Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Life and Times of a Choral Society


We've had a Passion for singing for over 155 years!

But for the first 71 years, Bach's music was never sung. It wasn't until 1961, 98 years after the first Dunedin Messiah, that the Dunedin Choral Society performed the St Matthew Passion for the first time, under the direction of Professor Peter Platt.

Intrigued?

The Life and Times of a Choral Society
Now available! Price $45.00 (plus $7.00 postage & packaging for mail orders)

The book is available from City Choir Dunedin. To place an order email info@citychoirdunedin.org.nz or use the contact form at the bottom of the page. Pay by direct credit (internet banking) to the choir's account 03-0903-0383102-00 with your phone number and HISTORY in the reference fields.

Dunedin’s City Choir and its predecessors have been performing since Christmas Eve 1863, when selections from Messiah were presented to Dunedin by the newly-formed Philharmonic Society. Like every other New Zealand choral society its career has been a chequered one, but if it has not always been glorious, it is certainly a heroic tale of vision and determination to survive and flourish.

This definitive history, based on extensive archival research, removes the accretions of myth from the story of the Choir’s first 150 years, setting its activities in the context of the social and artistic fabric of the developing city and country.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A chapter in our history

Extracting Mr Wolf’s new Choral Society from its mythological future

Sidney Wolf
Although we spent 2013 celebrating the 150th anniversary of our earliest choral ancestor, this year is also significant as the centenary of the present formation of the Dunedin Choral Society.  Sidney Wolf, the conductor and driving force of this new society, arrived in Dunedin at the beginning of 1903, with a formidable reputation as teacher, organist, conductor, examiner and adjudicator throughout New Zealand.  He applied for the newly vacant conductorship of the Dunedin Choral Society on arrival, but the position went to Jesse Timson, the organist at First Church.  Wolf immediately advertised his own society: a ‘first-class choir’, which, through the acquisition of a sound vocal technique, would be able to perform ‘the most modern works and also the true interpretation of the old masters.’  Wolf’s society lasted until at least 1911 and his chorus received consistently enthusiastic reviews, as did the Southern Musical Society (based at St Kilda) which he took over in 1909.  The Dunedin Choral Society found itself haemorrhaging both members and audience, and was wound up in May 1914 after 18 months of dormancy.

Wolf began recruiting for his new ‘Dunedin ChoralSociety’ in June 1914.  Although it took the name of the old society – and within a year was commonly referred to as a reconstitution of it – it was an entirely separate body, with a new style of organisation and very different musical standards.  It was unquestionably Wolf’s – not the committee’s – society; the committee’s role was to support him, and admission to the choir was only by his acceptance on audition.  Like his first society, excellence in performance, not the education of either members or the public, was the single primary aim.

One hundred years on, the idea of professional musical directorship, an auditioned choir, and high standards of performance of a variety of music seems quite normal, and it is easy to suppose that the Choral Society simply continued in the path which Wolf had set.  The reality has proved quite different however, and the cyclical periods of poor administration, low musical expectations, and indifferent leadership seen in the earlier versions of the Society, have all recurred in the new.  In spite of a major cull of performing members in 1969 to improve standards (echoing that of 1937), even in the 1990s a proportion of this choir could not read music, and there proved to be no effective mechanism for dislodging incompetent singers from its ranks.  Extinction has come extremely close at times.

While some of the threads of the last 50 years have been beautifully laid out for the historian’s inspection; others have proved to be very tangled indeed.  Most of the documents after 1980 have not been deposited in the Hocken, and although they came to me in dated files, none of the files marked from before 2003 proved to bear more than a chance resemblance to the label below the level of the first two items.  Sorting, listing, and in many instances dating some 5000 documents has been a time-consuming business, as has marrying undated supporting documents to the correct set of committee minutes on contextual grounds.  But as with the earlier years, this work has allowed a sense of the real History of the Dunedin Choral Society to emerge; without it, the later part of the History would be as much myth as the early part was when I began.

