Past Musical Directors


Past Musical Directors

Sir David Willcocks CBE MC - Musical Director 1960-1998

Sir David Willcocks CBE MC - Musical Director 1960-1998

Musical Director of The Bach Choir for 38 years, and Conductor Laureate from his retirement in 1998 to his death in 2015, Sir David Willcocks was not only responsible for taking the Choir to new levels of excellence during his time at the helm, but was also a very good friend to many of the Choir’s singing and associate members.

David Willcocks became Musical Director of The Bach Choir in 1960, after the then MD, Reginald Jacques, was forced to resign due to ill health. Jacques’ last performance with the Choir was the St Matthew Passion in the Royal Festival Hall, during which he suffered a slight heart attack. Although he was able to finish the concert, it was clear that he would be unable to continue as Musical Director and, on his recommendation, The Bach Choir approached David Willcocks who was, at that time, Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge. He agreed to take the majority of rehearsals, and conduct the summer concert, a performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and the Mozart Requiem. At the same time, the Choir drew up a shortlist of three candidates for the post of Musical Director and, on the strong recommendation of Adrian Boult, a previous Musical Director and at that time a Vice President, the position went to David Willcocks.

The Walton/Mozart concert was very well received by the critics, the Times describing it as ‘exhilarating’ and going on to say that David Willcocks ‘had every reason to be satisfied with his new choir, and the choir with its new conductor’. In his book The Bach Choir: The First Hundred Years the late Dr Basil Keen describes the impact of the new Musical Director:

‘Willcocks was soon pointing the Choir in new directions by programming Honnegger’s King David and Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi in his first season, and Delius’s Sea Drift, Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, Walton’s Coronation Te Deum and Fricker’s Vision of Judgement in his second. A successful innovation was his decision to invite children on to the platform to sing carols with the Choir during the Family Carol Concert. A matter which was to have important repercussions was his disclosure to the committee in April 1961 that Benjamin Britten was writing a Requiem to be performed in Coventry Cathedral in 1962, and that he hoped that The Bach Choir might allowed to give the first London performance.’

This hope was not fulfilled, but The Bach Choir did sing on the first Decca recording, with Britten conducting; this went on to sell 200,000 copies in the first five months after its release and is still the seminal recording today. More recordings followed, including Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi, as well as backing vocals for Marianne Faithful and the Rolling Stones! Under David Willcocks, the Choir was now much busier, responding to invitations which sometimes involved singing under different conductors, undertaking special engagements and taking part in foreign tours, and its profile was considerably heightened as a result. In 1965 David Willcocks conducted the Choir in the premiere of Howells’ Stabat Mater which had been commissioned by Jacques and The Bach Choir nine years earlier, and other premieres at this time included Changes by Gordon Crosse.

More recordings followed, among them a new interpretation of the St Matthew Passion and an acclaimed version of Belshazzar’s Feast. To mark The Bach Choir’s centenary in 1976 David Willcocks conducted the Mass in B minor on April 26, the date of the first performance, and the Choir’s excellence was marked by the Prince of Wales becoming its President.

David Willcocks was also responsible for taking the Choir to new performance venues outside London. The Choir gave concerts in Cambridge – a strong link with King’s College continued even after David Willcocks resigned his post there in 1974 – as well as the West Country, Wales and Yorkshire, and toured abroad to the United States, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Israel and to many countries in Europe. Some concerts were broadcast and televised, among them the Family Carols and the Mass in B minor.

David Willcocks’ musical contribution to The Bach Choir was immeasurable, but the Choir is also indebted to him for his knowledge of, and concern for, individual members. Many personal letters of kindness and sympathy were received by members experiencing personal problems or distress. It was no surprise that his final concerts, performances of the St Matthew Passion in the spring of 1998, attracted capacity audiences.

Reginald Jacques - Musical Director 1931-1960

Reginald Jacques - Musical Director 1931-1960

Reginald Jacques was born in 1894.  Despite suffering severe injuries in the First World War, he recovered and went on to read music at Queen’s College, Oxford.  In 1926 he was appointed organist and Director of Music there, and became conductor of the Oxford Orchestral Society a few years later.

