History of the Royal Choral Society

The Royal Choral Society enjoys a distinguished place in the musical life of the United Kingdom. The choir has a long and proud history that includes associations with many of the world’s greatest composers and conductors – Verdi, Gounod and Dvorák to name but three.

The Royal Albert Hall, officially opened on 28 March 1871, gave the capital an ideal place for grand choral performances. Three months later the French composer Charles Gounod, in London as a refugee from the Franco-Prussian War, conducted a choral concert at the Albert Hall to mark the opening of the International Exhibition, held within earshot of the new venue. The Commissioners of the Great Exhibition of 1851, responsible for the Royal Albert Hall, recognised the need for a resident choir, raising the necessary capital for its creation and inviting Gounod to be its conductor. Auditions were held in the early autumn; by October 1871 the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society had attracted over 1,000 members and began to prepare for its first concert on 8 May 1872. Gounod’s choice of repertoire pleased the distinguished audience, led by Queen Victoria, which gathered at the Royal Albert Hall and the new choir swiftly established a place in London’s musical life. Its position was consolidated late in 1872 when Joseph Barnby, celebrated trainer of ‘Mr Joseph Barnby’s Choir', succeeded Gounod as conductor and amalgamated his existing choir with the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society. 

Barnby enhanced the Choral Society’s reputation by inviting Verdi to conduct the British première of his Requiem in 1875 and Dvorák to conduct his Stabat Mater nine years later. He also established the annual Good Friday performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1878 – a tradition that continues to this day.

In its review of the musical highlights of 1888, Hazell’s Annual Cyclopedia recorded that "The Royal Albert Hall Choral Society, in May, gave a performance of (Arthur Sullivan’s) The Golden Legend by command of the Queen, who was present, and Mr Barnby’s force is henceforward to be called the Royal Choral Society." Queen Victoria’s patronage ensured a continued rise in the choir’s fortunes.

Following Barnby’s death in 1896, Frederick Bridge, organist of Westminster Abbey, was invited to be his successor. Bridge was a shrewd administrator and successful motivator of amateur musicians. In January 1899 the Musical Times noted that the choir comprised 242 sopranos, 174 contraltos, 174 tenors, 236 basses and sixteen so-called ‘superintendents’, a total of 842 singing members, which was ‘arranged as two separate choirs, one on each side of the (Albert Hall) organ. At concerts the ladies wore white dresses, those of the right choir adding red sashes and those of the left choir blue ones." Whatever the strength or weaknesses of its vocal accomplishments, Bridge’s Royal Choral Society was certainly an impressive sight. Under his guidance, the choir contributed strongly to the remarkable expansion of music-making in Edwardian London, presenting the premières of Ethel Smyth’s powerful Mass in D and Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha, and, in 1912, inaugurating the choir’s annual carol concert.

Like Barnby, Bridge promoted the work of living British composers, conducting over 40 new works either for the first time or soon after their premières elsewhere. Faced with an inevitable decline in membership during the First World War, Bridge nevertheless managed to keep the Royal Choral Society in business, introducing a Sunday afternoon concert series at the Albert Hall in 1915 and helping to preserve music-making in London. Bridge retired in 1922, making way for the Society’s long-serving organist, H.L. Balfour, to act as chorus master to a succession of guest conductors.

By now, the Society was attracting vast audiences to the Royal Albert Hall for its annual performances of Coleridge Taylor’s Hiawatha. The composer’s Scenes from the Song of Hiawatha received its first complete performance by the Royal Choral Society, conducted by Coleridge Taylor himself, in 1900; in 1924 the choir presented the first of a series of fully staged versions of the trilogy, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, The Death of Minnehaha and Hiawatha’s Departure, performed by more than 1,000 ‘braves’ and ‘squaws’ in extended seasons each June until 1939. Audiences travelled in costume from the London suburbs and further afield, fired with an almost fanatical enthusiasm for Coleridge Taylor’s sentimental melodies and the spectacular Albert Hall productions, which included a vast painted backdrop, waterfalls, wigwams, peace-pipes and various other essential ethnic trappings.

