Derby Choral Union celebrates its 150th anniversary

In concert at Derby Cathedral Photo Cactus Images Ltd

In concert at Derby Cathedral Photo Cactus Images Ltd - Credit: Archant

Derbyshire Life attends a rehearsal for Derby Choral Union’s commemorative concert

In concert at Derby Cathedral Photo Cactus Images Ltd

In concert at Derby Cathedral Photo Cactus Images Ltd - Credit: Archant

And we are the dreamers of dreams’

- from The Music Makers by Edward Elgar

When Elgar’s vintage choral work resounds around the Roundhouse in Derby on 30th April, the ‘music makers’ on this night – Derby Choral Union – will celebrate 150 years of singing. There is arguably nothing more sonorous and sublime in the creative arts than a choir in full voice, especially when the choristers number 100 and are augmented by an orchestra, as will be experienced at the Choral Union’s commemorative concert.

‘To hear so many people united in their performance can be extraordinarily uplifting,’ affirms Jenny Jaggers. She should know: she has sung in choirs for over 70 years.

In concert at Derby Cathedral Photo Cactus Images Ltd

In concert at Derby Cathedral Photo Cactus Images Ltd - Credit: Archant

As fellow chorister Val Cole adds, ‘Singing to an audience makes one feel very proud and happy to be spreading joy through music.’ Derby Choral Union has been lifting spirits and spreading joy since 1866. The Choral Union’s beginnings make it eminently fitting that this anniversary concert is being held in the world’s first and oldest surviving railway roundhouse, where you will also hear a newly-commissioned, railway-themed choral work by composer Kerry Andrew entitled Thy Flight Be Fleet: Trainsongs!

Fascinatingly, Derby Choral Union has its roots in the railway industry. The seeds were sown when the Roundhouse was built in 1839 for the North Midland Railway. It marked the mainspring of Derby’s prosperity. Other industries followed in its wake and by the 1860s there were rich developments in the town. As Peter Haslam wrote in 1965 in Derby Choral Union – the First Hundred Years: ‘There was a growing public pride in the town and the time was ripe for new artistic venues. The Market Hall was the start of it all.’

Most Read

The official opening of the Market Hall was marked by a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, a choir would have comprised society’s elite, as would the audience. However, as prosperity widened and included the working classes, so too did public performances.

The success of Messiah in the Market Hall – there were over 500 in the choir and orchestra – led to the inauguration of the Derby Choral Union. As Peter Haslam surveyed the Choral Union’s first century, he noted that ‘it has had its peak of excellence and its valleys almost of despair,’ ranging from full choirs and packed audiences to dwindling members and diminishing funds.

Musical Director Richard Dacey Photo: Ashley Franklin

Musical Director Richard Dacey Photo: Ashley Franklin - Credit: Archant

Amongst the considerable highs are the appearance of renowned guest soloists and conductors. How many choirs can claim to have performed a Vaughan Williams work (his Sea Symphony in 1928) under the baton of the composer? They also had concerts broadcast by the BBC in the 1930s. Famous soloists have included Kathleen Ferrier (1947), Lesley Garrett (in 1986 when relatively unknown) and Emma Kirkby, who is also the Choral Union’s Patron.

When the Choral Union’s archivist Annèle Mackenzie revealed that Isobel Baillie, regarded as one of the 20th century’s great oratorio singers, sang with the choir in 1944, it led me to realise that the Choral Union sang on during World War II. In spite of depleted numbers, travel restrictions and last-minute cancellations, the Choral Union gave a remarkable 17 concerts over the five seasons affected by the conflict.

Finances were always, as Peter Haslam wrote, ‘balanced on a knife edge.’ For many years up to the turn of the 20th century, the Choral Union held an annual Ball, leading one committee member, William Crowther, to declare that ‘the Choral Union sang its way into debt and danced its way out again.’

In a sequel to Peter Haslam’s book, Honorary Life Member Ken Spruce, a former chairman and secretary, covered the subsequent 50 years in Chasing the Crotchet, declaring that reaching the 100th season ‘is an achievement in itself’ but that ‘to continue to flourish into the 21st century is something of a miracle.’ Ken pays tribute to the ‘devotion of the members’ and the ‘skill of the committee and the musical directors.’

Clearly, Derby Choral Union has thrived not only through appointing outstanding musical directors but also by being under the steady baton of only three directors in the last 54 years.

