The following is a piece on the history of Bury Choral Society written by Sarah Taylor one of our members
“This being a step in the right path”: 175 years of Bury Choral Society
by Sarah E. Taylor
In 1969, a choir based in Bury, Lancashire was preparing for a particularly special season. The choir’s Jubilee year, the success and longevity of the choir was reported in detail in the Bury Times. The climax of the season was scheduled to be a performance of the Mozart Requiem, to be conducted by John Edwards, who was one year into his 39-year tenure as conductor. It was a major work, one that required significant rehearsal, and according to the Bury Times, members of the choir were rising to the challenge of committing to such a performance.
However, that was only a small part of what was to unfold during that season. To complement the celebrations, research into the history of that choir was undertaken, and it was at that point that it was discovered that Bury Choral Society in one form or another was far older than 60: it was potentially 120 years old. The formation of the Bury Athenaeum Musical Circle in 1909, considered to be the earliest incarnation of Bury Choral Society, was merely an affirmation of the musical life of the town: references to other groups which are more than likely related to Bury Choral Society as we know it, and some even bearing the same name, can be found as early as 1838. This article with explore the origins of Bury Choral Society, from the early choral activity in the town and during the 19th century, when choral singing gained in popularity, to the 21st century and the commemorations of the choir’s 175th season.
During the 19th century, there were significant changes for choral singing, and no discussion of the history of a choral society formed in this century without consideration of the environment in which it flourished. There were a number of reasons for the change that saw increased visibility of the amateur musical in the musical life of the nation, and these would have been mirrored throughout the country. Improvements in musical education and cheaper sheet music that was more readily available during the 19th century were two important considerations. In addition, the amateur musician started to be recognised as someone who could contribute to a good musical performance: prior to this period, the relationship between amateurs and professionals was not always amicable, with the amateur reminded that during any musical training he “must be a humble mortal if he wishes to make progress.”
Increased passion for music, regard for non-professional and greater opportunities for participation were not the only motivations for the growth of the choral movement. Of vital importance to many was the idea that people wanted to be seen to participate in morally improving activities with influential members of the community. Moral salvation was the key; a desire for self-improvement and respectability prevailed in almost every community. This was commonly known as ‘rational recreation’, and singing became one of the most popular activities in the pursuit of moral edification. To participate in singing was to avoid 19th-century temptations of vice: alcohol, neglect of the family and family responsibility, violence of any description and, of paramount importance, frequenting music halls. Indeed, could be considered that even attending a performance of a work such Messiah was regarded almost as an act of worship itself: sacred works were revered in such a way that concert programmes noted that there was to be no applause at the end of choral work.
To avoid these ungodly pursuits, engaging in the improving influences of music seemed like a good option: surely the members of Bury Choral Society would have wished to be seen in such a light. They were not alone:
The cultivation of a taste for music furnishes to the rich a refined and intellectual pursuit, which excludes the indulgence of frivolous and vicious amusements, and to the poor, a laborem dulce lenimen, a relaxation from toil, more attractive than the haunts of intemperance […] Wherever the working classes are taught to prefer the pleasures of the intellect, and even of taste, to the gratification of sense, a great and favourable change takes place in their character and manners […] sentiments are awakened in them which makes them love their families and homes; their wages are not squandered in temperance, and they become happier as well as better.
As the 19th century progressed, choral societies formed in all parts throughout England. Universally accepted as the earliest group of chorister to define themselves as a choral society was the Halifax Choral Society in 1817. Bradford Old Choral Society was founded four years later, and Huddersfield Choral Society was founded in 1836. Just two years later, in 1838, the earliest references to a choral society in Bury are made: this group of singers was known as Bury Choral Society. Both the Halifax and Huddersfield Choral Societies met initially in public houses, completely at odds with anti-alcohol sentiments expressed later on in the century. Halifax, Huddersfield, Bradford and Bury were locations with strong industrial roots. Choirs in these locations fostered inclusiveness, and besides a practical means of participating in rational recreation, was one of the defining features of the 19th century choral movement.
Choral societies were organisations with strict rules to follow: how else could moral salvation be achieved without such regulation and mindfulness of the avoidance of unholy behaviour. It is interesting to note that 19th century rules seldom made significant mention of musical achievement. Rules were a “necessary evil” and afforded members “no excuse for indifference to the welfare of the society”.
