The choral society's continuing popularity
My Easter break this year was spent not only taking windswept walks along the Cornish coast – in coat, gloves and boots in true British tradition – but also marking in bowings for multiple violin and viola parts of Puccini’s Messa di Gloria and Rossini’s Stabat mater. The parts were for a Rochester Cathedral choral concert in which I am due to perform as concertmaster in a couple of weeks. While bowing is not exactly a stimulating pastime, the task did get me thinking about another British institution – the humble choral society.
As a freelance violinist, much of my concert playing is spent accompanying various Masses and Requiems – not to mention multiple Messiahs – for one choral union or another. In prosperity and recession these societies perform three or four times a year, very often generating enviable audience numbers in cathedrals, churches and halls. Open to all with a musical ear they provide an inclusive and enjoyable approach to music making, tackling staples of the choral repertoire in a non-patronising way.
Many have been established for numerous decades so they now form a reputable part of the social fabric, and a way to keep musical interest alive outside the professional hubs and city centres.
Still, looking at the ranks of today’s society members, there seem to be very few singers under the age of 50 or 60. Has, then, the appeal of collaborative amateur singing passed its peak? Perhaps British choral societies are the province of previous generations and in a few years will no longer be able to muster the requisite membership numbers to continue.
Or perhaps the future isn’t so bleak after all and choral unions, like classical repertoire itself, simply attract those of a more mature sensibility. There’s evidence with programmes like Gareth Malone’s The Choir, that the thirst for community singing is alive and well. And certainly in the 15 years or so that I have been associated with choral societies, membership has remained high and audiences, too, continue to flock to the latest Carmina Burana or Verdi Requiem.
And here’s where the real value of such amateur music making is felt, for while membership seems restricted more to the older generation, audiences are composed of all ages, from young families to their grandparents. This is also why society concerts produce such consistently strong ticket sales. The concert experience becomes a family affair, as proud union members invite their relatives to watch them perform. It’s a warm and welcoming introduction to the repertoire and with any luck helps to convince those new to classical music of its very great worth.
So long live the choral society I say – may it continue to draw people from all walks of life to a love of fantastic music.
Charlotte Smith is Gramophone news editor. She is also a freelance violinist and the team's resident film enthusiast.