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The Bach Choir and David Hill at Christmas

  • November 19, 2023
  • 6 min read
The Bach Choir and David Hill at Christmas

The Bach Choir is one of the most venerable amateur (in the best sense of the word) choral organisations in London and has been singing away for 148 years. It was formed as part of the renewed interest in Bach that had followed Mendelssohn’s revival of his music in their home town of Leipzig in the 1830s and his introduction to it for big amateur choruses – something he enjoyed conducting himself in London and Birmingham. That link to Leipzig was cemented in 1875. The town had become a magnet for music students from England (Elgar was one of them a few years later), including a young tenor, Arthur Coleridge, who did not turn professional but still wanted to pursue his love of Bach’s music after he became a lawyer. He realised that Bach’s last great work, the B Minor Mass, had never been performed in London and determined that it should be. He gathered the choir (including one of the Queen’s daughters, Princess Helena, and William Gladstone) and approached the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind’s husband, the composer Otto Goldschmidt, to conduct it.

The list of subsequent directors of the choir is just as extraordinary: the composers Charles Stanford, Henry Walford Davies and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and for a few years the conductor Adrian Boult, who was busy forming the BBC Symphony Orchestra too and had sung in the choir himself before World War One. Incidentally, this year’s marks forty years since Boult’s death and it is worth remembering what an astonishing effect he had on music in London, not only with the BBC but with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Since Boult in the 1930s only three people have led the choir: Reginald Jacques, David Willcocks and for the last twenty-five years, David Hill, a man with such a roster of appointments to his name that it is quite hard to list the choirs he has not been conducting. He has also been in charge of the choristers at Winchester and Westminster Cathedrals, St. John’s College Cambridge and the Philharmonia Chorus, as well as the BBC Singers.

Hill inherited The Bach Choir from Willcocks, the legendary head of music at King’s College, Cambridge, who virtually reinvented the tradition and sound of Christmas carols in his famous green volume of arrangements for Oxford University Press, Carols For Choirs. There is probably no choral singer or school chorister in Britain who does not have those Willcocks harmonies deep in the subconscious. That also explains why the choir does not reach for Handel’s Messiah at Christmas, as so many do, but celebrates with carols only – this year with Hill in Cadogan Hall on 19th December. That other doyen of carol masters, John Rutter, conducts them too, in the Royal Albert Hall on 6th December.

David Hill and I spoke the morning after he had led a performance of Brahms’ A German Requiem in the Royal Festival Hall, to open the choir’s season. He had been delighted with the way they and the Philharmonia Orchestra had blended their sound. That concert had also included Amy Beach’s Canticle of the Sun, a work by one of America’s finest late Romantic composers and one which reflects the transatlantic connection Hill has made, thanks to his directorship of Yale University’s Schola Cantorum. He spends 14 weeks in eight trips each year on the ‘superbly well-resourced’ Yale campus.

He started his musical journey in Manchester at Chetham’s School of Music in 1969 and it was not all choral. ‘I was like a boy in a toy shop,’ he says. ‘There were hours and hours of violin as well as the piano, organ and eventually conducting.’ He is especially glad of the violin training because it gives him an instant rapport with the orchestras that accompany his choirs. ‘It helps me relate and practically it means I can understand the bowings in detail.’ He goes the whole hog, dispensing with choruses and spends time as Associate Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. ‘They keep honing my ears!’

‘I strive so much to get the choir to realise they are part of the orchestral texture when they are singing the big scale repertoire like the Brahms Requiem.’ He says, that means guiding them to prepare their breath well before they start actually singing. ‘Orchestral players in the wind and brass sections do it automatically because they have had a lifetime’s training but for most amateur choral singers it is a skill they have to learn at a later stage in life.’ A quality that he feels is special to The Bach Choir is their ability to sing a cappella, without accompaniment. It is something they learned to do with Sir David Willcocks and that Hill has been delighted to carry on. ‘Most big amateur choirs can’t do that.’

David Hill has found his job changing since he took over just before this century began. The members’ lives have changed too, as working has become more flexible but also more demanding – the weekly rehearsals a welcome anchor to their week. Hill sees his role now not only as a conductor but as a communicator for classical music at a time when there is a feeling that society (and government) are ambivalent about it. He has started making podcasts called Change Your Tune, via The Bach Choir’s website in which he discusses important works with someone outside mainstream classics: the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem with Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams, for example, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with Love Ssega.

One area of music has so far escaped David, and that is opera. He has never had the time to fit the long rehearsal and performance schedules into his diary but, ‘it is something I’d love to do.’ When his duties at Yale finish next year he hopes he can think again. ‘I want very much to work on Benjamin Britten’s operas. I think and hope I’ll have the technique.’

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Simon Mundy

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