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The choir has around 220 active members. Directed by David Hill (BBC Singers/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra), one of the country’s most eminent choral directors, it regularly performs and records across London and the UK, for example the Royal Albert Hall and Abbey Road Studios.
The choir's patron is HRH The Prince of Wales, and the conductor laureate was Sir David Willcocks, who previously held the post of Musical Director of the choir from 1960-1998. Other Musical Directors have included Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Reginald Jacques.
In 2013, John Rutter was appointed as President of the choir, following the death of Leopold David de Rothschild in 2012. The Vice Presidents are Dame Janet Baker, James Bowman, Dame Felicity Lott and Sam Gordon Clark.
The Bach Choir has an extensive recorded output to which it regularly adds new titles, and is also in demand for film scores. In recent years, it has featured on some of the biggest film releases, such as Kingdom of Heaven, Prometheus, Robin Hood, The Chronicles of Narnia, Shrek the Third, and Jack the Giant Slayer. In 2011, it collaborated with John Rutter and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on The Colours of Christmas, which reached No 3 in the Official Classical Charts. In 2013, it also worked on projects for BBC Radio 3, BBC One, Sky Arts and Sky Sports News.
The choir's relationship with classical label Naxos Records, developed under current Musical Director, David Hill, has led to many acclaimed releases, including Howells' Stabat Mater, Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem / Sancta Civitas in 2010, which received a Gramophone award nomination, and Frederick Delius' A Mass of Life, which received a coveted Choc de Classica from French classical magazine Classica, and album of the week from both The Sunday Times and The Telegraph.
Formed originally in 1875 for the sole purpose of giving the first complete British performance of J. S. Bach's Mass in B minor, the Bach Choir then continued and developed so that today it has become one of the leading amateur choirs in the world.
The original idea came from Arthur Duke Coleridge, a young lawyer and outstanding amateur tenor, who had become acquainted with the Mass while a student at Leipzig, where he studied music along with the young Charles Villiers Stanford. He formed a committee to promote a British performance of the Mass, recruiting George Grove and John Stainer to serve on it. They appointed as musical director Otto Goldschmidt, the husband of Jenny Lind (the "Swedish Nightingale") who, as a former pupil of Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig, had a good knowledge of the music of Bach. Within six months a choir was recruited and two performances of the Mass, conducted by Goldschmidt, were given on 26 April and 8 May 1876.
The success of the concerts encouraged the formation of a permanent choir with Goldschmidt as the first musical director. The declared aim of the choir was "the practice and performance of choral works of excellence and of various schools". Initially membership was exclusively drawn from the upper levels of Victorian society since this was the social group in which both Coleridge and Goldschmidt moved. Among the singing members was Princess Christian, the fifth child of Queen Victoria. Among the founder-members was W.E. Gladstone. This exclusivity was perpetuated because recruits had to be proposed and seconded by existing members and approved by the committee. Of greater concern for the future health of the choir, however, were the lack of a requirement for regular re-audition and a five o'clock rehearsal time. While the latter ensured that the evening social life of the members was not disturbed, rehearsal attendance by tenors and basses with business interests soon became a cause for concern. A positive feature of the wealthy membership, however, was that programming could be more adventurous without the need to resort to performances of the popular oratorio repertoire to secure essential funds.
The repertoire in the Goldschmidt years was biased towards motets and Renaissance church music, a reflection of his particular interest, but the connection with Bach was maintained by regular performances of the Mass in B minor and some of the cantatas.
Goldschmidt resigned in 1885 to be replaced by Stanford, organist of Trinity College, Cambridge and conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society, who had recently been appointed professor of composition at the Royal College of Music. Stanford expanded the repertoire with programmes which included the Brahms Requiem, excerpts from Parsifal, the Verdi Requiem and other contemporary works. From the beginning there had been a connection with royalty and Queen Victoria became patron in 1879. To mark her golden jubilee in 1887 the choir invited Hubert Parry to compose its first commissioned work for inclusion in the concert programme. In response Parry produced the choral ode Blest Pair of Sirens.
By the end of the 19th century, the choir faced a major crisis. Deteriorating standards of performance through a combination of an ageing membership not subject to re-audition and an unrealistic rehearsal time produced mounting financial losses. Changes were made, with membership opened to all social groups and regular re-tests for existing members. Stanford resigned in 1902 to take up the conductorship of the Leeds Festival and was replaced by Henry Walford Davies, who rebuilt the choir and then handed over to Hugh Allen in 1907.
Allen inherited a choir that included Ralph Vaughan Williams and later Adrian Boult among the singing members. He had already gained a reputation as a choral conductor at Ely and Oxford and brought immense energy to the task. Under him a number of first London performances were given, including Toward the Unknown Region and A Sea Symphony. He also steered the choir through the difficult years of the First World War and in 1916 was able to give the first performance of Parry's Songs of Farewell.
The growing pressure of his commitments obliged Allen to resign in 1921, to be succeeded by Vaughan Williams. While he remained faithful to the tradition of the performance of Bach and in particular the St Matthew Passion, he also gave audiences the opportunity to hear works by contemporary composers, including his good friend Gustav Holst, and in 1926 he conducted the choir in the first London performance of his oratorio Sancta Civitas.
Resigning in 1928 to concentrate on composing, Vaughan Williams was succeeded by Holst. After accepting the appointment, however, he was obliged to resign on medical grounds three months later. With a new season fast approaching the choir were in difficulty but, although he was already heavily committed, Adrian Boult saved the situation by accepting the appointment. Although only in charge for four seasons he produced singing of a high quality and introduced challenging contemporary works. His lasting legacy, however, was to initiate annual complete performances of the St Matthew Passion in English, a tradition that continues to the present day.
Boult was followed in 1932 by Reginald Jacques, who had been a pupil of Hugh Allen at Oxford. In a stay of twenty-eight years he introduced the traditional annual Carol Concert, ensured that activities continued without a break during the Second World War, and in 1947-48 conducted the choir in its first recording – a somewhat abridged performance of the St Matthew Passion with Kathleen Ferrier as the contralto soloist. Despite several movements of the piece being cut, the recording still filled forty-two sides of the old style 78 rpm discs. Ferrier had made her debut in Messiah with the choir in 1943.
Following the sudden departure of Jacques in 1960 after a heart attack the post of musical director went to David Willcocks, director of music at King's College, Cambridge. He was soon pointing the choir in new directions by introducing important contemporary works, including Honegger's King David, Delius's Sea Drift and Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, and undertaking a number of recordings. Most notable of these was a performance of Britten's War Requiem conducted by the composer, a recording that sold 200,000 copies in the first five months. A series of foreign tours was also arranged with visits to the United States, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, France, Sweden and South Africa. The choir gave the Italian premiere of the War Requiem at La Scala, Milan. Among the conductors under whom the choir sang in the later part of the 20th century were Pierre Monteux (under whom the choir performed and recorded Beethoven's Ninth Symphony), Jascha Horenstein, Lorin Maazel and David Oistrakh. Willcocks retired in 1998 after thirty-eight years in charge.
The current musical director, David Hill, was appointed in 1998, coming from a background of appointments as organist and master of the music at Winchester Cathedral and musical director of St John's College, Cambridge.