LEEDS GUILD OF SINGERS
A HISTORY OF THE FIRST 70+ YEARS
“A promising start”
Leeds Parish Church. 30th June 1948. 26 singers under the direction of organist and choirmaster Dr Melville Cook present a recital of British music by Parry and Stanford, Wood and Byrd. Glowing newspaper reviews the following day remark: “A new Leeds musical venture had a promising start”, describing the choir as “first rate” and “a tremendous asset to the city”. Leeds Guild of Singers is born. In fact, “the Guild”, as it soon became fondly called, was formed a few months earlier, in January 1948, after Dr Cook put an advert in the Yorkshire Post for singers to join a “select choir” that would “encourage high standards of music making in Leeds”.
The Guild soon fulfilled its promise to “fill a gap in the musical life of the West Riding”, taking the debut concert programme to 15 venues across the county over the next year. Cook aimed high: the choir made radio broadcasts, performed in York Minster, and in 1950 put on an ambitious programme of Bach motets and cantatas for the bicentenary of Bach’s death. The Guild, accompanied by orchestra and organ, garnered more rave reviews for these concerts, although one was badly interrupted by bell ringing, due to a misunderstanding about the bell-ringers’ practice night...
Changes at the top
Having conducted the Guild in several Leeds concerts for the 1951 Festival of Britain, Cook handed over the reins in 1952 to James Denny, Professor of Music at Leeds University. Under Denny, the Guild took Tudor anthems and madrigals to all corners of Yorkshire – works that have remained Guild favourites to this day. By the mid-1950s, Frank Mumby, also of Leeds University, had taken over as Musical Director. Palestrina and Tallis joined Britten and Vaughan-Williams as staples on the LGS repertoire, alongside some of Mumby’s own compositions.
Richard Rastall came to Leeds University in 1967 as an Assistant Lecturer in Music and became the Guild’s fourth MD shortly after. He is currently our President. A wider range of sacred and secular music was performed through the 1970s, as the Guild held joint concerts with other choirs and orchestras. The Constitution was updated in 1974, when member subscriptions stood at just £2 per annum. In between Richard’s tenures as conductor, several others filled the gap: Philip Miles, then Roy Rimmer. Anthony Cooke stayed a little longer and Keith Firth did a stint in the early 80s.
“Emerging from the shadows”
By the mid-1980s, Richard was back at the helm, charity Christmas concerts were a regular fixture on the calendar, and several familiar names had joined, like Hilary Taylor and Jillian Johnson. The Guild put on a costumed performance of The Christmas Story by Schütz in 1986 at its new rehearsal home, the Clothworkers’ Centenary Concert Hall at Leeds University. A review of this concert declared that the Guild had “emerged from the shadows” with “a fresh determination to establish a presence on the city’s volatile musical scene”. The Guild branched out into lighter concerts from the late 80s, including a “soirée musicale” of songs and supper at St. Matthew’s Chapel Allerton in 1989. On the programme at such events were excerpts from Gilbert & Sullivan, songs on the themes of love or the seasons, even dramatic monologues. Roger Quick conducted for a while, before handing over to Geoff Philips.
In the early 90s, the Guild adopted All Souls Church in LS7 as a regular concert venue. Audiences were small, but a Yorkshire Post review of a 1992 concert still praised the choir’s “full tone, well balanced and with excellent diction”. During these years, LGS sang at Fountains Abbey and Ripley Castle, busked in Beverley, and enjoyed a choral workshop with the conductor Alistair Dixon. Christmas concerts were held in the “Emmerdale Church” at Esholt. Jill Wild was MD for a short time, before passing the baton to Nick Meredith. Sometimes the choir teamed up with groups like the Arioso Baroque Ensemble, other times guest conductors like Clive McClelland were invited.
Commissions and premieres
Over the years, the Guild has commissioned several new choral works and given first performances of many others. The first commission was a setting of “The Bacchae” by prominent British composer, Phyllis Tate, in 1953. At the Guild’s 21st birthday concert, both Denny and Mumby conducted their own compositions. And so, it was fitting that the main attraction of the 50th anniversary concert in 1998 was the first performance of a commissioned work by Dr Philip Wilby of Leeds University, who already had a long connection with the Guild. The work entitled “Songs from Mount Grace” is three motets, settings of texts by the poet Elizabeth Jennings, and was dedicated to the memory of a former member of the Guild, Joan Balmforth. For our 70th anniversary concert in June 2019, we were proud to feature another commissioned work – “Sing!” by local composer (and LGS tenor) Matthew Oglesby.
