A brief history of the chorus

Early history

Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus was formed in 1935, but its origins are much older. Sheffield, like many towns and cities in Yorkshire, has a long and distinguished tradition of music-making, particularly with its choruses, and the Philharmonic Chorus was formed from two choirs dating back to the middle of the Victorian period.

The first of these was the Sheffield Amateur Musical Society, founded in 1864, developing from a singing class run by H.W.Ibbotson since 1857. When Sheffield City Hall opened in the 1930s, the Sheffield Philharmonic Society was formed in 1935 to put on an annual season of concerts, many being given by the Hallé Orchestra. The Philharmonic Series of concerts still takes place to this day in the City Hall, with concerts given by many world-famous orchestras. The Amateur Musical Society was adopted as the resident chorus, and renamed itself the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus.

However, the Amateur Musical Society was not the only chorus in Sheffield. In 1876, the Sheffield Musical Union had been founded by Henry Coward (1849–1944). Coward was to conduct the Union for an astonishing period of 57 years, retiring only in 1933. As a musician, he was mostly self-taught, but became a highly respected choral conductor in the Yorkshire region, and also conducted other choirs such as the Huddersfield Choral Society. At its height, the Sheffield Choir was probably the leading amateur chorus in England. Amongst others, it gave the first performance of Elgar’s Coronation Ode (including Land of Hope and Glory) in 1902. Coward was knighted for his services to choral singing in 1927.

photo of Sir Henry Coward

Sir Henry Coward

The Sheffield Choir, numbering about 200 members, toured Canada and the United States in 1908, but this was just the precursor to an even more remarkable tour. In 1911, the Sheffield Choir was joined by singers from other choirs conducted by Coward on a six-month world tour, still remembered as one of the most remarkable events in British choral history. The tour covered 34000 miles, with 134 concerts in Canada, the United States, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and South Africa.

Coward documented his thoughts on choral training in a book Choral Technique and Interpretation (William Copper’s Hartenshield Group site).

The British Choral Tradition, vol.1
British Choral Tradition, vol.1 (Amphion)
Amphion Recordings have released a CD (Amphion CD PHI182) called The British Choral Tradition, vol.1 containing a couple of tracks (Stainer: I am alpha, and Wagner: Hail Bright Abode) recorded by the Sheffield Choir in 1926 and 1927, conducted by Sir Henry Coward.
Elgar, vol.3
Elgar vol.3 (Elgar Society)
An even older historic recording by the Sheffield Choir under Coward, dating from 1920, has been released by the Elgar Society (CDLX7042) in which the Choir sings Elgar’s From the Bavarian Highlands: Dance.

The first years

In 1937, the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus (formerly the Amateur Musical Society) merged with the Musical Union to form a large choir of almost 400 members.

Patrick Vaughan has written a brief article on the first 10 years of the chorus, drawn from a pamphlet published in 1945 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Philharmonic series.

Following the second world war, John Barbirolli returned from the USA to become conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, bringing about a major revival in its fortunes, and the chorus was to become closely associated with this orchestra and conductor. A recording of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, in which the chorus is joined by the Hallé Choir and the Ambrosian Singers, with Dame Janet Baker as soloist, is still in the catalogue and still a recommended recording. As well as its appearances in Sheffield, Barbirolli took the Chorus to many other cities, receiving widespread national acclaim: “...the Sheffield choir have every quality — power, richness, delicacy. Every section was first-rate.” (The Daily Telegraph); “...the Sheffield Philharmonic choir sang beautifully, almost past belief.” (Birmingham Post).

The chorus sang under many other leading conductors of the day in major choral works such as Walton’s Belshazzar's Feast, Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts in York Minster alongside Huddersfield Choral Society (in July 1999, the chorus sang the piece again, also in York Minster, with the Hallé Choir and the Leeds Festival Chorus) and Te Deum in the Royal Albert Hall under Sir Thomas Beecham. Other notable performances include Handel’s Messiah with Sir Malcolm Sargent, Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, with the composer himself conducting, and Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. For many years the choir’s chorusmaster was Herbert Bardgett, the most distiguished chorusmaster in the North of England, and also chorusmaster of other major northern choirs (the Huddersfield Choral Society, the Hallé Choir and the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, amongst others).

Recent years

More recent years have seen equally memorable highlights in which the choir has appeared with all the leading orchestras in the north, as well as many other orchestras. On two occasions (1989 and 1992), the men of the choir performed Schönberg’s Gurrelieder under Sir Charles Groves. In 1994, the chorus commissioned Geoffrey Poole’s Blackbird; the first performance was later broadcast on BBC Radio 3. In 1996, the chorus joined forces with the Hallé Choir for performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (Symphony of a Thousand) with the Hallé Orchestra under Kent Nagano, in Manchester’s newly-opened Bridgewater Hall and also in Sheffield. Members of the chorus were among those who took part in a massive performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana during the 1998 season of the BBC Proms. In the following year, the chorus sang at York Minster for the opening concert of the Ryedale Festival, singing Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts, and sang again at York Minster in July 2002, in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no.9. In May 2000, we joined the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Leeds Town Hall for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem, one of several recent concerts broadcast on BBC Radio 3. In 2005, the chorus sang in a Proms in the Park as part of the Last Night of the Proms celebrations; we were invited to contribute to the traditional performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no.9 at the 2008 Proms. In 2002, the chorus made two recordings for Chandos; another followed in 2006, and another in 2009.

In addition to the performances listed on the past programmes page, we are beginning to form an archive of old performances, which will appear on this site, and will be added to from time to time (thanks to those who have provided us with these details!).

During these years, chorusmasters included Eric Chadwick, Stephen Westrop and Graham Barber. Its current Musical Director is Darius Battiwalla, and its accompanist is Nigel Gyte. The chorus currently numbers about 180 singers.

In the 1990s the chorus embarked on a series of short foreign tours — to Germany, Spain, Donetsk (Sheffield’s twin city in the Ukraine), France and the Czech Republic (where it gave a joint concert with the Brno Philharmonic Choir). Most recently, the chorus undertook a short exchange with the Bochum Philharmonischer Chor, including a joint concert of Mozart’s Requiem in Bochum; further exchange visits are being discussed.

Since 1992 it has appeared regularly in “Classical Spectaculars” in the Sheffield Arena, singing to upwards of 10,000 people, and in “Opera Galas” at the Bridgewater Hall (Manchester).

Music Making in the West Riding
Music Making in the West Riding
For more, read the excellent book “Music Making in the West Riding of Yorkshire”.