How it all began…
The London Philharmonic Choir was formed from the rump of an earlier choir created in 1919 by Charles Kennedy Scott (1876–1965), the ‘Philharmonic Choir’, which had been disbanded in 1939 with the outbreak of war. In November 1946, a meeting took place at the Royal Academy of Music at which former members of the Philharmonic Choir came together to discuss the formation of a new ensemble that they hoped would carry on the tradition.The chorus master was to be Frederic Jackson, Professor of Piano at the RAM.
Jackson’s ambition was to create a choir that could perform major choral works ‘in the finest possible manner’, and it was hoped to start rehearsals in early 1947 at Livingstone Hall in the Broadway near St James’s Park. The annual subscription for members would be one guinea (£1.05, but more like £35 in today’s money).
Another key figure involved in setting up the new choir was George Barker. He had heard that the London Philharmonic Orchestra was interested in the creation of a first-class choir and asked for a mandate to approach the LPO to discuss the possibilities of musical and financial co-operation.The encouragement given both at the meeting and expressed in letters of support from old choir members unable to attend made it clear that the formation of the new choir should go ahead. It was also agreed that George Barker should approach the committee of the Orchestra with a view to opening negotiations.
During the next five weeks the choir was generously financed by Rita Beevor, an enthusiastic member of the former Philharmonic Choir who shared the vision for its restoration.
She was Honorary Secretary and backbone of the London Philharmonic Choir for the five years until her death in 1952.
On 13 December 1946, negotiations with the LPO culminated in their agreeing to support the new choir for its first year with £1,000.
The Orchestra also agreed that, subject to satisfactory evidence of its abilities, they would employ the choir in May 1947 to perform Beethoven’s Ninth followed by another major choral work later in the year.The Orchestra hoped to employ the whole choir annually to perform two major and two minor choral works, and agreed that the choir could use the name ‘London Philharmonic Choir’ as long as it satisfied their standards. They also agreed that, in principle, the Choir could sing with other orchestras so long as it had the LPO’s specific agreement to do so.
The first appearance of the London Philharmonic Choir with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was at the Royal Albert Hall on 15 May 1947 when they performed the Beethoven Ninth under the Italian conductor Victor De Sabata, the maestro from La Scala, Milan. The soloists were Isobel Baillie, Eugenia Zareska, Parry Jones and Harold Williams. There had evidently been much nervous anticipation before De Sabata’s first appearance at the choral rehearsal. However, he went straight through the choral movement and, after a couple of minor stops to tighten up on rhythmic precision, descended from the rostrum. Smiling, he turned to Jackson and the Choir with the words: “You have already done everything.”
The LPO was obviously pleased with its new choir, and for the following season the Orchestra’s programme included Bruckner’s Te Deum, Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The Stravinsky became the Choir’s first recording (for Decca).
This was soon followed by the LPC’s first broadcast, a section of the Choir singing Vaughan Williams’ oratorio Sancta Civitas and Verdi’s Stabat Mater under Sir Adrian Boult in March 1948 – not with the LPO but with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Boult had been the founding conductor of the BBCSO back in 1930 but was made to leave that post in 1950 when he reached the mandatory BBC retirement age of 60. He was then snapped up by the LPO as their Principal Conductor and was to embellish the concert platform and recording studios for many more years to come with his new orchestra and chorus.
Through the decades
From the very beginning, Sheila Lewis recalled, the Choir sang with some of the world’s greatest conductors.
“We had an orchestral rehearsal for Beethoven’s Ninth under Furtwängler, who flew into a rage because he didn’t like the way the soprano soloist was singing. He grabbed a chair by the leg and was about to throw it at her when Freddie dragged it out of his hands and prevented a very nasty incident. Another early memory is of singing Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges with De Sabata. I can still hear his hoarse voice instructing us how he wanted the shepherds and shepherdesses to sing – ‘It is a son tout archaïque’. A favourite conductor was the Dutch maestro Eduard van Beinum, whose English wasn’t very good but who was a marvellous mime. At one point during a rehearsal he seized a newspaper and put it on his head, like a tent, and immediately became an old peasant woman in a bonnet.That’s what we sounded like to him! It was with van Beinum that I first sang Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The performance, at the Royal Albert Hall, started in the morning and there was a long interval when we were given lunch on the topmost level of the hall; we had cold game pie – which I have associated with the Matthew Passion ever since.”
