The years 1965-1970

This is the second in the series of posts about the choir’s history.

The years 1965-1970 saw the choir (the Southport Bach Society, as it then was) develop a wide-ranging repertoire. David Bowman’s programming in the years that followed the choir’s foundation in 1965 was ambitious and exciting, including Matyas Seiber, Bartok and Vaughan Williams, as well as Bach, Haydn, Mozart and a Messiah in the Watkins Shaw edition. David ensured that the choir kept in touch with new music. As one of the early annual reports puts it, ‘a small piece of musical history’ was made when the choir, accompanied by instrumentalists drawn from the RLPO, performed Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms as part of the summer concert in 1968. This was the first performance in the north of England, and, as David told me in a recent phone call, the percussionist had to make some of his own instruments for the performance!

‘New music’ in those days included compositions by David Bowman himself. The first was a setting of ‘O care, thou wilt dispatch me’, anonymous words that speak of music as an antidote to care, best known in a setting by Thomas Morley. This piece was partnered by Seiber’s four Slovak Folk Songs and performed at the Mayoress’s Charity Concert in March 1967. Another work by David was a cantata for choir and contralto solo, Dira Nox Animae, with Alma Dootson as soloist, which included a setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 7, ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners’.

Soloists and orchestra

Soloists were regularly drawn from the choir. As well as Alma, there were Sylvia Forshaw, a soprano, and her husband Eric, who sang tenor, and Eddie Twigg, another tenor. Lesley Threlfall and Judith Barritt, both founder members, took bass and contralto parts respectively. Another soprano drawn from the choir was Margaret Edwards, and towards the end of this period another contralto, Judith Barker, started to sing with the choir. For the Messiah that was performed in 1967, as part of the second Holy Trinity Festival, there was a different line-up of soloists. Alma was the contralto soloist, but the other soloists were not drawn from the choir. Peter Bamber (a name I don’t recognize) sang tenor, the soprano was Caroline Crawshaw and the bass was Patrick McGuigan. I don’t know if Patrick and Caroline were married at the time, but they did marry and both became singing teachers at the Royal Northern College of Music.

From the beginning David Bowman insisted on having an orchestra for at least one concert in the year. But the minutes of one AGM record his dissatisfaction with the quality of playing in the orchestra at the summer concert in 1969, and he suggested that he should contact someone in the orchestra with a view to forming a small chamber orchestra who would play for future concerts. When there wasn’t an orchestra the accompaniment was played on the organ; the two names that crop up most frequently are Brian Runnett and Keith Elcombe.

David Bowman’s last season

The newly formed Liverpool Concertante joined the choir for a Christmas concert in 1969 of instrumental as well as choral pieces, which seems to have been a great success. The secretary’s report says that it ‘received more appreciation both at the time and subsequently than any previous concert’. However, this was followed by a bad falling-off in choir attendance. The choir had been booked by Revd Roger Wikeley, who had previously been a curate at Holy Trinity, to sing at a festival in Woolston in May to celebrate the consecration of the Church of the Ascension, where he was now vicar. David said in his report at the 1970 AGM that he had been ‘very depressed and worried’ by the poor attendance and had seriously considered giving up as conductor of the choir. ‘It was impossible’, he said ‘to give concerts of the high quality associated with the name of the Southport Bach Society if members did not attend rehearsals regularly’.

As it turned out, David did indeed leave the choir at the end of that season, but not because of his dissatisfaction with the choir. The Woolston concert, in which the Concertante played Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings, and the choir sang Vivaldi’s Gloria and Haydn’s Nelson Mass, was repeated in June at Holy Trinity, Southport. David’s departure was caused by a change of job. He moved from Preston Grammar School, which had recently converted to a Sixth Form College, to Ampleforth – where, in the course of time and with the support of Patrick Barry (the then headmaster) and Basil Hume, he founded Scuola Cantorum, a polyphonic choir for boys and a few monks from the Abbey, which also continues to this day.


Founding the Choir

This is the first of a series of posts giving the history of the choir.

David Bowman and the first meeting

David Bowman was already organist and choir master at Holy Trinity Church, Southport, when he conceived the idea of forming a choir of mixed adult voices. The first meeting of the Southport Bach Society (as it was then called) was held on 7 January 1965. It was decided that rehearsals would be held in Holy Trinity Parochial Hall at 8.30 pm ‘with no break for refreshment’, and a first concert was arranged for Tuesday, 13 April 1965.

There were 19 singers at the first meeting (3 others sent apologies); one of them still sings with the choir. Alma Dootson had a break of several years while she was singing with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, but she and her husband Peter, an organist, played a large part in the choir’s early life. Another founding singer was Barbara Dix, who soon left to pursue her career as a professional singer and singing teacher. There are several other names I recognise because they were still singing in the choir when I joined in 1968, but Alma and I are the only members of today’s choir to have sung under David Bowman.

The ‘Society’ appellation was decided on because the original idea was to have an orchestra linked to the choir, and in minutes of a committee meeting held in March 1965 David Bowman is reported as firmly stating that it was important for the choir to be accompanied by an orchestra ‘of some size’ in the first performance. The treasurer advised that a sum of £50 (a figure that would amaze today’s treasurer!) could be set aside for this ‘with safety’. In the event, an orchestra was drawn from members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for early concerts. Although in succeeding years the choir has regularly performed with orchestral accompaniment as well as with smaller instrumental groups, or organ, it has never had its ‘own’ orchestra, so eventually the name was changed to Southport Bach Choir.

First performances

The illustrious Bach Choir in London was 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 Southport choir set its sights a little lower, but Bach certainly featured in the first performance on 13 April 1965. His Easter cantata no.4, ‘Christ lay in death’s dark prison’, was part of the first concert, which also included Heinrich Schütz’s St Matthew Passion. According to the programme, the soloists were Derek Perry (tenor) and William Morris (bass). But the secretary’s report for the year says that Edwin Twigg was the tenor soloist, so I imagine there was a last-minute substitution, possibly because of illness. Eddie Twigg was the Southport Librarian, one of the founding members of the choir, and together with his wife a huge support to David Bowman.

In that first year the choir gave another concert in October in support of the Southport Society of Polio Research, when they sang works by Vaughan Williams – one of which, his Serenade to Music, will feature in our Summer Anniversary Concert 2015 – and Bartók’s Slovak folk songs. Another concert was given in Holy Trinity on 9 December, which included the Fauré Requiem, with organ accompaniment. The 1965-66 year was considered to run up to an AGM on 5 May 1966, when it was reported that the choir had also given a lunchtime recital (Bach’s Peasant Cantata) at the Art Gallery, Southport on 30 March 1966, when the conductor was not David Bowman (who taught at Preston Grammar School), but Peter Dootson.

From the start the choir became involved in the local community, being represented at a public meeting at the Art Gallery in December 1965, when it was agreed to form a Southport Association for the Arts. The main object of the Association, it seems, was to organize a festival during April and May 1967 to celebrate the centenary of the borough. However, there is nothing in the annual report for 1967-68 about singing at such a festival.

In January 1966 the choir joined the National Federation of Music Societies, an organization now called Making Music, to which the Southport Bach Choir is still affiliated.

In the next post I’ll write about the period up to the summer of 1970 when David Bowman left Southport to take up a post at Ampleforth College, where he founded another choir, the Schola Cantorum.