CITY OF BIRMINGHAM CHOIR CENTENARY
by Christopher Morley
With the end of the First World War in 1918 men began returning to normal civilian life. One of the many happy consequences was the reconstitution of choral societies, deprived of male voices for so many years, and the formation of new ones.
One such was the City of Birmingham Choir, founded in 1921, and now, lockdown-postponed for a year, celebrating its centenary with a concert also celebrating the sesquicentenary of Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose 150th birthday fell just a few days ago.
It is no coincidence that the Choir came into existence almost simultaneously with the City of Birmingham Orchestra, and many of its greatest triumphs have been in concerts presented with the then CBO, and eventually with the renamed City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. That change of name came about in February 1948, thanks to the insistence of George Weldon, charismatic principal conductor of the orchestra at the time.
Among the works Weldon conducted in this partnership of the CBSO and CBC was Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha, once prominent in the choir’s repertoire, but now largely neglected in the concert-hall. Other such museum pieces included Bethlehem by Rutland Boughton (he who founded the original Glastonbury Festival – how times have changed), which was the highlight of the choir’s inaugural concert on November 28 1921 in Birmingham Town Hall, Joseph Lewis conducting; The Golden Journey to Samarkand, Granville Bantock the composer, Malcolm Sargent conducting (1929); and, a year later, another huge composition by Bantock, Principal of the Birmingham School of Music and Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, Omar Khayyam, this time conducted by City Organist GD Cunningham.
In 1933 Cunningham also conducted the concert celebrating the re-opening of Birmingham Town Hall after refurbishment, the programme including Blest Pair of Sirens (Joseph Lewis and Adrian Boult singing in the chorus!) by Parry (not Elgar, as the otherwise entertaining recent history of the City Choir “Singing for 100 Years” tells us).
One of the original objectives of the City of Birmingham Choir was to be the performance of unaccompanied choral works, and indeed early programmes did feature madrigals and part-songs – though with a total complement of 185 voices, somewhat depleted in terms of altos and tenors, the results must have been highly distorted from what the composers had imagined.
Far more spectacular has been the Choir’s enthusiastic embracing of contemporary music. In 1922 it gave the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor, in 1938 it gave the UK premiere of Bloch’s Sacred Service, and under David Willcocks gave the UK premiere of the Durufle Requiem, the composer himself presiding at the organ.
And under the long and exciting conductorship of Christopher Robinson (like Willcocks and Meredith Davies before him, and Adrian Lucas since, a product of the Three Choirs tradition), there were stunning performances of some of the most demanding works in the contemporary repertoire.
Particularly notable were Messiaen’s La Transfiguration, eminent pianist Peter Donohoe joining the idiosyncratic instrumental ensemble, and, even more spectacular, Michael Tippett’s The Mask of Time, its choral writing searching, dancing, wispy and reflective, and all accomplished so professionally – by this amateur choir under an expert conductor, conducting one of the world’s greatest orchestras who actually respected this choral director, an accolade not many receive, believe me.
But the City of Birmingham Choir’s longstanding relationship with the CBSO hit a huge buffer in 1973 The two organisations had enjoyed a frequent broadcasting partnership, both on television and radio (though regional relays were diminishing by this time), and a continued partnership at prestigious concerts in Birmingham Town Hall. However, Louis Fremaux, the CBSO’s dynamic principal conductor and music director, decided that the orchestra needed its own chorus to enable it to programme demanding works for chorus and orchestra, and accordingly he, together with Chorusmaster Gordon Clinton, Principal of the Birmingham School of Music, launched the CBSO Chorus in the autumn of 1973.
Rather than indulging in sulking wounds-licking, the City of Birmingham Choir moved on to newer pastures, including increasing its appearances in other venues both in this country and abroad. It also participates in lucrative engagements presented under the Raymond Gubbay umbrella.
Links with the CBSO remain, however, with the pre-Christmas performance of Handel’s Messiah remaining a time-honoured tradition. And on Sunday afternoon, November 6, Adrian Lucas (already well into his 20th year as the Choir’s popular conductor, conducts an all-Vaughan Williams programme, culminating in the composer’s mighty, Walt Whitman-inspired A Sea Symphony.
*Symphony Hall, 3pm. All details on citychoir.org.uk