Furthermore, the 1865 rules of Bradford Old Choral Society made very clear that certain behaviours from within the choir would not be tolerated:
Should any member be convicted for any felonious offence, he shall be excluded from the Society. […] The Committee have power to suspend or eject any Member for unbecoming language or insubordination to the Conductor, during Rehearsal; for disorderly or immoral conduct in general; or acting in any other way tending to damage the interest or character of the Society.
The 1842 rules of Huddersfield Choral Society were stricter still, with a vast array of fines being levied on members at any time. Lateness was not tolerated; missing rehearsals without ‘good reason’ was also a fineable offence. Commenting on music in an ‘inappropriate manner’ was another misdemeanour, while the heftiest fine (sixpence) was imposed on any member being intoxicated during rehearsals.
The earliest reference to a choral society in Bury was made in 1838: a public performance was to be held at Irwell School, Bury. Crucially, this referred to the ‘next’ public performance, suggesting that this was not the first performance. Whether or not this choir was Bury Choral Society as we know it today or one of its previous incarnations is unclear: it is quite possible that the article was merely referring to a choral society in Bury. However, what is clear is that there was choral activity in Bury in 1838, and that choral activity manifested itself in public performances, so therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the 1838 reference was indeed a reference to a performance of one of the ancestors of Bury Choral Society, if not of Bury Choral Society itself. It cannot be doubted that the aims of this group would have fitted in with the aims of the choir later on in the century and beyond.
It would appear from newspaper and music publications that the fledging choral scene in 19th-century Bury was similar to those found throughout the country. Concerts of a variety of music were performed, and by 1855, it was reported that it was intended for the choir to perform three concerts each season. A report from the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser on August 11th 1855, refers to a group known as the Bury Athenaeum Choral Society, under the management of Mr D. W. Banks. It may have been the case that this was an entirely separate group of choristers. However, this group was referred to in 1840, and it is highly likely that this is indeed a report referring to Bury Choral Society: the ‘Athenaeum’ in the title of the group probably relates to its rehearsal venue; this is well documented throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The intention for the season would that there would be three concerts, the first of which was to have been a performance of Judas Maccabaeus. It was reported that the famous operatic tenor Sims Reeves was to be employed, although there do not seem to be any reports that suggest that this happened. It was also reported that Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus was to be performed. However, the concert to be held on December 24th 1855 was to include Richard Hacking’s Judas Maccabaeus. It is likely that the original report was an error; that it had been assumed it was to be Handel that was to be performed. The choir was fortunate to have been donated copies of Mendelssohn’s oratorio St Paul, although again, it is not clear if this was ever included in the programme for that or any subsequent season. At this time, the chorus, described by the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, as “very efficient” numbered around 100, and this was not highlighted as at all unusual. The significant number of reports of choral activity in the area in the press would confirm that this was the situation in Bury that there were many outlets for musical participation in the area.
However, although the choir appeared to enjoy success, reviews of the choir’s performances were not always complimentary and indeed often focused on any visiting soloists as an indicator of the success of the event. The concert of September 1857, although a good outing for the 32-strong choir, was not a resounding success. The soprano “exerted herself too much”, and animation and expression, although vital to vocal performance “should not be abused”. The bass soloist was very well received, but the greatest perceived problem with the concert was the business of encouraging encores:
Why are not people satisfied with the contents of the programme, without demanding pieces to be renewed. […] The absurd system of encoring is a positive robbery, and the sooner it is put down, the sooner the vocalist will be assured that the applause will only arise from a true appreciation of what has been listened to with feelings of true gratification.
Indeed, the contributors to the Musical Gazette appear harsh, as a review of a concert seven years later suggests. A concert in 1858 was evidently not a demonstration of musical prowess; it was as if choral singing could not be regarded as suitable form of moral salvation without musical achievement. They may have been, according to the Musical Gazette may have described the performances as ‘cheap concerts’, but good singers were still of paramount importance. The bass soloist at this concert, a Mr Lambert of the Chapel Royal, Windsor), was thought to be quite decent: the Bury audience were apparently appreciative of his efforts and the anonymous reviewer made special mention of his range, in particular his lower register. However, the same was not true of the tenor:
Mr Wilson was the principle tenor, and gave us plenty of his plenty throaty voice, which is not at all improved since we last heard him. There is peculiarity about his style which is far from pleasing, and his mannerisms tend more to rouse the cachinations of his audience than any other feeling.