Profits from these concerts supported the choir’s activities throughout the Great Depression and for many years after Hiawatha’s Farewell. The Hiawatha productions served as a perfect vehicle for the urbane Malcolm Sargent, who was appointed as the Royal Choral Society’s permanent conductor in 1928, a post he held for a further thirty-nine years. Sargent was universally acclaimed as the finest British choral conductor of his generation, a born leader of massed amateur singers and an immensely popular figure with audiences who might not otherwise have been attracted to classical music.

Sargent, like his predecessor Frederick Bridge, was adamant that the Royal Choral Society should continue to meet following the outbreak of war. The choir was forced, however, to shift its home base to the relatively cramped Queen’s Hall in Langham Place when the authorities closed the Royal Albert Hall in 1939, where it subsequently gave morale-boosting performances of Messiah, Elijah and Gerontius. Sadly, on the night of 10 May 1941, the Queen’s Hall was struck by an incendiary bomb and razed to the ground during one of the Luftwaffe’s final and heaviest raids on London.

The Society’s contribution to the war effort included charity concerts and, following the destruction of the Queen’s Hall, a return to the Royal Albert Hall and ‘business as usual’.

With the end of war, Sargent and his musical team set about recruiting and training new members, their work helped by the fact that the Royal Choral Society was widely perceived as the finest symphonic chorus in the country. By the time of Sargent’s death in 1967, the choir had built a large and fine discography, had begun to tour overseas and was in good health as it approached its centenary season. Wyn Morris held the post of conductor for two seasons from 1968 until the appointment of Meredith Davies in 1972.

Over the last twenty-five years, the Royal Choral Society has upheld the best of its traditions, promoting performances of Messiah and other Baroque works in an age that increasingly favours the ‘authentic’ treatment of music from earlier times, while adapting its activities to ensure survival. Davies and his successor Laszlo Heltay, prepared the choir for such diverse challenges as concert tours to the United States, France, Poland, Switzerland and Portugal; the premières of works by Raymond Premru, Anthony Milner and Geoffrey Burgon; festival and other appearances at important British venues, and contributions to the Classic Rock and Hooked On series of recordings. Heltay’s tenure as conductor ended in December 1993. For the next two seasons, the choir was led by guest conductors (giving singers wide-ranging musical experience) and his place was taken in 1995 by Richard Cooke, previously chorus master of the London Philharmonic Choir.

Recently, the Royal Choral Society has diversified its musical activities. There has been close co-operation with a number of national charities for Gala Concerts, programmes of opera selections and popular choral music. Venues have included Westminster Abbey, St Pauls, and the Cathedrals of Canterbury and Winchester, Symphony Hall Birmingham, Bridgewater Hall Manchester, St David’s Hall Cardiff and Palais de Congrès Lille.

A particularly memorable event was the Society’s 125th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall on May 8 1997 in the presence of HRH Princess Margaret and the choir’s President, HRH The Duke of Kent – 125 years to the day since our first concert in 1872.

The Royal Choral Society performs all year round. Huge audiences at Kenwood House, Marble Hill, Glastonbury, Milton Keynes Bowl, Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, Horse Guards Parade & Hampton Court have enjoyed the singing of the RCS, usually under ideal conditions! Members of the choir were received enthusiastically by vast numbers when ‘singing for England’ at international rugby matches in Paris and London (Twickenham).

The Royal Choral Society returned to the recording studio in the 1990s, reconfirming its pedigree with powerful versions of Handel’s Messiah and Verdi’s Requiem, both conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes. These were followed by a chart-topping Last Night of the Proms with Barry Wordsworth and Carmina Burana with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Richard Cooke. In the late 1990s, the RCS appeared on television with Lesley Garrett, recorded the soundtrack for an important Chanel No 5 TV and film commercial and took part in sell-out Classical Spectaculars at the Royal Albert Hall.

The broadening of the Royal Choral Society’s musical experience has not, however, been at the expense of the standard choral repertoire. In the last 10 years countless performances have been given of baroque sacred music, oratorio, and twentieth century works.

Important for a choir too, is the expanding of its own musical knowledge and under the present Music Director, Richard Cooke, rarely performed works by Berlioz – Damnation of Faust & Grande Messe des Morts – the Mahler Symphonies and Schubert Masses have been explored and performed to acclaim. Easter Messiahs have been sung – successfully – with a period instrument orchestra.

These few examples illustrate the innovative and wide ranging talents of the modern Royal Choral Society as it continues its tradition – spanning three centuries – of making a major contribution to the musical life of this country.