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Poland 1968

Plans for another trip to Eastern Europe began to materialise despite the view of even the most optimistic optimist that the Czechoslovakian situation was rapidly coming to a head. Tangible evidence of almost a year of hard work on the part of Mr. Moffatt was available outside School at nine o'clock on Tuesday 20th August, when parents and friends looked on as the group of twenty-eight choristers, its conductor and Mr. Peter Chapman, who once again was able to accompany us, stowed itself and its luggage into the waiting bus which conveyed it to Victoria.
Once at Dover, after an uneventful train journey, the usual passport rituals were performed and the Channel boat boarded. We were able eventually, to stack our luggage on the after hatch in the usual fashion before the ancient rites of Channel crossing were observed. We disembarked at Ostend without great difficulty and once through Belgian Passport Control the correct platform was located.
As we moved down the train an official enquired about our East German transit visas, necessary to enable us to cross the border. These documents had been overlooked by the travel agent and had to be purchased at the station. Apart from this all went smoothly and we boarded the Ostend-Moscow express in which we were to live for the next twenty-four hours.
Everyone was up by eight-fifteen the following morning to be sure of seeing Berlin. It was at this time that the conductor informed us that we had just crossed the border in time as the Russians had entered Czechoslovakia. The seriousness of this was not known to us until our return, as state-controlled papers said very little and the information that we received was gleaned from anyone who spoke a little English. On the journey from Berlin to Warsaw at least five military trains were seen including a complete squadron of tanks. A road convoy was also sighted as lorry after lorry headed towards the East German frontier.
We could not believe that we had arrived in Warsaw because the station, at which the guard ordered us onto the platform, seemed a considerable distance from the city. There appeared, however, a small reception committee consisting of our official guide, who remained with us throughout our stay in Poland, and two female members of the Warsaw University Choir. When greetings had been exchanged and the flower given (a custom we have found common in Eastern Europe) we were led to a bus which took us to the "Riviera" student hotel.
By the time registration formalities had been completed, there was very little time to do anything that evening and we spent our time unpacking and attempting to assess the effects of the act of Russian Imperialism. The following morning we were shown films on Poland and Warsaw in various languages (one of which was English) in the Cinema/Theatre of "Riviera". One of these showed the full extent of the devastation of that ancient city at the hands of the Germans during the last war. When the film show was over we were able to fit a much needed rehearsal into our programme as we were to record for Polish Radio on the afternoon of the following day.
After lunch we were joined by a Warsaw guide who escorted us around the city. It was on this excursion that the sentence "This was destroyed by the Germans and reconstructed" was used many times as it applied to almost every building and monument that we viewed, one of the exceptions being that commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto.
On Friday morning a cruise on the Vistula had been arranged, after which we were able to return to "Riviera" and rehearse to prepare for the recording session. The singing at this was technically at our usual standard but a large studio, with no audience, can destroy what is left of a choir's spirit after being unsettled by two days of tiring travel followed by little else but official sightseeing and rehearsing.
The morning after, we were obliged to go on another official excursion to the Palace of Culture where visitors could look out over the city from an open balcony on the thirtieth floor. This visit was comparatively short and afterwards we were allowed some free time until lunch. After the meal we were taken to Chopin's birthplace which was situated fifty-four kilometres from Warsaw. The grounds surrounding the house abounded in wild life including red squirrels and the building too was of interest, but many were disappointed in not finding Chopin's first piano within. On leaving the estate there was a brief pause while ice-creams and postcards were obtained at a kiosk before our bus took us back to the hotel in time to change and have a meal before performing in front of our first Polish audience.
The concert was put on in the theatre of "Riviera" and although it was not full, it became obvious that the audience were both enthusiastic and appreciative. The serious religious items were followed by a humorous trio from the Marriage of Figaro and rounded off by the folk songs and negro spirituals. The applause was so great that it seemed as if it would never subside and, although it abated while a gift of flowers were presented, it recurred and did not stop until every chorister had disappeared. After this a small group were interviewed by a reporter from Polish Radio, which she recorded on tape, after which we had the warm Polish evening to ourselves.
The following morning we went on another organised visit to the "Palace of the Bath" after which we listened to an open air piano concert. In order to view the palace we had to put on soft bottomed over-shoes to prevent damage to the exquisitely beautiful floors in wood and marble. At the end of the concert we left the park and returned to "Riviera" for the last time.