Applying for the position of Musical Director of The Bach Choir, Jacques and the two other shortlisted candidates were each required to conduct a private concert at the Royal College of Music.  Jacques chose an all-Bach programme including the motet Komm, Jesu, komm.  Although many members and trustees favoured Jacques, there were others who wanted to invite Sargent to take on the role, but Jacques was appointed after the Chairman exercised his casing vote.

His first concert with The Bach Choir was a performance of the Brahms Requiem in 1933, and he went on to programme a number of ‘modern’ works such as Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, Delius’s Songs of Farewell, and Vaughan Williams’s Sancta Civitas, as well as organising several Bach festivals.  In 1936 he formed his own orchestra, initially to provide instrumental accompaniment to Bach Choir performances, particularly the St Matthew Passion and Mass in B minor, but the orchestra went on to promote its own concerts, regularly appearing at the Edinburgh Festival.

From the mid-1950s Jacques’ health, which had never been robust, became increasingly fragile, and whilst conducting a performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1960, he suffered a slight heart attack.  Although he managed to complete the performance, he was advised by his doctors to resign as Musical Director.

Jacques worked with David Willcocks on the first volume of the very popular Carols for Choirs series, published in 1961.  He died in 1969.

Adrian Boult - Musical Director 1928-1931

Adrian Boult - Musical Director 1928-1931

Prompted by the outgoing Musical Director, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst was approached to succeed him and confirmed his acceptance of the position by letter late in 1927.  He was due to take up the appointment at the start of the 1928-29 season, but a few months before that was forced to withdraw on medical grounds.  Malcolm Sargent was then approached, but the appointment finally went to Adrian Boult, who strongly supported the idea that all rehearsals should be taken by the Musical Director.

Boult was 39 at the time of his appointment, and had been conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra since 1924, and much sought after for appearances elsewhere.  His first season with The Bach Choir included Bach’s Magnificat, Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus, and Schubert’s Mass in A flat and he went on to programme new works including The Prison by Ethel Smyth.

Vaughan Williams sent his successor some practical advice on managing the Choir:

“Don’t wait to start practice till everybody is ready – or you will never start at all.  I always used to kick off at 5.30 sharp whoever was or wasn’t there and however much row was going off at the bargain counter behind the curtain.”

It was Boult who suggested that for the 1929-30 season, the Choir should mark the 200th anniversary of the St Matthew Passion by performing the work complete, and two performances were given in April 1930.  The work was repeated in 1931 and became an annual event thereafter.

In 1931 Boult tendered his resignation, explaining that his many commitments, and particularly his appointment as Director of Music by the BBC in May 1930, made it increasingly difficult for him to conduct weekly rehearsals.  He did, however, agree to conduct the St Matthew Passion performances in 1932 and 1933 without a fee, to allow ample time for his replacement to be found.

Ralph Vaughan Williams - Musical Director 1921-1928

Ralph Vaughan Williams - Musical Director 1921-1928

Following Hugh Allen’s resignation, the post of Musical Director was first offered to Adrian Boult, who turned it down.  It was then offered to Ralph Vaughan Williams, who had been a singing member of the Choir since 1902.  Vaughan Williams (pictured here in 1910) was 49 when taking up the appointment; he had established himself as one of the leading composers in the English musical renaissance, and whilst he did not have Boult’s conducting experience, he knew the Choir well, and had conducted regularly at the Leith Hill Festival for some years.

He took over a Choir which was by now one of the leading choruses in London.  Like his predecessor, Hugh Allen, he was devoted to the music of Bach, but had very strong views about its performance practice.  He was keen to programme the St Matthew Passion, but was concerned about its transfer “from the Thomaskirche to a London concert room”.  Four performances of the work were given in 1923, with several cuts made to certain recitatives and arias, and the continuo played on the piano to avoid “giving an ‘antiquarian’ flavour to the music which we want to avoid at all costs.”

