The history of the Edinburgh Bach Society
(est. 1889) and Choir (est. 1910)
The First Hundred Years
The first meeting of Edinburgh Bach Society on 13th March, 1889, was held in the Balmoral Hotel. Two of Bach’s works were performed by members of the Society “Fugue in E major (No.9, Bk.11)” – Mr Peterson, and “Suite in D major” for Orchestra, arranged as pianoforte duet – Messrs. Peterson and Dace.
Franklin Peterson, who became Ormond Professor of Music, Melbourne University, in 1900, was a prime mover in the formation of the Amateur Bach Club in 1888 and subsequently of Edinburgh Bach Society and may be regarded as the Society’s founder. The recently re-discovered marvels and riches of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music were causing such societies to be formed for the study and performance of his works and for the purpose of making these more widely known. Many men, eminent in the world of music, were invited to become Honorary Members of the Society and on occasion to present a programme of Bach’s music or to give lecture-recitals on some aspect of his work.
The Committee of the Edinburgh Bach Society met on Friday 16 July, 1909, at 63 Frederick Street, Edinburgh. The minute of the meeting records that;
”The proposal was also made that a Bach Society Choir should be organised, consisting of about 30 members and that Mr Collinson should be asked to select and train this choir..”
The first concert which included the Choir, took place on 1st June, 1910, in Edinburgh University’s Music classroom. The Choir sang the motet ‘Jesu meine Freude’. That minute also records that “these arrangements should be for one year only”; however the Edinburgh Bach Choir has maintained a record of two or three performances in every one of the hundred years since.
The Edinburgh Bach Society itself had been formed in March 1889 for the study and performance of the recently rediscovered music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The Society had organised regular meetings for lecture recitals and performances of Bach’s music, and it was a natural next step for the members to create a choir (and a string quintet, also initiated at the same meeting).
Mr J Millar Craig, the first conductor, resigned in 1911, and was succeeded by Charles H.F.O’Brien. Over the next ten years he increased the membership to sixty, and established the pattern of annual concerts – which continued during the Great War. The works performed included each of Bach’s six great motets, of which four are written for double choir. The sacred cantatas performed included “Ein Feste Burg”, “Wachet Auf” and many others. We believe that many of these would have been heard publicly in Edinburgh for the first time.
When Charles O’ Brien resigned in 1920, J Douglas H Dickson, who was already the President of the Bach Society, and conductor of the Society’s orchestra, became the conductor of the Choir. He was described as being “steeped in Bach”, especially in the Cantatas, and this is reflected in the programmes over the eight years while he was conducting the Choir. During this period the Society agreed to allow music by composers other than Bach to be introduced – the minute of the meeting of Thursday 11 April 1922 recording as follows;
“The President made a statement with regard to the performance of works by Composers other than John (sic) Sebastian Bach. In his opinion the Choir would take increased interest in their work if they had music to contrast with that of the great master….it was agreed that for one year the experiment be made without alteration to the rules.”
The experiment seemed to work! On Wednesday 2nd May 1923 the President, “proposed to move at the Annual Meeting that permission be given annually to continue the practice”, and it was duly agreed.
In 1928, Dr. Mary Grierson was appointed Conductor of the Choir, a post she held until 1961 – a remarkable 33 years. Concert performances again continued without a break, through the Second World War. In 1938, the Choir gave the first performance in Edinburgh of the St Matthew Passion (in German); and in the following year, on 4th March 1939 what was then only the third performance in this city of the Mass in B Minor, with all the soloists drawn from the Choir. The Scotsman review recorded that “a specially interesting feature of the performance was the use of Professor Tovey’s version of the figured bass part, the ‘continuo’, a very important part of Bach’s music. This version was prepared for Dr. Fritz Busch two years previously and was now heard in Edinburgh for the first time”.
After the war, for a number of performances of the St Matthew Passion, the Chorale Choir was made up of one thousand school children from Edinburgh, who filled the whole of the stalls area of the Usher Hall. This enabled many children not only to hear, but also take part in this noble work. Dr Grierson’s programmes, as well as including a great wealth of classics, showed a special sympathy for many twentieth century composers, no less than for the great polyphonic masterpieces of the Renaissance. Mary Grierson was a respected choral conductor who attracted distinguished soloists to her performances. Eric Green, at that time the nation’s principal Evangelist in the St Matthew Passion, was a regular visitor, as were the oboist Leon Goosons, and baritone Gordon Clinton, who returned to sing ‘Ich habe genug’ at his friend’s memorial service.
James Sloggie was appointed Conductor in May 1961, and held the post until 1984. During the years under his direction an impressive number of works by Bach and other composers was performed to a wide range of audiences. The Mass in B Minor and the St John Passion were sung five times, the St Matthew Passion twice, the Magnificat four times, and Parts One, Two and Three of the Christmas Oratorio three times. Concerts included more than twenty of Bach’s shorter choral works, and about a dozen of his orchestral works. The Choir also sang music by some forty other composers, ranging from Byrd, Cavalli, Charpentier, through Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Brahms, to Stravinsky, Poulenc, Ives, Walton, Berkeley, Joubert, Kenneth Leighton and David Dorward. First performances in Scotland included “A song of Good Life”, by David Gwilt, and Messiah in the Basil Lam Edition. There were also broadcast performances of Haydn Masses during this period, as well as concerts outwith Edinburgh. When he retired after 23 years, James Sloggie was appointed Honorary President of the Edinburgh Bach Society, a position he holds to this day.
