The Royal Choral Society: One Hundred and Forty Years Young

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  A Gala Performance of Verdi’s Requiem to be given in June (JQ)

The Royal Choral Society; photo copyright Anthony Lydekker 2008

The British choral society tradition goes back well into the nineteenth century and many towns and cities have choirs that can trace their origins back for over one hundred years. Three examples readily come to mind: the Halifax Choral Society was founded in 1818 and claims to be the oldest such society in the world with an unbroken performance history of 194 years and counting. Its world-famous neighbour, the Huddersfield Choral, started up a few years later in 1836. One year later the Hereford Choral Society came into existence; it is currently celebrating its 175th anniversary.

Another choir that is proudly celebrating a significant anniversary in 2012 is the Royal Choral Society, which was founded 140 years ago. Its history has been researched by Peggy Wilson MBE, a choir member from 1954 to 1997, to whom I am indebted for much information contained in this article.

The choir was founded as the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society, specifically to perform in London’s splendid new auditorium, which had been opened in 1871. I’m not clear when the choir’s name was shortened to Royal Choral Society, though the choir was advertised under its original name on an 1886 concert poster but bore its current name on a poster for a concert in 1889. The French composer, Charles Gounod, who lived in England between 1870 and 1875, was engaged as the choir’s first conductor and he directed its first concert on 8 May, 1872 before an audience that included Queen Victoria.

photo copyright RCS 2012

Gounod’s tenure didn’t last long. He was succeeded later that same year by Joseph Barnby (1838-1896), described as “a plain-speaking Yorkshireman”. Under Barnby’s leadership a number of standard masterpieces were introduced to the choir’s repertoire, including the St Matthew Passion (in 1873) and Messiah (in 1873/4). In the English-speaking world Messiah has become associated primarily with Christmas but Barnby appears to have recognised that the work is even more to do with Easter and it was he who in 1878 began the tradition, which continues this day, of performing Messiah on Good Friday. If one of Barnby’s claims to fame was the establishment of really sound foundations for the fledgling RCS the other, surely, lay in the field of significant first performances. During his tenure the choir gave the first UK performance of Parsifal – a concert performance – in 1884; remarkably, that came only two years after the opera had first been unveiled at Bayreuth. Even more notably, they gave the UK première of Verdi’s Requiem in 1875 under the baton of the composer himself. In 1884 Dvorák became another composer to conduct the choir, leading a performance of his Stabat Mater.

Barnby, who was knighted in 1892, remained the choir’s conductor until his death, whereupon Frederick Bridge took over. During the Barnby era the choir seems to have mustered a regular membership of over 1000 singers but around the turn of the century it seems there was a relative slimming down of the choir and Peggy Wilson found a comment in the Musical Times of January 1899 noting that the choir comprised 242 sopranos, 174 contraltos, 174 tenors, 236 basses and 16 “superintendents”, a total of 842 singing members. I’m unsure what role “superintendents” played – one imagines that they were section leaders. Apart from the sheer size of the choir, however, it’s the proportions that one notices. Ignoring the superintendents, because we can’t be certain which voices they were, we have 410 male singers, or 49% of the membership. Furthermore, no less than 21% of the members were tenors; most choral society conductors today would give anything to have such a sizeable tenor section at their disposal.

Bridge remained at the helm until 1922. On his retirement he wasn’t replaced as conductor. Instead H L Balfour took over as chorus master and the concerts were conducted by guest conductors such as Adrian Boult. In 1928 the RCS entered a new era when Malcolm Sargent was appointed as permanent conductor. Sargent was a considerable figure in British musical life over the next few decades, not only with the RCS but also at various times with the (Royal) Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Huddersfield Choral Society, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and, of course, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. Opinions may vary as to Sargent’s stature as a conductor but during his lifetime there was pretty general agreement among musicians that that he had a particular talent for getting the best out of large amateur choirs, as his pioneering recordings of The Dream of Gerontius, Messiah, Elijah, Belshazzar’s Feast and The Hymn of Jesus show very clearly. These celebrated recordings, however, involved Sargent’s ‘other’ choir, the Huddersfield Choral Society, rather than the RCS.

Sargent was far from averse to taking innovative steps to promote and popularise music and during his time with the RCS the choir became famous for its performances in the Royal Albert Hall of Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Hiawatha. For these performances, which ran for many years and played to very large audiences the choir would wear full American Indian costumes!

photo copyright RCS 2012

With Sargent the RCS expanded both their discography and their involvement with the Promenade concerts – of which he was chief conductor after 1948 – in the post-war period. When Sargent died in 1967 Wyn Morris replaced him briefly and then in 1972 Meredith Davies became the choir’s conductor, just in time for the celebrations of the RCS’s centenary, which was marked in particular by a Centenary concert in the Royal Albert Hall – where else? – on 8 May 1972. As they had done with Sargent, the RCS recorded with Davies, most notably, perhaps, the rarely-heard Requiem by Delius (review).  Davies and then Laslo Heltay successively – and successfully – steered the fortunes of the choir until 1993. Heltay’s successor, who took over as Music Director in 1995, was Richard Cooke, who until his RCS appointment had been chorus master of the London Philharmonic Choir. Richard Cooke continues to lead the RCS to this day.

Richard Cooke; photo copyright RCS 2003

One of the challenges faced by any choir or orchestra, whether professional or amateur, nowadays is that of attracting an audience. Does an organisation stick to performing the ‘standard’ repertoire or does it try to broaden its following and perform music that will have broad appeal and attract people who might not otherwise attend ‘classical’ concerts? The challenge is to strike the correct balance and the RCS is, arguably, one of the most successful organisations in this regard. Their programmes still include many staples of the traditional choral repertoire, including the Verdi Requiem, Messiah (which the choir claims to have sung more often – at least 265 performances – than any other choir), The Dream of Gerontius and Mozart’s Requiem. But a visitor to the RCS website will note several more unashamedly popular programmes listed there also, such as three performances of a ‘Classical Spectacular’ programme in March 2012 or a ‘Great Choral Classics’ concert in the same month. The purist might turn up his or her nose but popular programmes such as these surely serve two purposes. Firstly, they offer the best chance of expanding the audience for other concerts. Secondly – and let’s not be coy about this, especially in these relatively straightened times – those concerts ring the tills and provide the income without which the performance of such masterpieces as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis would not be feasible. In any event, reaching out to a wider public surely maintains the Sargent tradition and it’s in the same lineage as those famous costumed performances of Hiawatha in pre-War days. So don’t expect the RCS to give up its outreach work any time soon.

The Royal Choral Society celebrates its 140th anniversary with some 175 singers in its ranks. Of course that’s far less than the numbers at the turn of the twentieth century but the days of massed choirs are long gone and the size of the current RCS singing membership is more than respectable by today’s standards. The choir regularly performs on its ‘home turf’ at the Royal Albert Hall but frequently spreads its wings to perform at other venues, both in the UK and abroad. Details of its forthcoming concerts – and information about how you can become involved as a singing member – can be found on its website.

The next big date in the choir’s calendar is something of a red-letter day. On 25 June they join forces with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and a strong team of soloists for a 140th anniversary performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the Royal Albert Hall under the baton of Richard Cooke. As this is the choir that introduced the masterpiece to British audiences it’s a highly fitting choice of programme. It should be quite a night!

John Quinn