At the time of his appointment in 1919 to the post of Informator at Magdalen, Dr Haldane Campbell Stewart, 1868-1942 – not to be confused with Charles Hylton Stewart, 1884-1932, a much less gifted composer, who was organist of Rochester Cathedral, Chester Cathedral, and (briefly) St.George’s Chapel, Windsor – was considered to be something of a disappointment, but this may have been simply because he was a less colourful, more unassuming figure than his bluff, larger-than-life, Yorkshire predecessor. Stewart’s father, a barrister of Lincoln’s Inn, was the sixth Baron Appin (Appin is a region of Argyllshire about 25 miles north of Oban), though Campbell Stewart did not have any Scottish accent. He was by any reckoning an extremely talented all-rounder. He was a good organist and choir trainer, and a composer of several well-crafted pieces. For many years he played cricket for Kent, scoring 2,846 runs for the county. He was also a keen tennis player, and a skilled athlete in a wide range of other sporting activities. He had been a Magdalen chorister (1879-82) under Walter Parratt, and he was a classics exhibitioner at Magdalen College from 1887-91. He then taught, in turn, at Lancing College (Sussex), 1891-96, at Wellington College (Berkshire), 1896-98, and finally at Tonbridge School (Kent), where he was director of music from 1898-1919. In 1938, Stewart was succeeded at Magdalen College by William McKie, but three years later Stewart came out of retirement to hold the fort when William McKie volunteered for service with the RAF. Stewart died very suddenly, in office, in June 1942, aged 74, after seriously injuring his spine in a fall downstairs. On the evening before his death he had been conducting the unaccompanied singing of the College Choir in the cloisters, and was in perfect health and spirits. He was succeeded as Informator by Philip Taylor in 1943.
In 1920 Stewart started a series of regular concerts of unaccompanied choral music in the cloisters. He also extended the music sung by the choir on the Tower on May Day to include much more than the Hymnus Eucharisticus. Richard Halsey (academical clerk 1965-66) has written of the ‘beautiful melodic strands [in Stewart’s music] set within intriguing counterpoint in a richly chromatic idiom.’ Stewart certainly composed a number of very fine sacred choral works, as well as some songs, and a few instrumental works, some of which were written for members of his family to play – he played the viola, his wife Dorothy was a cello teacher, and his children were both violinists. His daughter also played the viola professionally, and Ralph Vaughan Williams dedicated his second string quartet to her. Stewart’s best known composition is probably the carol On this day earth shall ring. His Evening Service in C♯ minor is a setting which surely deserves to be sung much more widely, despite its demanding organ part which is reputed to have given generations of Magdalen organ scholars many a nightmare. It was first broadcast in 1985 by Peterborough Cathedral Choir directed by Christopher Gower, and it has since been broadcast by other cathedral choirs, including Christ Church, and by Leeds Parish Church Choir, but it has never received a professional recording. Stewart’s harmonically forward-looking motet Veni, Sancte Spiritus, which was performed in concerts at Magdalen in 1934 and 1935, was later edited by Bernard Rose, and published in the Novello Church Music series. Stewart also composed a fine unaccompanied setting of the College Hymn Te Deum Patrem colimus for SSATBB (written in 1919), a setting of the evening canticles in A minor (1939), a few excellent psalm chants, and a set of responses (a rarity at the time, and one of the first since Thomas Ebdon’s setting in the 18th century). Stewart’s pre-war responses were sung at Magdalen on red-letter days in place of the usual plainsong responses, and they gave Bernard Rose the idea of writing his own ground-breaking set.
Two very short recordings of the choir singing on the Tower under Stewart have come down to us. The earlier is the tiny fragment on track 6, recorded on May Day 1931. Four years later the BBC made a rather similar recording (now in the National Sound Archive) of the start of the May Day ceremony, and these, sadly, are the only known pre-war recordings of the choir. Today’s listeners may find this surprising, but in the era of 78rpm discs there were comparatively few recordings or broadcasts by cathedral and collegiate chapel choirs, and this was particularly the case before the war. In 1927, New College Choir, Oxford, under Dr (later Sir) William Harris, for example, made two 10-inch 78rpm discs of anthems for HMV, with a total playing time of about 12 minutes, but their next recording session took place over 20 years later, in 1949. In 1929 William Harris moved from New College to Christ Church Cathedral. In that year the Cathedral Choir made a 10-inch record – with just one hymn and one carol – on the Imperial label, but no further records appear to have been made by the choir there till Sydney Watson’s time in the early 1960s. Magdalen’s first ever commercial recording, a LP record of music by Thomas Tomkins on the Argo label, was only issued in 1961. There were however occasional radio broadcasts. From Magdalen in 1927 there was a BBC concert of unaccompanied singing by the choir in the cloisters. During and after the war there were regular evensong broadcasts from New College. At Christ Church there were a few broadcasts in 1944, after which there was a long gap, till 1971.