The concert did not appear to improve during the course of the evening, with the a lack of preparation on the part of the choir being noted; the accompanist became so fraught with aspects of the performance, which was in danger of completely falling apart, that he took to “stamping his feet and flipping his fingers”. The concert ended with a rendition of God Save the Queen, which was “anything but pleasing or loyal”. Although this concert was not perhaps regarded as a success, the review acknowledged that there was potential for the choir to perform well, and suggested the following:
If we take the cheap Bury Choral Society concerts during the past season, we shall find that the majority of the pieces have been of a light, trivial character, and totally inadequate to elevate the musical tastes of the people. The announcement of an oratorio next season we will hail with great pleasure, this being a step in the right path.
Programme from 1840 – 6th August same venue as above. Soloists Miss Leach, Mr Walton and Signor Paltoni. Also from 10 February 1843 a programme referring to Bury Athenaeum Choral Society – could be the same group, probably referring to its place of rehearsal.
In the 1860s, Bury Choral Society appeared to be connected with one of the musical ‘personalities’ of the Bury area. Edward Sparks was not a native of Bury – he hailed from Exeter – and like his older brother before him he became an organist. Unknown circumstances led him to leave Exeter in 1849, and he held positions in both Essex and Yorkshire as an organist and choirmaster. Sparks’ connection with Bury commenced in 1852, when he was appointed as organist and choirmaster at Bury Parish Church. This was just one of the ways on which Sparks contributed to the musical life of Bury. Alongside his duties at Bury Parish Church, he was honorary musical director and secretary of the Bury Amateur Glee Club, secretary of the Bury Musical Union, director of the Bury Amateur Vocal Society, conductor of the Rossendale Choral Society and conductor of the Bury Vocal Union. He was also Honorary Secretary of Bury Choral Society.
Throughout Sparks’ nine years in Bury, his aim was to “promote musical culture and provide entertainments for the edification of his fellow townsmen”. It is not clear if he achieved this to his satisfaction. However, it is cldear that Sparks was a man whose musical skills and experiences were highly regarded, and it is probable that the members of Bury Choral Society were proud that this man was involved in their activities.
The second half of the 19th century appears to have been a time of instability for the choir, which given the overall popularity of choral singing in England and the richness of musical opportunity in Bury, would appear improbable. For Bury, it appears that two reasons contributed to a darker period in the history of the choir: finances and competition. Numerous reviews through the years make mention of ‘respectable’ audiences, and one assumes that this refers to the number of people in the audience. Concerts were not free to attend; indeed the financial struggles of choral societies are frequently noted in the local and musical press of the time and beyond, with many choirs electing to perform Messiah – a sure-fire money-spinner – during particularly lean seasons. The second challenge to the choir came in the form of a rival musical group formed not long after the disastrous Athenaeum concert of 1858. The existence of the Musical Society, the group in question, will be discussed later in this article.
In 1861, it was proposed during a meeting held at the Athenaeum, that a ‘new’ choral society should be formed. There was a good attendance at this meeting, the proceedings of which were presided over by Richard Hacking, whose Judas Maccabaeus was performed by the choir in 1855. At this meeting, John Mellin Wike was appointed conductor, Randle Fletcher was appointed accompanist and Kay Wild was appointed as librarian. This therefore suggests that the proposition for a ‘new’ choral society was actually a rejuvenation of the old. At the meeting, a resolution was passed that it was a necessity to have a choral society in Bury: note that this was deemed a necessity, and not a nicety, such was the importance of provincial choral singing at that time. The Bury Times advertised the first rehearsal as being on a Tuesday in early September (the rehearsal itself was reviewed on 7th September) at 7.30 p.m. The outcome of the rehearsal was reported thus:
The effective manner in which the choruses of the Messiah were rendered and the enthusiasm and good feeling which prevailed are encouraging features in the movement and induce us to hope and believe that the society now formed will be in every respect a successful one. Public rehearsals to which the friends of members will be admitted free by ticket are intended to be given once a month; and as, on these occasions, the soli will be taken by members of the society public interest will be excited and native talent cultivated and encouraged.
This rehearsal was attended by 130 members, a testament to the esteem in which choral singing was held in the area and a likely indicator that the choral society, and choral singing with that elusive promise of moral salvation, had been greatly missed.
