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History of the Birmingham Bach Choir

Birmingham Bach Society

Origins go back to October 1919, when the Birmingham Bach Society was established by Bernard Jackson, a Bach enthusiast and musicologist, with a lecture on Bach's life, given at the Midland Institute. From these beginnings, the life of the Birmingham Bach Society continued with seasons consisting of lectures on Bach and concerts offering performances of his music for solo instruments or small ensembles, orchestra or choir, which in those days numbered a modest 12 to 16 singers.

Birmingham Bach Club

The work of Dr. Bernard Jackson continued until 1927 when the choir ceased operation until 1929 when it was re-established largely through the efforts of the former choir secretary Madame Minadieu as The Birmingham Bach Club and affiliated to The Bach Cantata Club in London. Dr. Allen Blackhall, organist at St. Mary’s Warwick and subsequently Principal of the Birmingham School of Music, was appointed conductor and work continued with varying degrees of success until the war years.

Birmingham Bach Society

On 30 September 1947, the Birmingham Bach Club was re-established again as the Birmingham Bach Society by Dr. Willis Grant, the organist at Birmingham Cathedral and later Professor of Music at Bristol University. Under Dr. Willis Grant, the choir grew and matured as did the repertoire which included Bach's Mass in B Minor for the first time.

Dr. Willis Grant remained conductor for eleven years, and was followed by Thomas Tunnard for one year. Hamish Preston followed as conductor for five seasons and Dr. Roy Massey for two seasons until September 1966 when Richard Butt was appointed as Conductor and Director of Music, which heralded a completely new era.

During the late sixties, the Choir was consolidated and major changes were made to the administration. Previous debts were paid off and the programming enshrined more choral and orchestral concerts in addition to a capella concerts. Increasing financial support was forthcoming from The Arts Council of Great Britain through the National Federation of Music Societies and West Midland Arts which enabled further expansion. The repertoire, apart from the choral music included recitals given by such artists as Yehudi Menuhin, Paul Tortelier, George Malcolm, Gillian Weir and the English Chamber Orchestra under Raymond Leppard. Richard Butt’s links with the Aldeburgh Festival and the BBC brought in a much higher profile of soloists including Emma Kirkby (patron), James Bowman, John Shirley-Quirk, Mary Wells, Gillian Fisher, Brian Kay (patron), John Carol Case, John Mark Ainsley, Charles Brett, Paul Esswood, Martyn Hill, Neil Mackie (patron), Jane Manning, Felicity Palmer, Alfreda Hodgson and many others. These included Peter Pears who honoured the Society by becoming a Patron and in 1971, the Choir was asked to sing at the Aldeburgh Festival.

Links also developed with Leipzig and Bach’s own Church of St. Thomas’s were he was cantor for 27 years. The Choir was invited to give a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor there on 1 June 1989 with the Leipzig Radio Orchestra. This was one of the great crowning achievements in the life of the Choir.

Under Richard Butt, the Birmingham Bach Society Orchestra was formed with its first appearance being in the performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion given in Birmingham Cathedral on 3 April 1976, led by Emanual Hurwitz. Shortly afterwards,  Christopher Hirons was appointed leader and brought with him much experience through his work with the Northern Sinfonia, the Academy of Ancient Music, the English String Orchestra and the Academy of St. Martin in-the-Fields. For many years the Birmingham Bach Society programming included orchestral concerts with the Orchestra which were very popular and successful.

The overall repertoire included regular performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, St. John Passion, the Mass in B minor, the Magnificat, Cantatas and Motets. A wide range of other Baroque music was performed together with music of earlier times. Twentieth century music was also featured, especially Benjamin Britten, John Joubert, Paul Spicer and Vaughan Williams.

During Richard Butt’s time various commissions were undertaken, in particular from David Lord, Rory Boyle and Paul Spicer’s “Darling of the World” which was given its first performance on 13 December 1986 in Birmingham Cathedral in a concert which included Britten’s St. Nicolas.

Paul Spicer and the Birmingham Bach Choir

In 1992 Richard Butt retired and Paul Spicer was appointed. This was a very natural appointment with Paul bringing to the Choir his vast choral experience. It was at this time that Michael Palmer who had been on the Committee since 1968 as Secretary, Concert Secretary and Chairman handed over to Nicholas Fisher as Chairman. This heralded another new era.

Paul Spicer quickly developed the Choir further and the name was changed from the Birmingham Bach Society to the Birmingham Bach Choir. Whilst the Bach and Baroque traditions continued, the repertoire extended further into twentieth century English and European music particularly Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar, Gerald Finzi, Herbert Howells, John Joubert, Frank Martin, Peter Warlock and others. New works were commissioned from Aaron Jay Kernis and Eleanor Alberga.

Venues used by the Choir include Birmingham Cathedral, St. Paul’s Church (Jewellery Quarter), Birmingham Town Hall, the Adrian Boult Hall, the CBSO Centre, Lichfield Cathedral and other venues throughout the Midlands. In 2000 and 2002, the Choir promoted performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor in Symphony Hall, Birmingham with Florilegium and in 2003, the Choir and Paul Spicer were asked to give the traditional Good Friday performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Symphony Hall with the English Chamber Orchestra. Five further annual performances followed.

Paul Spicer, as composer, has contributed a great deal to the Choir’s repertoire. Works include “The Deciduous Cross” and “Man, Wretched Man”, both commissioned by Nicholas Fisher, and a number of pieces for Christmas commissioned by choir members or friends of the Choir. His major work “Easter Oratorio” was recorded by the Birmingham Bach Choir with the Lichfield Cathedral Choristers, the Lichfield Special Choir and the English Symphony Orchestra in 2005, and conducted by Paul Spicer.

Michael Palmer,

Richard Butt
Richard Butt
Conductor of the Birmingham Bach Society 1966-1992

Birmingham Bach Society rehearsing, with Orchestra da Camera and Richard Butt conducting, for a concert in St Paul's Church, Birmingham in October 1967
Birmingham Bach Society rehearsing, with Orchestra da Camera and Richard Butt conducting, for a concert in St Paul's Church, Birmingham in October 1967

Richard Butt conducting
Richard Butt conducting

The Choir at the Birmingham Council House May 1997
The Choir at the Birmingham Council House May 1997

The Choir at the Bach Monument, Leipzig
The Choir at the Bach Monument, Leipzig 2001

Nick Fisher (former chairman), Richard Butt (former Conductor) and Michael Palmer (former chairman and present Vice President) taken at the choir's 85th celebrations October 2004
Nick Fisher (former chairman), Richard Butt and Michael Palmer (former chairman and present Vice President) taken at the choir's 85th celebrations October 2004
Photo © Pam Fisher