By Dr Jenny Burchell
Researcher and author of the choir's history book (in progress).

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Handel’s Messiah and the Dunedin Choral Society 1863 - 2013

Dunedin Choral Society, 27 November 1956, after a performance of Handel’s Messiah.
Of all the works in the repertoire of the Dunedin Choral Society (presently performing as ‘City Choir Dunedin’), Messiah has central place. Although few of the performances have been entirely complete, 118 concerts have been devoted solely to its presentation, and numerous excerpts have been included in other programmes. Elijah and Creation, the two next most frequently performed works, have had only 25 and 20 performances respectively. The same pre-eminence is seen in the repertoire of almost every choral society in the English-speaking world with roots in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.

Messiah is Handel’s only New Testament oratorio. Its structural symmetry around the three central choruses ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’, ‘And with his stripes’ and ‘All we like sheep’ – as well as its original purpose as a replacement for opera while the theatres were closed – places it firmly in the context of Lent for religious as well as practical purposes. However, the unequal division of the three parts and the narrative form which distinguishes the first part from the more abstract second and third parts, perhaps explains the shift of association of the work to Christmas. Because of its subject matter Messiah has been perceived, since soon after its composition, as peculiarly suited to performance for charitable fund-raising, while from a choral perspective its perfect balance of chorus and solo work adds to its popularity. Probably no other work in any genre has excited such passions in so many people over its correct interpretation and performance.

Well before the middle of the nineteenth century the belief that oratorio required large choral forces had become universally entrenched. The performance of Messiah at the Handel Commemoration Festival in Westminster Abbey in 1784 had involved over 500 performers, but nineteenth-century performances at the Crystal Palace topped 1000 – a very far cry from Handel’s own small opera chorus of 12. The sheer unwieldiness of these forces, allied with a predominance of amateur performers and an over-weighting of reverence for the text of Messiah in particular, combined to slow tempos to a point where a complete performance would have taken something like five hours. Since this was plainly impractical large cuts were essential and by the time the Dunedin Philharmonic Society gave its first performance in 1863 the accepted ‘complete’ Messiah consisted of the first half more or less as written, cuts to the rest of the second part, and the third part either severely truncated or omitted entirely.

Cuts were formalised as early as 1789 in the arrangement made by Mozart at the behest of Baron von Swieten. Mozart redistributed, cut and rewrote solos, altered the harmony, and replaced the harmonic background provided by the continuo with a full range of wind and brass (including a piccolo in the ‘Pastoral Symphony’). Later editors made further rearrangements of it, and Mozart’s version was universally adopted not least because it provided a better – and more imposing – balance for a large choir in the absence of the 24 oboes of the 1784 Handel Festival. As a result, the Dunedin Choral Society’s performances of Messiah bore only superficial resemblance to Handel’s original conception, for a full two-thirds of the Society’s existence.

The first three Dunedin performances of Messiah, given by the Philharmonic Society in 1863, 1864 and 1866, were small-scale in all respects. The first was little more than excerpts – not all presented in Handel’s intended order – performed by a choir of between 52 and 80 (depending on source) ‘… ranged in a semicircle at the back of the platform, and formed a very striking coup d’oeil on entering the room’. The performance was accompanied by a ‘powerful double manual harmonium’, the instrumentalists of the first few rehearsals having apparently either dwindled or proved incompetent. The reviews made overtly generous allowances for the newness of the Society, but the Daily Telegraph noted ‘that we are hardly of the opinion that the execution of the various items of the programme was much improved by the too noisily energetic use of [Mr Flood’s] baton, which frequently disturbed their effect very provokingly.’ By the following Christmas the chorus had settled at about 45, and the Society had progressed to presenting the ‘whole’ (meaning ‘customary version’) of the oratorio, accompanied by a piano with a violin ‘to lead the trebles.’ The third performance was given on Good Friday 1866 with the assistance of the professional singer Julia Mumford and accompanied by a piano and a harmonium, thus returning it (temporarily) to Handel’s own Lenten context.