The choir operated happily for 30 years, its activities charted by the local and musical press. However, the Bury Times of 24 February 1894 tells a different story, one of musical effort being in a bad way in Bury. That is not to say there was a shortage of outlets for musical participation. The Musical Society, which was formed around 1866, appears to have caused some friction in the town, its existence attributable to the demise of the ‘old’ Bury Choral, which may possibly have been the Bury Athenaeum Choral Society. The apparent rivalry between the two groups eventually led to the cessation of the choir: it simply could not compete with the Musical Society. The reasons behind this closure are not clear. However, it is known that the membership of the Musical Society, which like a number of choirs initially met in a public house, grew rapidly, with between 60 and 70 attending rehearsal regularly. The first conductor of this group was Thomas Wroe; one of his successors was Randle Fletcher, who himself was an accompanist for Bury Choral Society in the 1860s. Again, the musical personalities of the area were very much involved in the general musical scene. Only for a performance of Samson was an outside soloist engaged: one assumes that this is due to the quality of the singers within the choir. However, despite having been operating for nearly 30 years with apparent success, as the 19th century drew to a close the Musical Society fell on hard times and was threatened with closure itself: “It is hardly to the credit of the town that such a society should die; but it is satisfactory to know that in dying it pays its debts and that it has not lived in vain”.
Despite the problems encountered in the 1890s, the fortunes of the society appear to have changed and the start of the 20th century saw a time of greatly stability and of musical enjoyment. Indeed, it was also a time of development for one of Bury’s musical personalities: Randle Fletcher, Bury Choral Society accompanist and Musical Society conductor, was a music dealer. His shop on Rock Street was one of a number of locations where concert tickets could be purchased. By the season 1901/02 things seemed more established. Two concerts were performed in the 1901/1902 season: a miscellaneous concert and Messiah. This corresponds with an accepted peak in the English choral movement that occurred before the outbreak of the First World War. Although reports of the time suggest that Bury Choral Society was thriving, nationally, the picture was rather different, with a report commissioned by the Trustees of Dartington Hall into the arts in general in the first half of the 20th century suggesting that the choral movement was in danger of collapse: rehearsal spaces were inadequate, and it was also found that poor relations between conductor and choristers severely hampered rehearsals. We cannot know if this was the case with Bury Choral Society. However, a concert review from 1905 proclaimed that the conductor, an F. Royle, had prepared the choir well : one assumes that this could not have been achieved without the support of the choir itself. Clearly the problems faced by the choral movement as a whole were not issues for Bury Choral Society.
The 1905 season also marked a change for Bury Choral Society as it was one of the first times that the choir had collaborated with an orchestra. The Bury Musical Society Orchestral Society was formed this year. Their first concert involved collaboration with Bury Choral Society, and later on that year the choir joined with the Orchestral Society for a performance of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. The choir had performed this work previously, but this was the first time that it would be done with an orchestra. In many ways, this period of time was one of the most significant for the choir as it was in 1909 that the Bury Athenaeum Music Society was formed, the group which was widely considered to be the earliest form of Bury Choral Society until the jubilee investigations of 1969 suggested otherwise.
To strengthen the case that choral groups in Bury contributed to what was already a fairly healthy musical scene in the town, Bury hosted a number of choral festivals and competitions during the 19th century and into the early 20th century, although Bury Choral Society appeared not to participate in these events. One such example was a choral festival held in 1914, which although it was held in the middle of the choral festival cycle, “maintained its magnitude and success”. Although Bury Choral Society did not take part – indeed the most popular category was for male voice choirs which attracted nine entries – a choir from Bury Grammar School did win a prize, as did the Bury Ladies’ Festival Choir, again demonstrating the variety of choral opportunity in the area. In a report of the 1910 Bury Musical Festival, it was stated by the School Music Review that the festival organisers did not want the ‘crack’ choirs taking part. Rather, they wanted to encourage the ‘less capable’ ones in order to promote a musical revival in the town. Perhaps the Society’s new conductor, Charles Risegari, who commenced his term in 1914, might encourage the choir to take part in competitions, or perhaps not: Risegari appeared to have acquaintances in lofty musical climbs and on one occasion in 1923, selected members from Bury Choral Society to participate in the Halle’s 100th performance of Messiah. Halle players themselves were often called upon to provide orchestral musicians for Bury Choral Society during Risegari’s tenure.
