he played the first movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto at one of the orchestral concerts.  I think it was the same concert at which the Telford piece was played but that might be a false memory. He won a scholarship to study with Peter Katin, a British pianist of international renown.  I fully expected him to burst on to the international concert scene at some time but nothing.  I bumped into Mr Sellars at a concert once and enquired about Michael.  He had no idea what he was doing and was of the impression that he had struggled with Katin’s approach to teaching.  I finally tracked him down, sadly with an obituary in Fanfare the magazine of the Birmingham Conservatory in the Autumn 2016 issue.  He had taken up the post of registrar there in 1990 and remained there until has death in 2016 (at the age of 70 years).  It was noted that he was influenced by his long-term friends Peter Maxwell Davies, John Ogden (a wonderful pianist who was part of the Manchester School) and Peter Katin. It also stated that, ’an invitation to study with Claudio Arrau in New York proved impossible to take up’.  Claudio Arrau was one of the greatest pianists of his generation and if this offer had been taken up it would really have launched and international career. I wonder what the cryptic ‘proved impossible to take up’ was referring to?  The reference to Peter Maxwell Davies confirms he was indeed the hero whispered about in the orchestra in the 1960s.  Early in his career Michael Hill made some commercial recordings with Lyn Fletcher who many years later became the Leader of the Halle Orchestra.

Xaverian College Concerts

Xaverian College – School Orchestra 1959

Conductor: Mr Charles Sellars

1st Violins: W. Usher, D. Howell, D Denholm, M. Brown, M. Livesey, M Duncan, O, Sleightholme

2nd Violins: J. Woodcock, F. Lennon, P. Lawrence, T. Rawlins, P. Hopkins, J. Blodwell, M. Allen, P. Banks, J. Weaver

Violas: J. Telford,  S. Desmond, P. Banks, A. Constantine, M. Dell

Cellos: Mr Halstead, J Bayley, V, Thorp, A Clinton, M. Butler

Basses: Mr McEvoy, Mr Unsworth

Flutes: A Booth, I. Kelly, P. Geoghegan

Oboes: M. Hill, D Tipple

Clarinets: R Wright, C. Davis, P. Godfrey, R. Postlewaite, P. Broomhead

Bassoons: P. Larkin, P. Redman

Horns: P. McBride, J. Euston

Trumpets: J. Edwards, K. McKeown

Euphonium: H. Woodcock

Percussion:  C. Ryder

6 thoughts on “The Xaverian College Orchestra”

  1. Thank you very much Bob.I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I do (vaguely) remember you, as you were the year below. I did enjoy your musical reminisces. As I said in my own contribution, I thought it it absurd to choose between art and music after the first year.
    I had enjoyed my introduction to music from ‘Chuck’ and have always felt a sense of deprivation since

    • Chuck Sellers, decided to stage a production of Iolanthe. No boys volunteered to dress as fairies. Bribes of many house points persuaded some.
      I was kicked out of singing when my voice broke. It became a croak.

  2. Wilf Usher, who led the Xaverian College orchestra in 1959 (see above), has died recently. His funeral is on Monday, October 30 at St Cuthbert’s in Withington. Wilf was for many years deputy head at Stonyhurst College.


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