The Dunedin Choral Society (1871-88) gave 12 performances of Messiah at irregular intervals. The first of these, on 28 December 1871, provides a clear illustration of the changes in Dunedin’s musical life in the intervening five years; the Choral Society could field its own band, ‘though wanting several instruments,’ and even the amateur soloists were identified by name. Unfortunately the priorities of the performing members were not all that they might be, and although the performance was advertised as a late 8:30 pm start, and was further delayed by 10 minutes, only 54 of the expected 100 members turned up, having been delayed, the Otago Daily Times supposed, by the interprovincial cricket match. No such difficulties attended the performance two years later; it was a Vice-Regal performance, and Miss Fannie Carandini and Henry Gordon of the visiting Carandini Company were engaged as soloists. Both audience and stage were packed, the choir having been opened to all comers regardless of ability – even so, the band was easily the weakest part.

The band in these first performances probably included whatever instruments were available (a thoroughly eighteenth-century attitude) rather than any rigid adherence to Handel’s oboes, bassoons and strings. After an interval of four years, reformation of the Society and concentrated attention to the orchestra, now a separate organisation entitled the Dunedin Orchestral Association, the two 1877 performances were advertised as using Mozart’s accompaniments – largely by adding a harmonium on this occasion – establishing a practice which persisted almost unbroken until 1961. These performances included the first Dunedin presentation of ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’, made possible by the presence of R.W. Kohler, trumpeter with the visiting US Minstrels. Having broken the ice, the aria was included the following year at the Society’s performance at the New Knox Church, but it was somewhat marred by the unfortunate amateur obbligato player, whose trumpet was ‘nearly half a tone sharp throughout,’ and it was not performed again in Dunedin until the performance at the Exhibition in 1889. The use of Knox Church as a performing venue solved a number of practical problems but revealed difficulties over the behaviour of a public audience in a church, with ‘boisterous expressions of applause’ and the use of opera glasses to quiz both performers and audience causing particular offence.

From 1879 Part III of Messiah was discarded entirely, and in the performances conducted by Benno Scherek (1880-4), the first two parts were cut still further – in 1880 they were reduced from 44 items to a mere 31 – which still took two hours in performance. Scherek had formed a new band within the Choral Society, but reinforcement by both harmonium and piano was essential, and the overture and the Pastoral Symphony were omitted, though they were reinstated in subsequent performances once the band had improved. Under Arthur Barth’s conductorship in 1885 items from the third part were reinstated, and the performance took some three hours – it was reported as a mark of the improved quality of performance that no one left before the end.

Augmenting both choir and orchestra for Messiah was now accepted practice as, while a choir of ‘only’ 60 was regarded as advantageous for the clarity of the fugal movements, only a greater mass of voices could convey the majesty and grandeur of choruses such as the ‘Hallelujah’. The desirability of an annual Christmas performance of the work was also accepted, and where the Choral Society’s calendar did not include it, large excerpts were increasingly performed by church choirs, tacked on to services, with organ or piano accompaniment. With the abandonment of the Choral Society in 1888, the gap was filled in 1889 by a performance at the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition (with a choir of 450). The Dunedin Musical Association (successor to the Choral Society) was responsible for the 1890 performance, but as it had collapsed by the next Christmas, the large-scale performances of the next few years were supplied by ad hoc groups of about 100 – consisting largely of the same people – mostly for charitable purposes.

Although the 1897-14 incarnation of the Dunedin Choral Society began with the advantage of a standing army of Messiah singers, it did not produce its own performance until 1898, at which point the performing membership stood at 362. Because Messiah generally attracted a large audience it was now removed from the subscription and given as a public concert, with a view to generating extra income for the Society. Costs had risen, and although the 1889 Exhibition had lifted performance standards it had had the unfortunate side-effect of raising audience expectations of the soloists, so that the Choral Society rapidly found itself caught in a spiral of expenditure on the importation of soloists from out of town, partly to compensate for the falling standards of the Society itself. Nor were local amateur soloists, even those who were members of the Society, content to sing for glory alone.

