The Choir has had only three conductors since it was founded in 1932. Percy Hallam was succeeded by Harrison Oxley, who retired in 2001 after over forty years' service.
On 24th March 1932, the newly formed Bury St Edmunds Bach Choir joined forces with the Bach Choir of Ipswich to perform its first concert - Bach's St Matthew Passion - in St Mary's Church, Bury St Edmunds. Percy Hallam, the founder and conductor of the choir, had recruited the choir members from the best singers in the Musical Society. Percy Hallam was the organist at St Mary's at that time although he was later to become Cathedral organist.
The Soloists for that inaugural concert were: Mabel Richie – Soprano; Tessa Richardson – Contralto; Geoffrey Dunn – Tenor; and Frederick Woodhouse – Bass. Mabel Richie, Geoffrey Dunn and Frederick Woodhouse all performed in Intimate Opera around the country, working with Percy Hallam and performing at the Athenaeum when in the Bury St Edmunds area. Mabel Richie (as Margaret Richie) was well known in Oratorio and as a recitalist, who in her retirement turned to teaching and held a Summer School in Oxford for a number of years.
Each of the Soloists was paid five guineas and the organist Mr. G. C. Gray received four guineas. The Bury members of the Choir paid seven shillings to provide refreshments for their colleagues from Ipswich, and they also made donations to the Cathedral staff amounting to three pounds two shillings. The income from the audience of slightly less than three hundred, who each paid one shilling and sixpence, failed to cover the concert expenses, and the need for sponsorship was felt from the start, if the choir was to achieve its aim of 'performing the best music in the best possible way'. A note in the concert programme thanking those who had subscribed towards the expenses 'ventured to express the hope that many more of the musical public would become regular patrons' – a hope that is still with the Choir today.
Percy Hallam rehearsed both choirs separately for a number of years, combining them for all of their major concerts performed in Bury or at St. Mary-le-Tower in Ipswich. The combined choirs also performed several times at Ely Cathedral. All of these early concerts were given with organ accompaniment until in 1935, as a result of their growing reputation, the combined choirs were invited to sing the St. Matthew Passion at St Martin-in-the-Fields as part of the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Bach, where they were accompanied by an orchestra for the first time. This performance was said to be "the first appearance of this kind of any East Anglian choir in London". The performance was deemed by the press to be "Entirely worthy of what Sir Edward Elgar called the noblest sacred work in existence".
For some fifteen years, the choirs confined themselves almost exclusively to Bach's St John and St Matthew Passions, the Mass in B minor, and Handel's Messiah, with five performances of Brahms's Requiem by the Bury Bach Choir on its own. In 1948 the mould began to break, when in a joint concert in Ipswich, the choirs performed Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb and Brahms's Song of Destiny under the baton of Reginald Jacques with the Jaques orchestra. Thereafter, their repertoire continued to expand with works by Brahms, Britten, Holst, Mozart and Vaughan Williams, and in 1951 Sir Peter Pears sang - the first of many appearances with the choirs - in a performance of Britten's St Nicolas.
It cannot have been easy for many members of the Choir to transfer their loyalty to Hallam's young and untried successor at the Cathedral – Harrison Oxley – then in his mid-twenties, but it quickly became apparent that the Choir's new conductor was a musician of equal calibre. Following Harrison Oxley's first concert with the Choir in March 1958, Elton Halliley of the East Anglian Daily Times wrote "Mr Hallam would have been the first to acknowledge the quite brilliant abilities of this young musician. The inspiration, the technical efficiency of his conducting, his full appreciation of the scores would have delighted him, for it was all completely first class".
The new conductor had his own plans for the future. He was determined to enlarge the Choir, so that all who were capable of singing the great choral masterpieces should have an opportunity to do so. The size of the Choir increased steadily over the years, and it was able to undertake the great choral masterpieces of Bach, Brahms, Handel, Haydn, and Verdi without assistance from other choirs as it had done in earlier years - and it was soon to have its own orchestra.
Engaging orchestras from London had been expensive and not entirely satisfactory, so Harrison Oxley 'looked at ways whereby he could afford an orchestra much more often, basing it on a nucleus of the best local players and inviting amateur players of proven ability from far and wide, as well as engaging leading London artists as principals'. The St Edmundsbury Bach Orchestra was thus formed, and accompanied the Choir in Harrison Oxley's first entire performance of St Matthew Passion in 1959.
As the Choir grew in size, its programmes became more ambitious, and it was soon tackling the largest works in the choral repertory. To do so, it called upon reinforcements from other choral societies, most notably the Boston Choral Union with whom the Choir performed Walton's Belshazzar's Feast for the first time in 1963. The first of the Choir's many performances of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius in 1966 drew support from several choirs and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In June 1974 the Choir ran its own week long festival with a large scale performance of Haydn's Creation by eight Suffolk choral societies, and the Bury Bach Choir's first performance of the Verdi Requiem supported by singers from Boston, Ipswich and Norwich.