To mark the Choir’s 50th anniversary in 1926, a series of four concerts was given, the first two devoted to Bach motets and cantatas, and the last to the Mass in B minor.  The third concert featured composers associated with the Choir, and included the first London performance of Vaughan Williams’s Sancta Civitas.

Vaughan Williams resigned from the post of Musical Director in 1928 to devote more time to composition, and to enable a move from London to the country which his first wife, Adeline, preferred.

Hugh Allen - Musical Director 1908-1921

Hugh Allen - Musical Director 1908-1921

Hugh Allen’s appointment at Musical Director of The Bach Choir was ratified in 1907 and he took up the position the following year at the age of 39.  He was already a skilled choral conductor, having worked with choirs since the age of 18.  As well as conducting the Oxford Bach Choir, Allen was organist of New College, Oxford, an appointment he had held since 1901.

Allen’s biographer, Cyril Bailey, quotes the following recollection of a Chichester choirboy:  ‘When we used to see Allen striding in, we prepared for fireworks ….’.  At Oxford, he would ‘climb about among the chorus and listen to groups of them and occasionally a terrifying rebuke would be shot out to some individual!’  However, his personality and musicianship won over the majority of The Bach Choir’s membership with one providing the following recollection:  ‘He brought with him to the rostrum a hint of the quarter-deck and was almost invariably dressed in blue serge.  Members received his rigorous treatment mostly in good part and few were daunted.’

Allen was determined to maintain high standards and held voice trials at the start of the 1909-10 season.  Taking rehearsal attendance into consideration, a number of singers were not successful.  Meanwhile he brought in students from the London colleges to swell the ranks.  His programming became more ambitious, including Cesar Franck’s The Beatitudes, which required a large orchestra and six soloists, and Bach’s St John Passion, and concert reviews showed that not only had he increased the number of singing members in the Choir, but he had achieved a refinement in tone quality.

1914 brought with it difficulties in finding rehearsal venues and an upset in the balance of voices as members were lost to the armed forces and war work.  The following year the Choir moved to Westminster Cathedral Hall, its rehearsal home to the present day.  At the end of the First World War, Allen was appointed to succeed Parry as Director of the Royal College of Music and immediately afterwards he was elected to the Heather Professorship of Music at Oxford, a demonstration of his position in the musical life of the country.  In spite of these increased responsibilities, he put forward an ambitious proposal for a four-day Bach Festival in the Central Hall in April 1920.  This was a great success, achieving critical acclaim, and generating a profit of £158!

The demands on Allen’s time meant that he had to reduce the time spent with the Choir, but he agreed to continue as Musical Director until 1921 as long as an assistant conductor could be found.  Adrian Boult stepped in to assist but declined the position of Musical Director, Ralph Vaughan Williams accepting.

Whilst Allen was Musical Director, The Bach Choir had been considerably expanded, it was no longer the preserve of one section of society, and it was financially secure.  Allen’s energy, together with an ability to communicate his musical ideas to a group of amateurs and enable them to respond on the concert platform, is demonstrated by consistently good reviews.  Allen’s programming demonstrated his attachment to the music of Vaughan Williams and Parry, as well as other contemporary English composers such as Stanford and Wood.  It was as an interpreter of Bach, however, that his reputation was made and by the time that the Festival was held in 1920, his knowledge and experience had undoubtedly made him one of the leading conductors of this repertoire in the country.

Henry Walford Davies - Musical Director 1902-1908

Henry Walford Davies - Musical Director 1902-1908

Henry Walford Davies became Musical Director of The Bach Choir in 1902, following Stanford’s resignation.  Walford Davies began his musical life as a chorister at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.  Encouraged by Stanford, he was awarded a scholarship in composition at the Royal College of Music where he obtained his B Mus degree as well as a doctorate, and in 1898 was appointed organist at the Temple Church, where he was to reorganise the choir and widen its choral repertoire.

