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The Bach Choir (Choir)

Founded: 1876 - London, England

The Beginnings of the Choir

The original idea for the choir came in 1875 from a young lawyer, Arthur Coleridge, the possessor of a fine tenor voice, who had become acquainted with the music of Bach while a student at Cambridge. Although at this time interest in Bach in England was growing, Coleridge realised that no performance of the B minor Mass (BWV 232) had yet taken place. He was a friend of Otto Goldschmidt and his wife, Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt, the famous 'Swedish nightingale', and was one of a small group who met at their house to sing madrigals and motets under Goldschmidt's baton. Goldschmidt himself had been familiar with Bach's music since his student days in Leipzig, where he was a pupil of Felix Mendelssohn. Coleridge suggested to Goldschmidt that a choir should be formed to perform the Mass, and he readily agreed and undertook to conduct it. Their wide circle of friends and acquaintances enabled them to assemble a strong organising committee and recruit a choir of some 150 voices to give two outstandingly successful performances of the Mass on April 26 and May 8, 1876.

The pleasure of making music together and the enthusiastic reception given to the first performances led to the formation of a permanent choir with Otto Goldschmidt as Musical Director. The name and policy was set out in the first Rule - "The Society shall be called 'The Bach Choir' in commemoration of the first performance in England of J.S. Bach's Mass in B minor (BWV 232). The object of the Society shall be the rehearsal and performance of choral works of excellence of various schools." This rule has remained unchanged throughout the life of the choir.

From the outset there was a connection with Royalty. Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt was popular with the Royal Family, and Princess Christian, the third daughter of Queen Victoria, received piano lessons from Otto Goldschmidt and became one of the first singing members. The Queen herself became Patron in 1879. The repertoire reflected the taste of the Musical Director and his friends with a bias towards motets and church music and regular repeats of the Mass in B minor (BWV 232). There were, however, some notable first London performances including Bach's Magnificat (BWV 243) and Ein' feste Burg (BWV 80).

That Goldschmidt was extremely serious about his conducting is borne out by J.A. Fuller Maitland, the distinguished musicologist and critic, who joined the choir as a bass in 1878. One result of having a membership drawn from a wealthy group was the opportunity to have a more flexible programming policy without reliance on the popular oratorio repertoire which guaranteed a profit. Any losses were covered by calls on members and by guarantors, drawn mainly from members of the organising committee.

Goldschmidt resigned in 1885 to be replaced as Musical Director by the young Charles (later Sir Charles) Villiers Stanford. Stanford had already made his mark as organist of Trinity College, Cambridge and conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society. An Irishman with a true fiery Celtic temperament, he soon stamped his authority on the choir, broadening the repertoire and including concertos and orchestral works using leading soloists such as the violinist Joachim. A notable event during this period concerned the Golden Jubilee of the Queen in 1887. In anticipation of this the choir intended to include in their Jubilee concert a cantata, The Glories of our Blood and State, by C. Hubert H. Parry, who had joined the choir in 1875 and had sung in the second performance of the Mass in B minor (BWV 232).

Judging, probably accurately, that this would not commend them to their patron, the committee asked Parry to provide another work for inclusion in the programme. His response was Blest Pair of Sirens - an immediate success which is now rightly regarded as one of the outstanding English choral works. The Jubilee programme was completed by the first London performance of Berlioz's Te Deum, a work dedicated to the late Prince Consort.

Into the 20th Century

Towards the end of the 19th century the standard of performance fell markedly and attracted comment from most of the leading critics. One of the main reasons was the inevitable deterioration in the voices of the members, still not subject to re-audition, together with the early rehearsal time which ensured a continuing shortage of tenors and basses. Stanford attempted to overcome the problem by securing assistance from a few members of the Leeds Philharmonic Society but this was only a temporary solution. A reorganisation committee was appointed and their report, which was unanimously accepted, required an audition on entry but removed the socially restricting requirement to be nominated by existing members, altered the rehearsal time to the early evening and provided for regular re-testing of voices. At this point Stanford, who had been appointed Director of the Leeds Festival, resigned and his place was taken by Henry Walford Davies. This proved to be an inspired choice, for what the reorganised choir needed was a period of patient rebuilding so that it could once again become a notable part of the London choral scene. Walford Davies, who had already shown himself at the Temple Church to have the personality to draw the best from individuals and groups, achieved this objective in six years. He resigned in 1908 to be succeeded by Dr Hugh Allen.