During one of our sessions with Boult, Daniel Snowman jotted down the following dialogue. It seems Sir Adrian had been upbraiding the Choir alto section for the past twenty minutes for sounding ‘woolly’.Then, finally, they were OK. Boult relaxed at last:
AB: Why do you need to be cajoled and shaken and bullied and abused by someone with a wicked tongue (like yours truly) when you can sing perfectly well all the time? Please spit out all the words clearly!
Alto: Sir Adrian, may I say something?
(consternation all around)
AB: Yes, please! Say anything you like! Stand up and shout. Clearly!
(nervous laughter from chorus)
Alto: Well, we heard everything you said then, but we often can’t hear clearly what you are saying to us.
(VERY nervous laughter . . .)
AB: Congratulations!! But why didn’t someone say that to me twenty minutes ago? You deserve a gold medal . . . but I don’t have one to give you!
(consternation relieved; ensued by excellent singing!)
“We were on our own when we rehearsed Bartók’s Cantata Profana in Hungarian (recalled Sheila Lewis). Hungarian isn’t like any other language and it was impossible to memorise the words. At the tutti rehearsal Solti was horrified to find that the Choir weren’t watching his beat because they had their heads down in their scores. Finally he could bear it no longer.‘Never mind the bloody Hungarian,’ shouted the furious Hungarian, ‘just sing the notes!’”
Gordon and Lorna Buky-Webster – father and daughter – both auditioned on 23 March 2005. Five months later, they wrote this shared reminiscence:
“Father went first and Neville Creed scored him five out of ten and was awarded re-audition after a year. Daughter’s score remains secret but, as she was allowed three years before her next audition, she must have scored six. Daughter put the difference in results down to sheer talent; her father put it down to blatant ageism.Their first concert together was Britten’s War Requiem under Kurt Masur at the Royal Festival Hall. Even during early rehearsals, both father and daughter noted a constant tension stemming from the corporate desire to get it right. Certainly, neither wanted to get anything wrong in splendid isolation. And most of the other choristers seemed to be either incredible sight-readers or experienced at the piece. The final rehearsals with Masur, and the concert itself, were everything the father wished for the daughter and well beyond his high expectations. For days afterwards strands of the music seemed to be burned into the synapses, creating a restless companion at waking and in the daytime: surely a result of intense concentration combined with charged emotions. Daughter found it remarkable that choristers were capable of producing such glorious music while being perfectly pleasant people leading normal, ‘everyday’ lives!”
These extracts are taken from Hallelujah! An informal history of the London Philharmonic Choir.
- Victoria Spenser Wilkinson: 1946–1947
- Neville Rogers: 1947–1947
- Victoria Spenser Wilkinson: 1947–1955
- Frank J. Wheeler: 1955–1961
- Christopher (P.C.) Roscoe: 1961–1968
- Frank J. Wheeler: 1968–1969
- David R. Anderson: 1969–1970
- Daniel Snowman: 1970–1972
- Vey Roberts: 1972–1977
- Anthony Shillingford: 1977–1984
- Vincent Evans: 1984–1987
- Aidan Jones: 1987–1992
- Nigel Grieve: 1992–1996
- Jane Hanson: 1996–1999
- John Peirce: 1999–2002
- Peter Taylor: 2002–2008
- Mary Moore: 2008–2013
- Andrew Mackie: 2013–2014
- Ian Frost: 2014–2018
- Tessa Bartley: 2018–present
- Frederic Jackson: 1947–1969
- Russell Burgess, Deputy Choir Master: May–September 1968
- John Alldis: 1969–1982
- Richard Cooke: 1982–1991
- Jeremy Jackman: 1992–1994
- Neville Creed, Artistic Director: 1994–present
- Matthew Rowe, Associate Chorus Director: 2003–2008