As Bury Choral Society started to prepare for its 175th season’s celebrations in 2012, a gentleman got in touch with the choir. Although he had not been in the choir himself, his parents were, and he had been present at a number of concerts. He may even have been a child: committee meeting minutes suggested that special rates were charged for children as it some in the choir, teachers perhaps, could get many children into concerts, thereby augmenting audiences. He recalled that on one occasion, Kathleen Ferrier was engaged as a soloist for the choir. Her fee was reported to have been £5. Ferrier had strong local connections. Her family had moved to Blackburn when she was two, and in 1945, she sang the solo alto part in Messiah with Blackburn Musical Society alongside Isobel Baillie. Baillie, herself a well-known soprano, sang with Bury Choral Society on a number of occasions. Other musicians considered by the local press to be notable included Tom Jenkins and a Dr Brodski: whether or not this was the very famous violinist Adolph Brodsky is unclear.
Examination of the Bury Choral Society committee meeting minutes of the first half of the 20th century provide an opportunity to understand the true operation of a provincial choral society. Committee meetings were frequent – weekly, at times – and discussions that unfolded were very similar to those of today: what will the programme for the forthcoming season contain; how much are soloists going to cost. There were certainly some interesting discussions among committee members. In 1923, the committee (via the conductor, Charles Risegari, presumably) approached a Robert Radford for his services as a soloist. He wanted 25 guineas for his time. Mr Radford was not engaged, and a different soloist was awarded the job. Concerts were held in the Co-Operative Hall, Bury Technical College (now Bury College) and later on the 20th century the Art Gallery.
Annual General Meeting after Annual General Meeting reported a loss for the choir: Messiah was performed yearly to attempt to offset these losses but even this was not sufficient. The AGM of 1924 discussed the continuation of the society “at length”, its financial status somewhat precarious, and although it was deemed reasonable to continue for another season, it was proposed and carried that instead of three concerts per season, there would be two only. Risegari resigned in 1925: an advertisement in the Manchester Guardian attracted 10 applicants, and as a result, Herbert Ruddock became conductor. The other candidate interviewed was deemed to be too expensive. Ruddock’s salary demand was a more reasonable £20 for the season. The 1920s continued in a similar vein, with finances being of great concern throughout the decade. Indeed, in 1926, it was deemed necessary to demand extra money from members, subscribers, and from those in the wider community “through the medium of the press”. A similar public appeal took place two years later, and even into the 1930s, meetings with important figures in the local press, notably the Bury Times, took place to see what mechanisms could be put into place to raise more funds. The most important event of the 1920s was the change of name to the Bury Athenaeum Music Society to Bury Musical Circle in 1928. To promote the ‘new’ society, 450 invitations to an open rehearsal evening were sent out and the newly-named Bury Musical Circle, with perhaps admirable confidence, noted that 450 cups and saucers would be required. It is not known if all the cups and saucers were used at that event. However, arranging such an event prompted to the committee to appreciate the social aspect of the choir and a Social Committee was formed: the shift from an outlet for moral salvation and rational recreation to an inclusive community group was becoming evident.
Although the society was becoming a more sociable place to be, that is not to say that there were no rules by which to abide. The rules were revised in 1933, and among them was the requirement for choristers to be in their seats by 7.55 p.m. (for an 8.00 p.m. start) and that the register book would be closed at 8.30 p.m. Any member missing more than two consecutive rehearsals were expected to explain themselves. Indeed, illnesses, bereavements and any other changes of circumstances that might prevent a chorister attending were noted frequently in committee meeting minutes. It might have been the case that this was borne out of concern and affection. However, given that the chairman did not arrive in time at the 1932 AGM for him to be voted back into position – the position was awarded to someone else – one wonders the real reasons for demanding explanations of absence.