John Grundy succeeded James Sloggie as Conductor in 1984. During his three years with the Society, the Choir sang the Mass in B minor, the St John Passion, the Magnificat, Mozart’s Solemn Vespers, works by Handel, Haydn, Vivaldi, and lesser works by a variety of composers. His ‘stimulating presentation of original concerts’ was enjoyed by both Choir members and audiences. He resigned following his appointment as musical Director and Conductor of the Sydney Philharmonia and, by coincidence, was following the footsteps of the founder of the Edinburgh Bach Society, Franklin Peterson, who had been appointed Ormond Professor of Music at Melbourne University, in 1900.
Philip Rossiter, director of music at Merchiston Castle School, was conductor from 1988-1993. This period included the celebration of the Society’s centenary in 1988. The programme for the first concert of the Centenary Season on 19th November 1988 was J. S. Bach: Cantata No. 119 Preise Jerusalem, den Herrn; Suite No. 4 in D; Cantata No. 71 Gott ist mein König. On 11th March, 1989 there was a performance of the Mass in B Minor, at which were present Mr Christopher Millar-Craig, grandson of John Millar Craig, the Choir’s first conductor, and his mother, Mrs. Annelise Millar-Craig; Sir Frederick O’Brien, son of Charles H. F. O’Brien, the Choir’s second conductor, and Lady O’Brien.
Subsequent concerts under his direction included the St. John Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, and Cantata No. 82 ‘Ich habe genug’. The Choir also sang works by Monteverdi, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Fauré, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Bairstow, Tippett and Finzi. Philip Rossiter continued as Conductor until 1992, when additional duties as Housemaster at Merchiston Castle School made him tender his resignation from the Society.
He was succeeded by Neil Mantle who had founded Scottish Sinfonia in 1970 . His leadership of the Choir featured performances of Mahler’s symphonies, and two performances of the Dream of Gerontius, reflecting some of his specialist areas of knowledge; but under his direction, the Choir also maintained its commitment to the music of Bach with regular performances of the B Minor Mass, and the St John and St Matthew Passions. Less well known works such as the ‘little Masses’ also featured during this period . In 2007 the summer concert consisted entirely of ‘a capella ‘ singing, when the Choir successfully met the challenge of both the Striggio and Tallis 40 part motets. Interest in contemporary music has been maintained through performance of works by Pärt, Tavener, and ‘revivals’ of such as the Stainer ‘Crucifixion’. Neil Mantle’s interpretation of all works involved painstaking analysis of original sources and an enthusiastic commitment to both discovering and honouring the Composers’ original intentions. This approach, as well as his leadership and direction of the Choir, were just some of the reasons for his appointment as MBE in 2008 for services to music in Scotland.
Throughout its history concerts have been given by the Choir in many different venues in Edinburgh. The University Music classroom was most often used, from the outset right up until 1972. There were also occasional concerts in St Mary’s Cathedral, St Giles Cathedral, and St Andrews Hall in Drumsheugh gardens. More recently Greyfriars Kirk and St Cuthbert’s have been regular venues, with the Usher Hall for the larger concerts. The choice of venue has always been a complex balance of varying, often competing requirements such as accommodation of the audience, the Choir, and orchestra, accessibility, aesthetics and of course acoustics. The Choir has also performed in other locations including St Michael’s Linlithgow, St Mary’s Haddington, Caird Hall Dundee, Duns, Durham Cathedral, and Orleans.
For many years, a recurring theme has been the desire to increase the number of singers from the Choir’s initial complement of 40 voices. Annual reports regularly repeated this anguished plea (from the Prospectus of 1924-25);
“A substantial increase in the membership of the Choir is still necessary in order that the larger choral works may be adequately performed…Members of the Society, if unable themselves to join the Choir, could materially help by inducing (sic) singers of their acquaintance to offer their services. Ability to read staff notation and fair sight reading are the main requisites”.
The optimum number of voices for the Choir is now considered to be about 100. We have been just below this number for several years, sustained by a pleasing and regular trickle of new members. Admission continues to be by a short audition.
In 2008, Dr Bill Conacher retired from the Choir after 50 years membership. One of the Altos sang with us for more than 60 years. About a quarter of the current membership has been in the Choir for twenty years or more; this reflects both the commitment of the individuals and the pleasure that membership of the Choir gives them in return. The Choir also welcomes undergraduate and post graduate students from local universities who join for much shorter periods; this maintains the Choir and Society’s historic links with Edinburgh University as well as meeting a longstanding objective of the Society to encourage the development of young local singers. From time to time smaller groups have formed to perform Motets. During the 1960s and 1970s one such group appeared independently as ‘the Rowallen singers’.
Future plans for the Choir include maintaining the quality and range of performances, but with a continuing commitment to the works of J.S. Bach. Collaboration(s) with other choirs on larger works are regularly considered, and previous partnerships resulted in successful performances of The Dream of Gerontious and the Verdi Requiem.
100 years of excellence in music making is indeed an achievement of the Edinburgh Bach Society, and all the Choir members, committee members, and conductors through the years. This short history is a tribute to them; but is written also as a gesture of thanks to our audience, who diligently support each concert, and without whom the achievement would not have been possible. Of all the arts perhaps, music is the least permanent, and yet the most ‘living’- each live performance, however great, is a unique experience (albeit shared) for each performer and audience member. It relies on all of those for its continuing existence. On behalf of all the Choir and Society members we thank our audiences for enabling us to share the wonderful experience of making music, and look forward to performing for your pleasure for the next 100 years- at least!!