“Expect the unexpected and unusual”
The contribution of Graham Coatman to the life of the Guild over nearly 20 years cannot be overstated. Graham became MD in 1998, bringing not only a passion for early music, but also a desire to explore choral works of all eras and genres, as well as his own prolific output of compositions and arrangements. As LGS entered the new millennium, Graham created inspired programmes of madrigals, spirituals and polyphony.
Guild singers were introduced to an adventurous repertoire of music, reflected in concert titles like “From Venice to Vladivostok” (2002) and “Mystics and Metaphysics” (2003). As our blurb went at the time: “If your musical taste can accommodate Guerrero to Gorecki, by way of Gibbons and Gershwin, then the Leeds Guild of Singers is for you!”
Graham paired familiar and lesser-known works in concerts that were stimulating for choir and audience alike. A German-themed concert in 2005 set Bach motets alongside cabaret songs by Hollaender and the world premiere of his own work “Entartung” for double choir and saxophone. One concert poster claimed: “Expect the unexpected and unusual!”.
By 2006, LGS was up to 30 singers and was able to provide most of the soloists for a rare performance of Cavalli’s Vespers from within its own ranks. The Guild hit the road (to Glasgow for a joint venture with the local Singers Company in 2007 and to Hexham Abbey in 2008) and felt confident to invite TV celebrity Harry Gration to narrate a concert history of English church music in 2009.
2011 exemplifies the variety of works performed: in May, the Guild sang Handel and Vivaldi with the acclaimed Skipton Camerata; by October, they were entertaining Follifoot village hall with “Songs from the Shows” (with hardly a Lloyd Webber number in sight!). Who’d have thought the same group who sang a Renaissance mass by Cristóbal de Morales in November 2012 could put on a semi-staged performance of “Trial by Jury” a week later?
At the heart of Leeds music making
Early music and Graham’s own modern works remained a constant thread, as LGS became a founder member of the Leeds University Choral Expertise and Attainment (LUCEAT) network in 2012. Our extensive collection of choral parts in the Luceat library is now hired by other choirs across the country. And the Guild reaffirmed its position at the heart of Leeds music making with concerts in the Royal Armouries and the Town Hall, as well as popular “come and sing” events in the city: the first in 2004 featuring Tallis’ Spem in alium and Fauré’s Requiem, followed by Mozart’s Requiem in 2006 and Monteverdi’s Vespers in 2008.
Like Melville Cook, Graham always set his sights high for what the Guild could perform: Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” in 2015, Bach’s six motets in the 2015/16 season, and parts 2 & 3 of Handel’s Messiah in 2017. These major performances were interspersed with forays into works from Rossi and Josquin to Whitacre and Mäntyjärvi. Matt Oglesby led the choir during Graham’s sabbatical in 2014 and has acted as deputy MD at rehearsals and concerts ever since.
Flashmobs in France…and the future
The Guild went on its first overseas tour in 2016, when it was invited to sing at a music and arts festival in Redon, Brittany. As well as giving two concerts to large appreciative audiences, LGS led a “flashmob” in the streets of Redon with our hosts, local choir Florilège, who also plied us with large quantities of French food and wine… When Graham decided in 2017 to move to the south-west to be closed to family, his farewell concert featured several pieces from this France tour, as well as a selection of the fine repertoire he had brought to the Guild over the last two decades.
Joseph Judge has directed the Guild for the last two seasons, bringing a unique mix of energy, humour and choral excellence, and introducing singers and audiences to works from Martin’s Mass for Double Choir to Estonian folk songs by Tormis. LGS returned home to Leeds Minster for its 70th anniversary concert in 2019, performing a wide range of music from the choir’s repertoire over the past seven decades, interspersed with exciting newer works. The after-concert party was a great occasion for past and present Guild members to meet and socialise.
A lot has changed in the last 70 years: choir updates on typewritten newssheets have been replaced by email groups and social media; formal choir dinners made way for “choir craic” in The Chemic pub and then more recently social evenings at The Lamb and Flag. But the mission of the Guild remains the same – “…to promote knowledge and appreciation of choral music by means of performance for the public benefit”. Here’s to the next 70 years!
© David Bowman, July 2019
Guest / Deputy conductors
Simon Carter; Eno Koco; Clive McClelland; Chris Newton; Matthew Oglesby