Hugh Allen, who had gained a considerable reputation as organist of New College, Oxford and conductor of the Oxford Bach Society, took over an established choral group with a membership which included Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult. He was a disciplinarian, yet with an ability to communicate with and enthuse an amateur chorus. He was a keen sailor and this showed in his demeanour. Few escaped his eagle eye, however, and the inevitable furious reprimand! During Hugh Allen's period as Musical Director the choir gave many notable first London performances including Ralph Vaughan Williams' Toward the Unknown Region and A Sea Symphony and Parry's Songs of Farewell.

Hugh Allen resigned as Musical Director in 1921. He had ensured that the choir remained active throughout World War I, but after his appointment in 1918 as Director of the Royal College of Music he had found it increasingly difficult to continue in office. His place was taken by Ralph Vaughan Williams, by now recognised as a composer of stature. He was already familiar with the choir as a singer but brought a completely different approach to the members from that of Hugh Allen. In 1926 the choir celebrated fifty years of music-making and the concerts included Sancta Civitas, a new work by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and performances of works by Walford Davies and Stanford, and Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens.

Ralph Vaughan Williams resigned in 1928 to concentrate on composition and he was replaced by his friend, Gustav Holst. Shortly after accepting the position, however, Holst was forced to withdraw on medical grounds and, although heavily committed in other areas, the conductorship was accepted by Adrian Boult. He could only manage the commitment for three years and relinquished the appointment in 1931. It was during his tenure of office that the annual performances of the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) were established.

Adrian Boult was replaced by Reginald Jacques, who had been a pupil of Hugh Allen at Oxford. Reginald Jacques' association with the choir was a long and fruitful one, lasting until 1960. His period as Musical Director was marked by the upheaval of World War II, but the choir managed to remain active, with regular rehearsals held at lunchtime on Saturdays. Among the notable events in this period were the initiation of the annual Carol Concerts and the first recording by the choir - a complete performance of St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) - which filled 42 sides of the old 78 discs! It was natural that after 28 years a great bond existed between Reginald Jacques and the choir, and it was with great sadness that he resigned in April 1960 following a slight heart attack on the rostrum during a performance of St Matthew Passion (BWV 244).

His successor, David Willcocks, developed and guided the choir to the pre-eminent position it occupies today on the British choral scene. Coming as he did as successful Director of the King's College Choir Cambridge, he immediately set about broadening the repertoire. One result was that the choir gave the first London performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem under the baton of the composer with an international cast of soloists - Galina Vishnevskaya, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Pears. The choir then recorded the work with the same artists. Other recordings followed, among them a new interpretation of St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and an acclaimed version of Belshazzar's Feast. The choir's centenary in 1976 was celebrated by repeating the Mass in B minor (BWV 232) on April 26, the date of the first performance. Also in the centenary year, the Prince of Wales became President of the choir. No mean musician himself, he has sung in the choir on a number of occasions, including performances of the B minor Mass (BWV 232) in London and motets at St George's Chapel, Windsor.

Hitherto the choir's activities had been mainly confined to central London but visits to other areas including the West Country, Wales, Yorkshire and East Anglia were undertaken. A succession of tours abroad were also made with visits to the USA, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Israel and to many countries in Europe. Some concerts were broadcast and televised, among them the Family Carols and the Mass in B minor (BWV 232).

A feature of David Willcocks' period as Musical Director, apart from his musicianship and high standards of training, was his knowledge of and concern for the individual members of the choir. His final concerts, performances of the St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) in the spring of 1998, attracted capacity audiences.

The Choir Today

David Hill, the ninth Musical Director, was appointed in 1998. Until July 2002 he was Organist and Master of the Music at Winchester Cathedral and in September 2003 he took up the post of Musical Director at St John's College, Cambridge. His previous appointments have included Master of the Music at Westminster Cathedral and Associate Conductor of the Philharmonia Chorus. His period of office with The Bach Choir has already included a Royal Gala concert at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, tours to Germany and Lebanon, and a recording of carols, and the choir looks forward confidently to even greater achievements under his leadership.

The choir today is very different from the one which gave the first performance of the Mass in B minor (BWV 232) in the spring of 1876. The choir has been fortunate to secure the services of a procession of outstanding Musical Directors, each of whom has left his mark upon repertoire and performance while the membership, now drawn from all walks of life, reflects the enormous social changes which have taken place since those early days. In all this time, however, the basic object of the choir has remained unchanged: "the performance of choral works of excellence of various schools" - performance to the highest possible standard.


Source: The Bach Choir Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (December 2006)

Recordings of Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works




Reginald Jacques


BWV 6, BWV 140, BWV 244 [sung in English]

David Willcocks


BWV 244 [sung in English]

Links to other Sites

The Bach Choir (Official Website)


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