Raymond Thorpe, an organ scholar at the Royal College of Music who became Music Advisor for Derbyshire, directed the Choral Union from 1962 to 1991. From 1992 until 2003, it was David Fisher, a Master of Music scholar from Sheffield University and also a composer of brass band and choral works. As an arts show presenter on Radio Derby during his time, I found that David’s deep knowledge and profound love of choral music made him the perfect interviewee.

I sensed those same qualities in current director Richard Dacey as soon as I began eavesdropping on rehearsals for the 150th anniversary concert. A graduate of the Royal College of Music, Richard has extensive choral experience and has worked with such famous conductors as Simon Rattle, Andrew Davis, John Rutter and Karl Jenkins. Currently Head of Performing Arts at the Wigston Academy Trust in Leicester, Richard previously spent 12 years as Director of Music at Repton School.

Rehearsals for Derby Choral Union always begin light-heartedly with breathing exercises. These vocal aerobics are an instant icebreaker and also a reminder – as pointed out to me by many members – that choral singing is therapeutic and stress-reducing. ‘It’s a great release when you’ve had a hard day at work and you’re thinking in a different, creative way,’ affirms chorister Caroline Munro. ‘Stretching the lungs is healthy,’ states Enid Ball. ‘Singing helps with fitness of both mind and body,’ adds Val Cole.

A review of the Choral Union’s last concert by Mike Wheeler stated that Richard Dacey ‘kept a benignly firm hand on the proceedings.’ That struck me as very apt because although Richard was being very thorough and exacting as he worked his way through the concert pieces, ably assisted by accompanist Margaret Williams, he was doing so with a smile on his face. As Richard points out: ‘One of the most important keys to conducting any choir is to make singing fun and engaging. This is also the quickest way to unlock a good sound.’

Clearly, as member Peter Grout points out, Richard ‘achieves a good balance of professionalism and enjoyment.’

‘Working with Richard is challenging, disciplined but fun,’ says Kathryn Taylour; ‘He combines musical rigour with humour,’ notes Clare Turner, ‘which makes us feel relaxed and able to take on musical challenges.’ Angela Jones loves Richard’s ‘quirky sense of humour, the depth of his musicianship and the breadth of his knowledge.’ For Brian Hollingworth, Richard is ‘outstanding in producing a positive morale and a desire to do our very best.’

As soprano Margaret Powis states: ‘Richard gets the best out of the choir through being laid back, jokey and always encouraging us but he’s also inspired by the pieces we come to sing. He gets swept up by the music.’

‘Richard is so full of energy and enthusiasm that even on a cold winter’s night, I can be transported into a space of warmth and light,’ says Patricia Lunn, while for tenor Peter Booth: ‘Richard is quite brilliant and looks to stretch the choir by carefully selecting music that will both appeal and challenge.’

‘People like to be challenged so interesting music is an important factor,’ confirms Richard. The newly commissioned work – Thy Flight Be Fleet: Trainsongs! – has been received by the choristers as ‘interesting,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘a learning experience’ and ‘a struggle but exciting.’

In Peter Haslam’s book, the attitude towards ‘modern’ music was such that ‘when they are included some, at least, of the choir will resign in protest’ and that ‘the public tend to stay firmly away from anything unknown.’ Clearly, there’s a broader outlook nowadays.

‘We must continue to introduce new repertoire if we are to grow,’ believes Caroline Munro, ‘and introducing us to new music has heightened our musical standards and ability.’ Ken Spruce believes a wider repertoire encourages younger members and, significantly, the Choral Union has reduced membership fees for 25 to 35 year olds in a bid to attract that age group, though I noticed several young voices in the choir.

‘Commissioning new works is a vital part of the fabric of choral music in the UK,’ stresses the Trainsongs composer Kerry Andrew, adding ‘there is something very special about hearing music being performed for the first time. Music, like all the arts, needs freshness, constant reinvention, and new artists coming through to keep it alive.’

As Richard Dacey points out: ‘Kerry has written a number of important pieces for choirs which reveal a fresh, original style and are accessible and uncompromising.’

Described by Richard as ‘original and unusual,’ Trainsongs is, as Kerry reveals: ‘a collection of linked movements which explore a train journey but also a journey of life.’ Kerry has included railway-themed prose and poetry by James Joyce, Walt Whitman and Robert Louis Stevenson, along with old train folk songs and, intriguingly, has incorporated railway sounds like the squeaking of brakes, station announcements and tannoy beeps for the orchestral music.

