Katharine Fraser Stewart was born in Cambridge in 1906 to Jessie Graham Crum, a graduate of Newnham College and student of the archaeologist Jane Harrison who, referring to her degree, claimed that Jessie was her ‘first First’.
Katharine’s father, Hugh Fraser Stewart, was an ordained churchman but his day job was Fellow of Trinity College, in which he was an authority on the 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal.
There were five siblings living at Girton Gate, Huntingdon Road, Cambridge, opposite Girton College: Jean, Katherine, Ludovick, Frideswide (later better known as Frida Knight) and Margaret. In the immediate circle of close family (but never amongst her friends), Katharine became known as ‘Katten’ from her younger brother Ludovick’s first attempts to pronounce her name.
Katharine, Frida and Margaret were all to become Communists. (Frida, like Katharine, also developed an impressive reputation as a musicologist in later years, though due to her international connections suffered at least 20 years’ worth of MI5 surveillance).
The family hosted a steady stream of musicologists, all of whom must have had an influence. In 1927 they were visited by Zoltán Kodály, the Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist and pedagogue, who had been heavily involved in collecting folk songs and was developing a methodical approach to music education that was only able to be adopted under a socialist regime after the war.
Two years later, Arthur Honegger, a Swiss composer who lived a large part of his life in Paris, came to the house. His most frequently performed work, Pacific 231, inspired by the sound of a steam locomotive, he also wrote music for Abel Gance’s epic 1927 silent film, Napoléon. During the war, he served in the French resistance. The Austrian, Alban Berg, visited in 1931; remembered as one of the most important composers of the 20th century for his expressive emotional style, he had studied with the Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose music was modernist and atonal. Berg would soon find that opportunities for his work to be performed in Germany became rare, especially after his music was proscribed and placed on the list of degeneracy.
Coming from this liberal intellectual background in Cambridge, it was almost inevitable that Katharine’s political education would begin in Germany, when as a student of piano at Leipzig Conservatoire she saw the fascist jackboots on the streets in 1933-4, an experience that stayed with her for the whole of her long life.
On 4th October 1934 she married academic George Thomson, a remarkable and devoted partnership which was to endure through five decades until George’s death in 1987, following years of ill health which he bore with great fortitude, cared for devotedly by Katharine.
From their separate perspectives, Katharine from her love of music and George from his years in Ireland, both inspired by the antifascist movements, their affinity with Communism grew. This despite George having once said to his friend Roy Pascal, (c1935, Cambridge, see separate entry): “The trouble with you Communists is that you’re so dogmatic!”
The couple moved to Birmingham in 1936, where George had been appointed Professor in Greek at the university. Roy Pascal also took up a Professorship at Birmingham in German. It was at this time that George was persuaded by Pascal to join the Communist Party and both he and Katharine were active members from that time in their respective fields.
Katharine’s daughter, Margaret Alexiou, comments: “GT was a rebel and maverick, Katharine a lover of compromise, as was her sister, Frida, with whom she remained extremely close until their ends (1992 and 2006)”.
Their elder daughter, Elisabeth (Lis) was born in 1936 and Margaret (Meg) in 1939. After Margaret’s birth in March, Katharine suffered depression and went back to Cambridge for a while to recuperate. It was at about this time that George wrote Aeschylus and Athens in a six-week period at the beginning of World War 2.
In March 1940 Katharine attended a rehearsal of the newly formed Birmingham Orpheus Choral Society, having heard via the Communist Party of its foundation by International Brigade veteran Colin Bradsworth. She was later to recall arriving in some trepidation with the expectation of meeting a choir of about fifty singers, only to find “a handful of nice people gathered round the piano”. She took on the role of conductor and the choir, renamed Birmingham Clarion Singers, grew. Katharine encouraged and nurtured the talents of many working people, creating unique opportunities for them.
Besides the contemporary anti-fascist and Labour Movement repertoire – material by Brecht, Eisler, Alan Bush, Peter Baker and others, Katharine introduced the choir –and hence its audiences- to opera and other music by established mainstream composers. So there were performances of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” on the back of a lorry parked on a bombed site in Birmingham’s Balsall Heath, Bach’s “Peasant Cantata” on a green space in a Yardley Wood Council estate and Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” in The Big Top (again on a bombed site) in New Street.
In the Festival of Britain, Clarion performed the Vaughan Williams opera “Sir John in Love”. RVW had expressed doubts as to the feasibility of its being performed by Clarion but Katharine’s gentle but persistent persuasion won through as it usually did.
Jane Scott, today’s musical director of the Birmingham Clarion Singers, recalls: “With others Katharine helped form our choir in 1940 and was its conductor for over twenty years, later its accompanist and musical advisor. It would become an invigorating, anti-fascist force in the war, expressing the songs of struggle of the labour movement and the international workers’ movements, whilst also inspiring its audiences with music drawn from the classical repertoire. That it continues today is as much a memorial for Katharine as anything else could be.”
Both George and Katharine were generous with their skills and knowledge and many people came to the house to benefit from tuition in music from Katharine or Marxism from George. The CP programme, Britain’s Road to Socialism, was a subject of some discussion, given George’s reservations:
Margaret Alexiou: “George and Katharine were never in dispute on the issue of BRS: he cared about it deeply, as did his friend Douglas Garman, also an EC member, who suffered grave ill health soon after. Katharine was not very interested, and got on with Clarion Singers. George was equally engaged with on-the-ground issues, whether in Ireland, Greece or Birmingham. It would be wrong to suggest a rift, rather many fruitful debates which I still remember from childhood and adolescent years, eg. Katharine saying to George after a discussion, “You may have won in words, but I don’t feel beaten”.
Katharine worked within the Party’s Cultural Committees and wrote articles for the Party’s Music Group bulletin, Music & Life, in the 1950s, on the way the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams spoke to British people, for example. She also encouraged Luke Kelly and Ian Campbell in the work of folk song revival.
In 1977, Katherine was the author of an important book on the composer she most admired. “The Masonic Thread in Mozart” identifies the composer with rationalist, Enlightenment-inspired activists, as opposed to those oriented toward mysticism and the occult. Their humanist views insist that social rank is not connected to nobility of the spirit, but that people of lowly class could be noble just as the nobly born could be mean-spirited.
Mary Pearson, lifelong NUT/NEU activist and a driving force in the Troops Out movement, recalled how in the 1970s she and Katharine bonded at meetings of Birmingham Trades Council, being for several years the only two women members.
Maintaining a close connection with Clarion, Katharine celebrated her hundredth birthday on June 29th 2006 but died shortly afterwards.
Sources: Jane Scott, https://grahamstevenson.me.uk/2008/09/20/katherine-thomson/
Music & Life http://www.communistpartyarchive.org.uk
Paul Long, Only in the Common People: the aesthetics of class in post-war Britain (2008), Cambridge Scholars Publishing