The Bach Choir was also in need of reorganisation; its financial position was a cause of concern, there was no fixed programme of concerts and the singing membership had fallen to just 86.  Some able singers – including one Ralph Vaughan Williams – were recruited, and Walford Davies lost no time in boosting morale by arranging a private concert in March 1903 featuring works by Palestrina, Bach, Mendelssohn and Parry.  Further concerts, to which critics were invited, demonstrated improvements as a result of Walford Davies’ training, and the membership continued to grow, reaching 222 by 1908.

The 1905-6 season was devoted to a Bach Festival which featured two main concerts:  the Mass in B minor and a mixed programme and the Choir continued to go from strength to strength.  Walford Davies resigned in 1908 so that he could devote more time to composition and to the Temple Church.  Despite his short period at the helm, he had reestablished the Choir as a competent and enthusiastic body and, at the same time, underlined his talent for inspiring amateur musicians.  The growth in membership under his leadership also meant that the Choir was now financially much more secure.

Charles Villiers Stanford - Musical Director 1885-1902

Charles Villiers Stanford - Musical Director 1885-1902

At the time of his appointment as Musical Director of The Bach Choir, Stanford was 33, and organist of Trinity College, Cambridge.  He was born in Dublin and studied at Queen’s College, Cambridge from 1870, where he became assistant conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS) at a time when women were barred from membership.  Stanford sought to overcome opposition to women joining the society, achieving this in 1872, and becoming conductor in 1873.

Stanford’s first concert with The Bach Choir was in March 1886 and was well received by the critics.  For the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 Stanford commissioned Parry to write a new work – Blest Pair of Sirens (having discovered that his original choice – Parry’s The Glories of our Blood and State – included the words “Sceptre and crown must tumble down”!).  The Jubilee concert also included Berlioz’s Te Deum, new to London audiences, and a tenor aria and chorus from Bach’s St Matthew Passion – the first time that any of the Passion music had been heard in a Bach Choir performance.

Stanford’s influence ensured that by 1887 the average singing membership had risen to 200, compared with 160 during the Goldschmidt period.  In 1889 he started a policy, followed for the rest of his time as Musical Director, of devoting one programme in every season to the works of Bach, but at the same time, Stanford was keen to introduce new music to the Choir.

The Bach Choir was the first major choral society to perform in the newly opened Queen’s Hall in the 1893-4 season, when concerts included Stanford’s own Mass in G.  However, in the years that followed, critics were not always complimentary about the Choir’s performances, citing a lack of rehearsal as a major factor.  The problem was that rehearsals began at 5.15pm, which meant that attendance from those who worked (primarily the tenors and basses) was poor.  With the poor concert reviews came a worsening financial situation and a gradual reduction in membership numbers.  Members were admitted after being proposed and seconded by current members and there were no regular re-auditions, resulting in a gradual decline in standards.  The Choir therefore began the twentieth century in some difficulty.  A reorganisation committee proposed that membership was opened up to all social groups, that maintenance of vocal standards should be achieved through the periodic retesting of voices, and that financial policies be adopted which would remove the necessity to seek guarantees against loss from the membership.  The lack of action on the rehearsal time, however, meant that recruitment, particularly of tenors and basses, was low, and Stanford started to lose patience.  When in 1901 he secured the appointment as conductor of the Leeds Festival, he resigned as Musical Director of The Bach Choir.

Despite the problems of his final years with the Choir, Stanford’s achievements were significant:  his programming was adventurous and his championship of the Brahms Requiem helped to ensure that the work became firmly established in the choral repertoire; he was responsive to changing perceptions in the performance of Bach, and he made an important contribution to the increasing acceptance of the choral works of Bach.

Otto Goldschmidt - Musical Director 1876-1885

Otto Goldschmidt - Musical Director 1876-1885

It was Arthur Coleridge, a fine amateur tenor who was fond of the music of Bach, who had the idea of organising a choir to give the first complete performance in the UK of the Mass in B minor.

