Prince Charles, Vera Lynn, Kiri Te Kanawa, Peter Piers – All singers with The Bach Choir
From Windsor Castle to Wormwood Scrubs the 142-Year-Old Bach Choir is part of the national sound
If Britain had a national voice, the sound of The Bach Choir could make a strong case for representing the UK. Its distinguished musical directors have included Otto Goldschmidt, AdrianBoult, Ralph Vaughan Williams, David Willcocks and now David Hill. And its repertoire ranges from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (a work it will be singing in October to commemorate the end of the First World War) to the theme from the Pink Panther.
When the Choir started in 1876 they say it was very much a blue-blooded society for aristocratic voices. The fact that Prince Charles is the Patron and has sung with the Choir and also invited it toHighgrove to provide pre- and post-dinner music, is part of that heritage. But through the Choir’s Outreach programme it also has regular contact with schools and a history of 25 years of taking Christmas carols to Wormwood Scrubs prison.
Shirley Picton-Turbervill recalls: “The first time we sang there, the prisoners were quite rowdy and a little bit threatening. A few got out of their seats and approached the conductor David Willcockswho was very composed throughout. The guards with Alsatian dogs soon had them back in their places, but within minutes of the Choir singing the prisoners were all in tears. The song ‘We’ll gather lilacs’ by Ivor Novello was almost too much for them. In fact we used Ivor Novello’s piano which he had donated to the prison in memory of his days incarcerated there as a Conscientious Objector during WW1.”
Another emotional moment came in the Frauenkirche, Dresden, in 2005, where the Choir performed music by Handel, the first British choir to sing in the rebuilt cathedral since the destruction of the city during WW2.
And then there was the concert that never happened thanks to the British climate – the Royal Pageant of the Horse – designed to celebrate the Queen’s love of horses in her golden wedding anniversary year. Weeks of rehearsal took place and luckily a recording was made of The Bach Choir’s repertoire for the event. But on the week of the Festival it rained so heavily that it had to be cancelled. But David Picton-Turbervill still has the medal struck to celebrate an event that never took place!
Over the years The Bach Choir has taken its unique ‘blended’ sound to all corners of the world, Australia, Hong Kong, Florida, Germany, France. Its sound today is no accident but a very careful blending of voices using Music Director, David Hill’s colouring system to fit voices in to best effect. Everyone is assigned a ‘colour’ – red, yellow, or white – depending on the particular characteristics of their voice, and seating the Choir with the red voices in the centre of each section, surrounded by the yellows, with the whites on the outside, allows singers to develop their own sound amongst others with similar qualities, and has a profoundeffect on the immediacy of the sound.
Mrs Picton-Turbervill and her son David recalled moments that stood out for them: singing at Windsor Castle looking down at the Thames, singing with Vera Lynn to celebrate VE and VJ Day and Peter Pears singing in his winter overcoat in the freezing cold of a roofless Westminster Cathedral (the roof was being repaired). And then of course the never to be forgotten days of rehearsal for the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and the wedding itself. Afterwards Shirley Picton-Turbervill says she lingered alongside Dame Kiri te Kanawa outside the cathedral, quite overcome with it all.
These are just a few of the memories that mother and son recall during their part of the Choir’s 142-year history, the music, the directors, and the love affairs and marriages that came out of a shared love of singing.
This week The Bach Choir will launch its ‘1876 Society’ for Choir members, past and present who, like the Picton-Turbervills have chosen to commemorate their history with the Choir by leaving a legacy for its future. The 1876 Society enables the Choir to thank people in their lifetime for their gift, and celebrate its own remarkable history as a “living legacy”.
The Bach Choir, one of the world’s leading choruses, has sung in prestigious venues around the UK, collaborated with the Rolling Stones, and worked on blockbuster films including Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.
The Bach Choir is very active in the recording studio. In November 2017 the Choir released the latest in its acclaimed series of English music recordings: Dyson’s Choral Symphony, and has released two discs of Christmas music, one of which – The Colours of Christmas, conducted by the Choir’s president, John Rutter – reached No 3 in the Official Classical Charts. The Choir has also worked on projects for BBC Radio 3, BBC One, Sky Arts and Sky Sports News. Away from the recording studio the choir is often invited to perform for other promoters, and collaborates regularly with the Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and The Royal British Legion.
In 2014 The Bach Choir, whose roll-call of musical directors includes such notable names as Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Ralph Vaughan Williams, added the title of Britain’s brainiest cultural institution to its honours board after winning the inaugural Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz, which pitted some of the UK’s biggest arts bodies against each other.