Fine soloists were engaged to sing with the Choir and during Harrison Oxley's early years such well known names as Isobel Baillie, Heddle Nash, Felicity Lott, Janet Baker and Peter Pears were introduced to Bury audiences, together with John Noble who served as the Choir's President for ten years. The Choir also drew fine soloists from within its ranks. Albert Balaam and Brenda Downie sang many solo parts, and Janet Bailey who appeared six times as soprano soloist became the Choir's accompanist in 1975, a position that she held for more than twenty years.
Many of the works of 20th century British composers were added to the Choir's repertoire, including works by Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, Tippett, Howells, Leighton, Ferguson, Mathias and Hoddinot. The Choir's Elgar concerts have won much acclaim and fittingly, their sixtieth anniversary in 1992 was celebrated with the Choir's fifth performance of Gerontius.
'Fred' (as Harrison Oxley had become affectionately known) founded the well known 'Carols by Candlelight' Christmas concert as organist at the Cathedral, and he also founded the equally well known 'Sing Nowell' Charity Christmas concert through which the Bach Choir and Orchestra supported many charities over a period of sixteen years.
In June 2001, having given forty-three years unstinting service to the Choir and to Bury audiences, Harrison Oxley decided that the time had finally arrived to retire and he conducted his seventh and last performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius - a fitting finale for a wonderful musician who had been an Elgar devotee for many years.
Aldeburgh has long been Suffolk's principal place of inspiration for music and the arts, so what better place to seek and find a worthy successor to build upon the work of the preceding seventy years. Philip Reed has had a long association with Aldeburgh and its music. He was invited by Peter Pears to assist Peter Aston in the training of the Aldeburgh Festival Singers for a number of years. Peter, was later to become President of the Bury Bach Choir. He prepared many choirs for Aldeburgh Festival productions, working with many well known conductors, including Mstislav Rostropovich, Oliver Knussen, and Steuart Bedford. Philip was also staff musicologist at the Britten-Pears Library in Aldeburgh before joining English National Opera in 1997. He was Co-Director of the Aldeburgh Festival Singers, conductor of the Aldeburgh Music Club, and Music Director of the Phoenix Singers of Framlingham prior to being appointed as Music Director of the Bury Bach Choir in 2001.
Philip brought to the Choir his own decisive approach to the interpretation of the classical masterpieces, an approach that has clearly found great favour with audiences, whose numbers have increased steadily in recent years. He has already achieved an impressive development of the Choir's musicality, particularly its diction, its dynamics, and its musical expression. And he continues to drive the Choir on towards the goal of perfection!
One of Philip's objectives for his first years with the Choir was to undertake the five major choral works of Bach. With performances of: St John Passion; Magnificat; Christmas Oratorio; Mass in B minor and St Matthew Passion, he achieved that objective.
Following Philip's appointment, the Choir decided to entrust the selection of musicians for its orchestras to an Orchestra Manager, and Liz Page - also from Aldeburgh - was appointed to this role in 2002. The individual quality of her pool of players from the Bury / Ipswich area (many of whom had previously been playing in Harrison Oxley's orchestras) continues to improve, and the Choir has responded favourably to this improvement by raising its own standards. Liz, together with violinist Pam Munks, founded the Suffolk Baroque Players, an ensemble specializing in the performance of 17th and 18th century music, whose core members are based in Suffolk but who include players from London professional period bands and post graduates from London Conservatoires. This ensemble has proved particularly appropriate for many recent performances by the Choir.
A further link to earlier years has been provided by James Recknell, the Choir's excellent accompanist. James, Head of Music at Culford School, had succeeded Janet Bailey in 1998 and after a short gap period, cheerfully filled by Polly Carnegie, the Choir was delighted to welcome him back again.
Whilst the Choir's concerts are generally held in St Edmundsbury Cathedral, St Mary's Church or the Apex, the Choir has performed a number of Christmas Carol Concerts in Lavenham, and also performs in Long Melford.
In July 2005, John Noble retired as the President of the Bury Bach Choir, and Peter Aston, Emeritus Professor, University of East Anglia, was appointed as John's successor. Peter demonstrated a keen interest in the Choir, and gave pre-concert lectures related to the Choir's performances of Bach B minor, St Matthew Passion and Verdi Requiem. He died in 2013. In March 2014 Graeme Danby and Valerie Reid, both distinguished choral soloists, took over as Co-Presidents of the Bury Bach Choir. They perform with us, give us voice training and encouragement, and are wonderfully generous in their support of the choir.
A further part of the Choir's life has been its performances during visits abroad. These began in 1986 when the Choir visited Mechelen in Belgium. During later years the Choir has given concerts in Compiegne, France; Kevelaer, Germany; a second concert in Mechelen; Rouen, France; Montivilliers, France and Boppard, Rhineland.
The Choir's ambition remains the same today as it was in 1932, 'to perform the best music in the best possible way', and to contribute to the enjoyment of its members and to the cultural life of Bury St Edmunds.
Saturday 16 May 2020
St Edmundsbury Cathedral
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The Choir’s purpose is “to prepare and give public performances primarily of the core choral repertoire, using professional soloists and instrumentalists, to the highest possible standard”.