Through his liking for Bach, Coleridge became a friend of Thomas Walmisley, Professor of Music at Cambridge, who was active in the revival of Bach’s music in England.  Whilst a student at Cambridge Coleridge spent two of his long vacations in Dresden and Leipzig with, among others, Charles Villiers Stanford, a fellow undergraduate, and Sterndale Bennett.

Such was Coleridge’s talent that a professional singing career beckoned, but his marriage coupled with the uncertainties of a musician’s life persuaded him to continue music as an amateur and to follow the law as a profession.  At his home at 12 Cromwell Place, South Kensington, he was host to many leading musicians of the day.  He was talented enough to perform with Clara Novello and also with Jenny Lind as both she and her husband, Otto Goldschmidt, had become firm family friends.

It was out of this friendship that The Bach Choir came into being in 1876.  By this time the major vocal works of Bach were becoming established in the British choral repertory.  The Bach Society under Sterndale Bennett had given the first performances of the St Matthew Passion and the Christmas Oratorio in 1854 and 1861.  Further performances of the former work had been given by, among others, the Sacred Harmonic Society and the Royal Choral Society, but no complete performance of the Mass in B minor had been given.  Coleridge wrote in his diary:

“A few casual words that fell from Professor Walmisley in my hearing in 1849 lodged permanently in my mind, to the effect that the noblest choruses ever written by man were to be found in a work the bare existence of which was problematical, for the contents were known but to the sacred few who could easily be counted.  My old friend, Otto Goldschmidt, caught my amateur enthusiasm, and on the understanding that a committee be found and a subscription started, he pledged himself to conduct a public performance.  Jenny Lind enrolled herself as one of the choir.”

Otto Goldschmidt was born in Hamburg in 1829 and studied at the Leipzig Conservatoire where his teachers included Mendelssohn.  In 1852 he married Jenny Lind, after acting as accompanist on her American tour, and in 1858 they decided to settle in London where, in 1863, Goldschmidt was appointed Professor of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music.

Discussions between Coleridge and Goldschmidt about their plans for performing the Mass in B minor took place in the Autumn of 1875.  A generous patron of the arts, Charles Freake, offered his house for rehearsals, the first of which took place in November that year, with 65 amateurs and 10-12 men from St Paul’s Cathedral.  Recruitment continued and the Choir that gave the first performance was exclusively composed of members from the upper levels of Victorian society (a restrictive method of recruitment that almost destroyed the Choir in the closing years of the nineteenth century).  Hubert Parry joined as a bass, and Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt made an important contribution by training the sopranos and altos.  A review of the performance, given on 26 April 1876, in the Musical Times said “The chorus singing astonished all who were aware of the excessive difficulties to be overcome”.  And of the conductor:  “The word was conducted by Mr Otto Goldschmidt with that skill and judgement which might be expected from so accomplished an artist and with the minute attention to every point of the score which showed how reverently he had prepared himself for his arduous task.”

A couple of weeks after the second performance, given on 8 May 1876, it was decided that The Bach Choir would be made permanent, under the musical direction of Otto Goldschmidt, with two or three public concerts given each season at St James’s Hall.  Of the two concerts given in 1877, one was a repeat of the Mass in B minor, whilst the other comprised works by Handel, Bach, Sterndale Bennett, Palestrina and Neils Gade.  Over the next few years until his resignation in 1885, Goldschmidt programmed major choral works, some as first performances in the UK or in London, including Cherubini’s Mass No 2 in D, and Bruch’s oratorio Odysseus, and by the end of the 1880-81 season the Choir had established itself on the London choral scene and was earning plaudits for its repertoire and the high standards of training and performance.

From 1882, however, problems emerged, largely arising from poor rehearsal attendance due to the early start time of 5.00pm, and the consequent problems in recruiting sufficient tenors and basses.  Proposals to perform the two Bach Passions were rejected by the Choir’s committee on the grounds that performance of such works  should be restricted to sacred buildings.  Early in 1885 Goldschmidt offered his resignation, having led the Choir for its first ten years.