The 1930s can be marked as a time of not particularly musical significance; the choir continued in much the same way as it had done previously, with the annual Messiah performed to boost funds, and committee meetings still discussing finances and the appointment of soloists. However, in 1931, a situation arose so potentially damaging to the choir, and indeed the music of Bury, that it warrants discussion here. The Musical Circle gave a performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, only to receive a letter from Richard D’Oyly Carte shortly after the performance. It was far from complimentary. D’Oyly Carte had been made aware of the performance by a report in the press, and wrote in very strict terms that he was rights holder for all Gilbert and Sullivan works, and that should the choir wish to perform any more of them, they had to contact the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company to gain approval. The choir chair responded, saying that no admission was charged and
This being a society for private study, which does not promote concerts open to the public, we are not aware that permission is required for works we do, or that any ‘performing rights’ have been infringed.
Clearly, this was not entirely true: concerts were very much open to the public, although the aim of the society was to promote the study of choral music, among others. However, this was not enough to deflect the situation, with D’Oyly Carte responding that copyright could be infringed whether or not the performance was published. It cannot be ascertained that the refusal of D’Oyly Carte to ‘allow’ a Gilbert and Sullivan performance ten years later was due to a genuine concern that copyright might be threatened or bad feeling from the misdemeanour ten years previously. Either way, it appears that this situation was resolved later on in the 20th century: Gilbert and Sullivan works appeared very regularly in the programme, and were often thought of as a treat for the audience.
If the committee of the Bury Musical Circle somewhat brushed over the truth of their operation to Richard D’Oyly Carte, then it was revealed once and for all as the choir prepared for its Messiah performance of 1932. To ensure that everyone could come who wanted to, the committee ordered the printing of an extra 300 tickets: surely public promotion at its most proactive. To cast further doubt on the reassurance to D’Oyly Carte that the society was not one for the promotion of performance, extra posters to display at the Athenaeum were often required to advertise concerts. Indeed, during the 1930s the choir started to make significantly smaller losses than the almost catastrophic losses of the previous decade, and in some instances even made a profit. As a result of a number of complaints from members of the choir, moves were made to leave their regular rehearsal space at the Athenaeum, although they remained there until the early 1940s. It was no easy task to plan this move: it would appear that the choir by this point had amassed a significant library of music, and it all had to be moved. Some of this music was donated to the Henry Watson Music Library, Manchester. In addition, plans were made to move the choir’s collection of crockery: the minutes make no mention of anything else having to be moved or be considered. One can make of this what one wishes.
As the country draw ever nearer to the outbreak of the Second World War, D. Waters, who had been the conductor of the society since the late 1920s died. As the issue of a new conductor was discussed at the AGM in 1940, no mention was made of the war at all: there was no sense of carrying on despite the action; a sense of resilience was not immediately apparent. Rather, it was resolved to carry on the society principally to honour the memory of their conductor. As one might expect, aspects of the war did cause concern among members of the choir, with the blackout and a harsh winter causing difficulties. Undeterred, the society continued throughout this time, and indeed it was proposed that the 1945 season started earlier to accommodate the number of planned concerts that season.
It was almost as if the end of the war signalled a new beginning for Bury Musical Circle. The minutes of the committee indicate something of a renewed professionalism, with discussion veering from the usual soloist engagements to serious, business matters. For example, the 1950s explored the possibility of having fewer concerts during the season, as it was during the 1920s. However, this time, it was a fifth concert that was abandoned, rather than a third. Other important points of discussion included the proposal to move the annual Messiah from Christmas to Easter, to avoid a local saturation of Handel’s most famous oratorio. The motion was carried – it made economic sense to remove competition for audiences, and it is entirely appropriate to perform Messiah at Easter – but it was not without opposition: some felt that the people of Bury might be disappointed not to have their annual Bury Music Circle Messiah. In addition, the issue of dress for the ladies was discussed and it was resolved that a uniform style and colour was to be adopted. This is an issue that would be raised many times over the years. It is clear that the ethos of the society was changing: matters of importance were now related to music, and how the choir could best position itself as a community group. This can been seen by moves in the late 1940s to collaborate with the Adult Services branch of Bury Council to discuss and support the musical needs of the town of Bury. The choir was thriving. Financial pressures had not disappeared, but they seem to have been managed rather better. For example, the committee set about trying to secure additional funding from the Arts Council, which had already been granted to the Bury Athenaeum Orchestral Society, with whom the choir regularly collaborated.
