To coincide with the Bath Bach Choir’s 70th anniversary this summer a new seven-volume portfolio of its colourful history has been revealed. Kate Patrick took some notes
When the renowned choral maestro Nigel Perrin next picks up the baton to conduct the Bath Bach Choir in concert, it will be just over 70 years since the choir made its public debut. It was on 7 June 1947 that an excited choir first filed into Bath Abbey to perform J S Bach’s great Mass in B minor under its founder-conductor, Cuthbert Bates.
Cuthbert Bates’s daughter Elizabeth, also a well-known Bath musician, recalls that when her father first moved to Bath in 1946 there was a dearth of choral music in the city. Cuthbert, she says, “had always cherished the idea of founding a Bach Choir somewhere. After the war, he was posted to the most beautiful city of Bath, and knew that this was where his ambition would be fulfilled.
“An advertisement in the paper, initially for a madrigal society, produced a huge response – far too many to sing madrigals. And so the City of Bath Bach Choir was born there and then.”
The choir rehearsed Bach’s masterpiece for a whole year, and staged the concert at 4.15pm, in order to give the orchestra time to return to London that evening on the last train. “I was a very young child at the time,” recalls Elizabeth, “but the thing I remember were the crowds in Abbey Church Yard trying to gain admission. Four hundred people were turned away from the doors and extra chairs had to be placed at the end of each row in the nave. You could hardly imagine it today.”
It was to preserve anecdotes such as these, along with all the precious printed pieces associated with the choir’s legacy (programmes, posters, press cuttings, correspondence) that one of its current members, Tony Thornburn, set out in the choir’s 70th year to compile a properly organised archive. The resulting seven beautifully-presented, hardback portfolios tell the story of a remarkable institution, rooted in Bath but with an international outlook through its choice of directors, music, soloists and touring destinations. The choir has performed Rachmaninov in Russian, sung to Bach’s memorial stone in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig and shared a platform with Yehudi Menuhin. In its illustrious 70-year history it has had just four presidents and three musical directors.
Tony, who has been in the Bath Bach Choir since 2009, explains the thinking behind the project: “What struck me was the significant effort that has been expended by a large number of people over a period of 70 years to produce such an exemplary standard of music – not just in Bath but to entertain audiences abroad too. The choir’s archivist, Bob Hussey, showed me the records of all the past concerts which included singing huge, game-changing works like Britten’s War Requiem, and my reaction was that I didn’t want this to remain hidden away, recorded but unread. So I started by creating a page for Wikipedia to capture the choir’s history electronically.
Cuthbert Bates conducting the choir in 1950
“Then I realised I needed to find a way to organise and present all the posters, programmes, press cuttings and photos that had been saved by a succession of chairmen and secretaries. Elizabeth [Bates] herself had much of the early material. Files and scrapbooks had been initiated at various times, but they were all a bit inconsistent and threadbare. So I set about producing something that would endure, that would match the high standards the choir sets itself musically, and that can easily be added to as new material is discovered.”
The first of the portfolios covers the period 1947 – 1990, starting with Cuthbert Bates’s monumental 34 year tenure as musical director followed by Denys Darlow’s ten years. Among many early gems, it records the visits of distinguished guest conductors such as Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams (the choir’s first president), Sir Michael Tippett, Sir David Willcocks (the third president) and Josef Krips, who conducted the choir in the Royal Festival Hall in 1956. Star soloists included Kathleen Ferrier, Felicity Lott, John Shirley-Quirk and Dame Janet Baker, who sang the contralto solos in 1965’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion; more recently the likes of Stephen Varcoe, Patricia Rozario, Roderick Williams, James Gilchrist and Mark Stone appear in the records.
A separate portfolio is devoted to the choir’s longstanding involvement in the Bath Bach Festival, which Cuthbert Bates initiated, organised and ran, with the aid of the choir and guest conductors such as Yehudi Menuhin, from 1950 – 1982. “At the launch festival,” says Tony, “I discovered that over a period of just 14 days, the choir, supported by the London Symphony Orchestra, sang Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passions, the Magnificat and, on the final day, his Mass in B minor. That’s quite a feat.”
One could be forgiven for thinking that the choir’s repertoire begins and ends with Bach, but this is far from the case, as becomes clear from the two portfolios dedicated to Nigel Perrin’s 27 year tenure as musical director. With far more extant material to play with, the volumes are a vivid record of how the choir developed its repertoire, technique and performance dynamic from 1990 onwards.
To be able to adapt to a variety of genres and perform them successfully, the choir had to improve – not just as a body, but as individual singers. The seed had been sown in the 1970s when, as two hilarious letters in the archive reveal, poor attendance was noted, along with the need for auditions. Unheard of! But under Perrin, these became a reality (ironically, Tony Thornburn failed his first one because his sightreading was “rubbish”). With his background as a chorister, King’s Cambridge choral scholar and original member of the King’s Singers, Perrin was equally at home with early music (Allegri, Monteverdi, Vivaldi), the romantics (Fauré, Dvorak, Rachmaninov) or cool contemporary composers like Whitacre, Todd, Tavener, Rutter, Chilcott and MacMillan.
As one review notes: “It doesn’t matter whether it’s Mozart or The Beatles – Nigel not only gets the music, but understands the power of performance. It isn’t just singing; it’s theatre – to interpret and put over to an audience what a composer is striving to achieve with a piece of music.”
As well as recording a small slice of Bath’s musical and social history, the portfolios have also inspired today’s 90 or so choir members with a renewed sense of pride. To have a tangible reminder of their choir’s illustrious history – including its links with King’s College Cambridge through Nigel Perrin’s mentor and inspiration Sir David Willcocks, and with the London Bach Choir through both Willcocks and its current president David Hill – makes you aspire to be the best you can be. The 70th anniversary concert will be the powerful evidence of that.