After a train journey of over four hours an exhausted choir reached Cracow one day ahead of schedule to find that our bus had just broken down. Within ten minutes we were on our way and were soon awaiting room allocation at our hotel. The whole of the next day was taken up by a visit to the Totra mountains. We were taken to a small town called Zokopane, a name which is also used to describe the style of house construction in that area, in a bus which already contained a party of East Germans who were holidaying in Zokopane. On completing a comparatively brief official sightseeing tour we were informed that we could have "free time" until dinner (in forty-five minutes). While a good meal was being digested we visited "the eye of the sea" a large, deep lake surrounded by towering Mountains which was once believed to have a subterranean outlet to the ocean.
When breakfast had been completed on Tuesday we went by public transport to the Cracow Castle which overlooks the Vistula. We sang in the courtyard while the guide attended to formalities after which we were escorted around the castle. When we had refreshed ourselves we were taken into the Cathedral and performed two religious pieces extremely well, probably because we felt "at home" in such a building as well as the acoustics being conducive to good singing. While we were there we ascended the belfry and examined the largest bell in Cracow. The party was then led past the old town square and the statue of Adam Michiewitz (one of the focal points in the recent student demonstrations) to St. Mary's Church where we heard the famous trumpeter sound his ever unfinished tune.
We had lunch at three o'clock and decided upon a two-and-a-half hour rehearsal that evening. There was free time on Wednesday afternoon but on that evening we performed successfully in a student club. This included most of our secular programme and again the audience was most enthusiastic. Despite the peculiar surroundings and conditions the choir sang very well and the items were far better than had been previously.
The next morning we visited a salt mine or at least the oldest part which is no longer worked. By climbing down seemingly interminable wooden steps the initial descent was achieved and a guide pointed out the interesting features as we descended further through vaulted caverns used as miner's chapels with statues carved in the salt rock, over subterranean lakes until we eventually reached our goal-the tea bar at minus six hundred feet.
After lunch we travelled again by train to Poznan but because of double booking the journey was not as comfortable as it might have been, but the situation was alleviated by the fact that half our carriage was a buffet car. The following morning we were taken on yet another official sightseeing tour, this time on foot and by public transport, which, if it had not been for the leisurely pace we enforced upon it, would have been unendurable.
During our stay in Poznan the guide attempted to arrange a public concert for us in addition to our scheduled private one. This was unsuccessful and despite the fact that, comparatively, we had spent a great deal of time rehearsing our adaption of "The Marriage of Figaro" which we produced as part of our Summer Concert at the end of last term, eventually we were able only to put it on before members of the Poznan choir within hours of our departure.
Preceding this was our visit on Sunday to a castle and some large old oaks. The highlight of the day undoubtedly was lunch, which consisted of a mug of pink soup, the colour of calomine lotion, with a taste most objectionable to the English palate, and a large portion of chicken served with lettuce.
On Monday morning we performed at the Poznan Palace of Culture to an audience of schoolchildren and teachers. The hall was acoustically bad and the choir adjusted quickly and effectively to one of the worst situations ever to be encountered. The opera was then produced in another room for the benefit of the Poznan Choir. The officials of the Poznan Choir were impressed by the general standard of our singing and particularly by the opera. It amazed them when they found out that we did not come from a specialist music college from which their choir members are drawn. They extended us an invitation to participate in the Poznan's Festival next May, the first British choir to be asked to do so.
From Poznan we waved goodbye to our guide and settled down into First-Class seating accommodation (once army officials had vacated them at the border) and the journey passed quickly. We had First-Class tickets, too, for the Channel ferry and DoverVictoria train which enabled us to travel as human beings with much more space. At Dover there was the usual nervous apprehension as the Customs Officer examined the list and for the first time in five trips that terrifying figure called a first-former to come forward. When the spelling mistake had been pointed out and the excise man satisfied that the lad could spell "bottle" correctly we were escorted, this time by an Englishman, to our waiting train. At Victoria the trip had finished as it had begun as the party was received by its parents and friends as it fell out of the train with its much heavier luggage.
The choir owes its grateful thanks to many benefactors but especially to Mr. Moffatt without whose administrative ability these trips would be impossible, and without whose personality and musical talents the choir would not exist at its present high standard, and the headmaster who worked hard to ease the financial burden thus making the cost to individuals much lower.
There is a possibility that the choir will remain intact for at least another summer and although we do not as yet have any definite aim, Russia or America are not above consideration.
R. Phillips. 6ii M.