Until 1906 the majority of the Society’s performances were given in His Majesty’s Theatre on staging owned by the Society, which had to be erected and taken down for each performance. The 1904 performance was interrupted by screams as the choir platform collapsed without warning, and there was a pause of some minutes while a shaken choir rearranged itself. Only a few were brave enough to get back on the platform – their presence there proving a considerable distraction to the audience who were waiting for the next collapse – and the rest had to jam themselves into the small remaining space as best they might.

By the end of 1912 the Choral Society was paralysed with debt and Messiah was performed by other groups, including the Southern Musical Society, conducted by Sidney Wolf. The first public appearance of Wolf’s new Dunedin Choral Society was a performance of Messiah in aid of the Red Cross Society, Belgian Relief, and Local Distress Funds in 1914. Annual performances followed, interrupted only in 1918 when restrictions on public gatherings during the influenza epidemic forced cancellation. Under Victor Galway’s direction (1922-5) the oratorio acquired a more balanced form, although extensive cuts remained. He also initiated the practice of inviting the Dunedin Male Choir – which he also conducted – to join the Choral Society for Messiah performances (dramatically improving the balance of parts), and of requesting the audience to respect the nature of the work and restrict applause to the end of ‘sections’, to wait for the end of the orchestral accompaniment before applauding, and to either stay till the end or leave at the end of Part 2.

The perception of Messiah as a trophy work made it the subject of bitter dispute in the preparations for the NZ & South Seas International Exhibition in 1925. The formation of a separate Exhibition Choir at the end of 1924 with W. Paget Gale as choir master, took many of the Choral Society’s best singers, and had a severe financial impact on the Society. The Society used this situation to secure agreement at an early date that it would give two performances of Messiah with the Dunedin Male Choir at the Exhibition in December, but Gale (the Choral Society’s former conductor (1905-8), and now Galway’s rival), egged on by a vocal minority of the Exhibition Choir, persuaded the Exhibition Music Committee that a performance by the Exhibition Choir – to be conducted, of course, by Gale himself – was essential. Faced with the alternative of financial ruin, the Choral Society was obliged to accept the participation of the Exhibition Choir in their concert, retaining Galway’s conductorship, but losing the second performance. It is possible that parts of the Exhibition performance were broadcast; the next year’s performance was relayed live from His Majesty’s Theatre by the new 4YA station, one of several broadcast performances by the Society that year. This performance was intended to be a blockbuster production with an advertised choir of 3-400 drawn from various choirs, as well as the Choral Society, but the reality was a choir of roughly 150, and in fact even 300 could not have been fitted on the stage of the theatre.

The long-awaited opening of the Town Hall in 1930 opened up new possibilities for large-scale performance, as well as removing the need for two performances to accommodate the audience, and was celebrated with a Messiah performance by the Choral Society, with representatives from five other choirs. The Town Hall also offered new possibilities for accompaniment. By this time the Society had re-established its own orchestra and now the organ could be used to supply missing parts, or replace inadequate ones. Galway resigned as the Society’s conductor in 1931, but became official organist and that year’s Messiah was accompanied by organ alone.

The Society’s new conductor, Alfred Walmsley, had recently returned from study in England, and immediately set about modernising the Society’s performance of Messiah. The city’s first uncut performance took place in 1932 – a three-hour-plus marathon with only one short interval. Howls of outrage both within and outside the Society greeted the increases in tempo which made it possible, though the objections to the expectation that an audience would be prepared to sit through the ordeal were easily countered – as in the 1885 performance – by the observation that in fact no one had left before the end. The division of the accompaniments between organ and orchestra was also the subject of considerable adverse comment. By the next year it was clear that this had been an attempt to solve major issues of variable pitch disparity between organ and instruments. It was reported that some of players had bought new instruments ‘thus enabling organ and orchestra for the first time to join in a perfect combination.’ Vigorous correspondence on the subject further revealed that the orchestra had its own internal tuning problems, which could leave it with as much as a semitone’s disparity. As the choir itself was increasingly unbalanced to such a degree that even the addition of the Royal Dunedin Male Choir could not reverse the soprano supremacy, it is perhaps not surprising that audience numbers declined sharply. Messiah was not performed in 1934, and even though it was reinstated by popular demand in 1935, turnout was relatively small.

