It’s amazing what can be found, when you’re rummaging in an old cupboard!

The dusty old box looked quite ordinary – nondescript even. It was hidden at the back of a storage cupboard, here at The Yorkshire College of Music and Drama and its contents turned out to be much more exciting than its drab and rickety outward appearance suggested.

Inside were faded old documents, photographs, 100-year old concert programmes and fragile newspaper clippings; treasures that offer a real insight into Leeds’ musical past.

But, as interesting as these documents were, it was one letter which stood out. A letter dated August 1965. A letter written by our former president, Madam Stiles-Allen, in which she offers a glimpse into her close relationship with her most famous pupil, Julie Andrews.

A reminder for those who need it:

Lilian Stiles-Allen, was a world-renowned British soprano who trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She achieved fame and critical acclaim in her early years and by the 1920’s was an established, leading concert soprano. But, her glittering stage career came to an end when war broke out and she moved to Leeds to escape the Blitz and start teaching. Her move North is widely documented and her relationship with the young Julie Andrews is also well known. So, finding an old photograph of the two of them together, though exciting, was not really news.

But, what was interesting was the letter. Her words, written in her own, looping, curling hand, casually describing a trip to California in 1964, when she:

….“stayed with Julie and coached her through her songs in Mary Poppins also for the Sound of Music.”

Hang on a moment! Our president coached the biggest movie star of the day through some of the most famous movie songs of all time. Now, that was fascinating to read!

The letter goes on:

….“she really is a lovely young person and is god mother to my grandson…. Julie is quite unspoiled and so grateful for her ‘gifts’.”

What a lovely insight into their relationship, which started when Julie was just 8 years old, when she would travel up to Leeds to spend weekends with Madam Stiles-Allen at Old Farm, Shire Oak Road.

Julie Andrews has been quite open in her admiration for our former president and was even quoted as saying, “(Madam Stiles-Allen) had an enormous influence on me. She was my third mother.”

And, when we listened back to an old recording of Madam Stiles-Allen on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs from 1971, this influence seemed to stand out. For, Julie has been quoted as saying “words come first, melody second,” and certainly her clear pronunciation of every syllable in her famous songs is impeccable. In the clip of Madam’s interview, (that can still be found on the BBC’s website) she was asked about the differences between her own generation and the younger generation. She answered:

“They are definitely better musicians,” she said. “But the voices….there is something missing,” she went on: “They don’t appreciate words.”

She then quoted Richard Wagner, who apparently said:

“You can all sing my beautiful music, but who will sing my beautiful words?”

Well, Julie sang words beautifully.

And, we’d love to think it was thanks to our very own Madam Stiles-Allen.