The 1960s appears to have been a time of prosperity and progress for the choir, although the decade was in danger of not being quite such a success. Jack Evans, a long-standing member of the choir who had served as chair on a number of occasions, resigned in 1959. The theme of his letter of resignation was one of a rocky future for the society, due in part to the lack of tenors: at this time, there was only one regular tenor in the choir, and he was apparently not in the best of health. Evans asserted that the choir might be better to run as a ladies’ choir for a season, to ensure that performances were still satisfactory. He wrote that the its had “a duty to [its] audience, and to the memory of past workers”.
In 1972, after over one hundred years of differently-named choirs, Bury once again was home to Bury Choral Society, when Bury Musical Circle changed its name one last time. The reasons for including “Circle” in the name of the choir were relatively simple: concerts were performed in the round, with the audience circling the choir. However, it was felt that changing the name to Bury Choral Society more accurately reflect the activities and aims of the choir; it was felt that Bury Choral Society sounded more prestigious, and there was also a need to avoid confusion with the Bury Recorded Music Circle. At the time of the final change of name in 1972, Bury Choral Society had around 65 members. The choir rehearsed at the Co-operative Hall and performances often took place at the Derby Hall in Bury town centre. The Art Gallery, considered to be a prestigious venue, was also used for which special permission from the local authority was sought and approved.
As the 20th century progressed, so too did the aims of Bury Choral Society. The need for moral salvation had dissipated; no longer was it necessary to avoid the ‘temptations of vice’ so feared by the Victorians. From the period of the 1960s to the present day, it is possible to see the true value of a choral society such as Bury Choral Society, a value that transcends a desire to perform a few times a year. It is perhaps not a surprise that reports in the press seem to have become less frequent: there was clearly more happening in and around Bury. However, what we are blessed with are the memories of the society’s longest serving members, whose stories can tell us perhaps more about the workings of a provincial choral society than any newspaper article.
In the 1950s, an alto of Barbadian origin called the choir secretary and asked if she could join the choir: she asked if it mattered that she was a ‘person of colour’. The answer from the secretary was unequivocal: nothing, besides the love of music, was in any way important and music was all that mattered. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the female membership of the choir was so significantly youthful that many babies were born to female choir members, to the extent that the one choir maternity dress was passed around many, many times when required. The issue of ladies’ concert dress was raised again in the 1970s. It was decided that the uniform for concerts should be black dresses with white trimmings (if desired). The Deputy Chairman, Ruth Dicks, was self-elected to ‘keep an eye’ on this development. Indeed, at some point in the 1970s, one of the sopranos was made an example of before the entire choir by wearing red tights to complement her concert uniform. The late 1970s and early 1980s appear to have seen a time of prosperity: musically, socially and financially.
And so to the 21st century. The author of this article has been a member of Bury Choral Society since 2000, and during that time, it could be argued that the society has changed significantly. Since the formation of the Bury Athenaeum Musical Circle in 1909, what we could term as the beginning of the ‘modern’ Bury Choral Society, there have only been 17 conductors, the longest serving of which has been John Edwards (1968 to 2007). The most recent conductor, Sinéad Hayes, has taken the choir to musical realms perhaps not imaginable back in 2000: highlights of the most recently-closed season have included members of the choir participating in a fully-staged performance of Puccini’s Tosca and the choir’s very first performance at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. Of perhaps greater significance was the realisation of an ambition to commission a choral work to mark the occasion of the choir’s 175th season. Following an application process, Zakiya Leeming was selected to compose a work for the choir, setting the words of C. Richard Miles’ poem Cotton Mills, with its clattering looms and reminiscences of the mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire of old. The work was premiered at the Royal Northern College of Music, nestled between performances of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and Rossini’s Stabat Mater.
To look back on 175 years of choral activity in one town is to explore the town itself. A forward-thinking, inclusive town, where passions are celebrated and achievement is applauded. It is highly unlikely that those who took part in the public performance of Bury Choral Society in 1838 could conceive that their activities might ensure that Bury is home to one of the oldest, longest-running choral societies in England, if not the world. The 19th century was a time where choral singing was a suitable outlet for rational recreation; the 21st century is a fast-paced time with distractions that were unimaginable 15 years ago, let alone 150 years ago. One thing, however, is clear: Bury is home to Bury Choral Society, whose uniqueness, drive and inclusivity will not only uphold the traditions of the English choral movement, but will also ensure its future for the people of Bury and beyond. The ‘step in the right path’, as recommended by the Bury Guardian, is a path that has been frequently trodden to exceptional effect. Long may this continue to be the case.