In the face of continuing low audience numbers, even after the choir had been through a very thorough cull, the Society was forced to concede that Messiah would not necessarily balance the accounts for the year, and reduced both the scale and frequency of performances. Public indifference to Messiah disappeared with the outbreak of the Second World War, however, and the work was regarded as the Society’s single indispensable annual production, however reduced its activities might become.

Wartime performances involved extensive collaboration with other choirs – Christchurch Harmonic Society (1939), Oamaru Choral Society (1939, 1940, 1943), Royal Dunedin Male Choir (1940), Returned Soldier’s Choir (1940) and any members of church choirs who cared to join in. The 1944 performance involved a combined choir of 250. The establishment of the 4YA Concert Orchestra in the late 1930s solved the issue of accompaniment, though the quality could be variable, and serious problems with rising pitch as the organ warmed up, continued throughout the 1940s. Walmsley had resigned from the Society in 1943, but continued to act as principal guest conductor until 1946, by which time both audiences and choir had become accustomed to his relatively brisk approach to Messiah. It took several years to adjust to the more conservative interpretation of his successor Charles Collins; the choir tended to bolt.

Under W.H. Walden Mills’s direction (1954-8) the performances achieved a stable plateau of reliable quality, with equally reliable accompaniment by the 4YA Concert Orchestra. This came to an end with the departure of Walden Mills from Dunedin in 1958, and the disestablishment of the 4YA orchestra in 1959, leaving the Choral Society no option but to manage with organ alone. They were able to assemble an orchestra for the following year, and this turned out to be the last performance of the Mozart version of Messiah in Dunedin.

The appointment of Peter Platt as the Choral Society’s conductor in 1961 brought a new approach to baroque repertoire in general. The organ-only accompaniment of the 1959 performance had provoked a lively discussion in the papers of its benefits in allowing greater clarity in the chorus work by reducing the competition, but the decision to discard Mozart’s arrangements in favour of Handel’s autograph version with strings and continuo (organ and harpsichord) was met by the critics with extreme disfavour. It is notable that critical attitudes to tempo had undergone a radical alteration, with Platt’s faster speeds now eliciting such words as ‘buoyant’, ‘exultant’, and ‘exhilarating’ where Walmsley’s reviews had implied a lack of respect for Handel’s intentions. Oboes and bassoons – also used by Handel – were added by Jack Speirs in 1967, though the organ was lost from the continuo group. Variations in annual performances over the next 20 years took place in the inclusion or exclusion of the organ, tempo, and ornamentation – with a remarkable number of complaints in the press of slow tempi after Platt’s departure. From 1986 the organ disappeared altogether, and since 1987 the performances have been bi-annual.

The 1997 performance, with guest conductor David Vine, was the first uncut performance since 1932, and saw the organ returned to the continuo group. Since the appointment of David Burchell in 2000 both these features have become usual practice, with performances directed from the harpsichord, as Handel would have done. A new challenge for the choir has been the presentation of an increasing number of choruses from memory, adding to the immediacy of the performance. This in itself completes a circle – requiring a choir to sing from memory was a trick of George R. West, chief founder of both the Philharmonic Society (1863) and the Dunedin Choral Society (1871).

Tonight’s performance both closes our year of celebration, and launches the Society on a new cycle.

By Dr Jenny Burchell

Published in the programme book for the Handel's Messiah concert, Tuesday 10 December 2013, in the Dunedin Town Hall. Performed by City Choir Dunedin and Southern Sinfonia, conducted by David Burchell. Soloists: Lois Johnston (S), Amanda Cole (A), David Hamilton (T), Jonathan Lemalu (B).