‘The work is scored for a large orchestra,’ adds Richard, ‘and also includes a key part for a children’s chorus – from William Gilbert School, Duffield – to ensure a good generational spread of performers.’

As for Elgar’s The Music Makers, this is a work ‘full of familiar references and powerful emotions’, being a compendium of some of the composer’s greatest themes with quotations from the Enigma Variations, Sea Pictures, his Violin Concerto, the orchestral symphonies and The Dream of Gerontius.

What is very evident is that choral singing has enriched the lives of these music makers. As Jenny Jaggers says: ‘I am learning and improving and working together as a team with friendly, like-minded people. It’s hugely rewarding and I usually return home on a high.’

‘I get adrenalin rushes and bonding experiences by the score,’ declares Susan Hartley.

‘I get a feeling of accomplishment,’ says David Cole. ‘It’s totally absorbing,’ adds Angela Jones, ‘and gives a great sense of being in an important musical community, even of representing and celebrating our county and culture.’

‘For me, it’s the opportunity to sing truly great and inspiring music with committed and talented singers, soloists and orchestras,’ says Margaret Powis.

‘Singing gives me pleasure, purpose and direction,’ affirms Patricia Lunn, ‘and singing as of one voice gives immense power and satisfaction.’

As Richard Dacey affirms, ‘The intellectual challenge of precision teamwork, the pitching of notes out of thin air, the shaping and expressing of ideas through sound are all deeply satisfying.’

It all makes Caron Kirkham quite emotional: ‘When we are performing well together, I find it quite spiritual. The music itself is so beautiful it sometimes makes me cry.’

For Ken Spruce, Derby Choral Union has ‘been my second family for 50 years.’ There is a similarly poignant note struck by Peter Booth: ‘I joined in 2009 but my connection started in 1975 as a 15-year-old when I went to a performance by Derby Choral Union in the Assembly Rooms and the opening strains of Handel’s Messiah swept over me. Since then, I have basked in the beauty of choral music so just imagine my pride when I stood in Derby Cathedral at the end of my first year with the choir singing Messiah. It was a dream come true.’

Derby Choral Union has been uplifting for Peter in another way: ‘During a very stormy time in my life, it became my escape and refuge from those storms.’

‘Derby Choral Union has become a good friend,’ says Caroline Munro. ‘They were very kind and supportive when my husband died suddenly a few years ago. It helped me re-group and I became more involved in various activities.’

Indeed, there is a strong social side to Derby Choral Union with quizzes, garden parties, recitals and, just recently, an exchange with a choir from Derby’s twin town Osnabruck. Members have also had the opportunity to sing in Merton College, Oxford as well as abroad in Florence, Budapest and Cologne with an especially memorable performance of Mozart’s Requiem in Lucca when, as Ken Spruce remembers, the tumultuous applause lasted a full five minutes.

Singing in the Roundhouse will be another first for the choir and there is both nervous and heady anticipation. As Angela Jones points out, Trainsongs has taken the choir out of its comfort zone – ‘but I can tell it’s exciting’ – and, as Peter Booth says of The Music Makers: ‘It’s typical Elgar – musically brilliant and quite demanding.’

‘Thanks to our musical director Richard, we always manage to reach our peak on the night,’ assures Jill Potts.

Brian Hollingworth promises an uplifting night: ‘It is the combination of human voices harmonising with each other and with musicians which, in that moment, gives you the feeling there is a more enlightened and harmonious world than we appear to have around us.’

‘The sound of a body of people singing as one can be one of the most powerful of human experiences,’ believes Richard Dacey. ‘It touches something deep inside us and strengthens the bonds of friendship and social well-being of those involved. I can’t think of a better legal or affordable way of getting so much pleasure and enjoyment!’

As Richard points out, the two works to be performed at the anniversary concert are a perfect fit. Whereas Trainsongs harks back to Derby Choral Union’s historical beginnings, The Music Makers looks to the future: ‘Elgar’s text celebrates the importance of the role of the artist in society, and that beautifully chimes with our aims to continue to be a powerful force for inspired choral singing in the Derbyshire community.’ Derby Choral Union’s 150th Anniversary Concert is at the Derby Roundhouse on Saturday, 30th April at 7.30 pm. Tickets at £15, £20 and £25 can be purchased through the Derby Choral Union’s website:

Comments powered by Disqus