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

150 Years


City Choir: 150 Years in 2013

City Choir Dunedin acknowledge our history and our achievements while promoting Dunedin as a major cultural centre in New Zealand.

City Choir first entertained audiences 150 years ago. The Choir traces its origins back to the Dunedin Philharmonic Society, which gave its first public performance − Handel’s Messiah − on 24 December 1863. The name ‘Dunedin Choral Society’ was adopted in 1871, and is still in use as our title of incorporation. Over the years the Choir has performed under a number of other names and now performs as ‘City Choir Dunedin’. Read more about the Choir's history in this article by music historian Dr Jenny Burchell.

To mark the anniversary, we commissioned a new work from Christopher Marshall; entitled For What Can Be More Beautiful? , this was premièred in March. Partly inspired by the concurrent 150th anniversary of Dunedin Botanic Gardens, it is in two movements, the first a highly expressive setting of part of the Song of Songs, rich in garden imagery; the second a lively syncopated exposition of the merits of fruit trees. The new work presented challenges but brought huge rewards to the performers, and the audience received it with great enthusiasm. The full set of orchestral and choral scores are available for loan.

The Choir was delighted to perform the Verdi Requiem in Dunedin with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra during June 2013, and also toured to join forces with Auckland Choral, Orpheus Choir of Wellington and the Christchurch City Choir for the performances in the major centres. This invitation by the NZSO acknowledged not only the Choir’s 150th anniversary but also our inspirational and dedicated Musical Director, David Burchell.
Choral Masterpieces, conducted by David Burchell.    Photo credit: Pieter du Plessis
Labour Weekend (26 and 27 October) saw City Choir Dunedin in party mood as we commemorated 150 years with a reception, dinner, church service and the highlight, a gala evening of Choral Masterpieces, sung by an augmented Choir and accompanied by the Southern Sinfonia. We were delighted to welcome around 30 singers from all corners of New Zealand who joined the City Choir singers in this performance.

Congratulations

"Since the days of the Gold Rush, City Choir Dunedin has made an exceptional contribution to the musical life of the Otago region. From the Proms to Messiah, the Choir presents a rich and varied programme of choral music, beautifully performed. The Verdi Requiem with the NZSO earlier this year was a highlight for audiences nationwide and testament to the quality of the Choir. I congratulate everyone associated with City Choir Dunedin on reaching this very significant milestone."
 - Hon Christopher Finlayson, Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage

The City of Dunedin is incredibly proud of our City Choir. For 150 years, City Choir Dunedin has, in one or another incarnation, delighted audiences with its sublime musical offerings of master works from the choral repertoire. Not only does the Choir make a vast contribution to the rich cultural life of Dunedin, but it also provides opportunities for younger soloists to gain valuable performance experience as they embark upon their careers. Not many people know this, but City Choir Dunedin is the second-oldest choir in New Zealand, with the Auckland Choral Society being a little older. I congratulate City Choir Dunedin on its achievements over the past 150 years and wish it all the best for a bright future. If the accolades after the Choir’s recent tour with the NZSO are anything to go by, we can look forward to enjoying many more worldclass performances from City Choir Dunedin.
 - Dave Cull, Mayor of Dunedin

"As Vice-Chancellor of the University of Otago, I am delighted to have the role as Patron of City Choir Dunedin. The Choir has made a significant contribution to the musical heritage and rich cultural life of our community, and it continues to provide a platform for younger soloists to develop and excel. Over the years, many University staff have forged strong links with the Choir, and we look forward to the ongoing success of this wonderful organisation. I would like to congratulate the Choir on reaching this very significant milestone, and wish them all the best for the future."
 - Professor Harlene Hayne, ONZM, PhD, HonDSc, FRSNZ
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Otago


"Ngā mihi nui kia koutou katoa
Congratulations City Choir Dunedin on your 150th anniversary. You are one of New Zealand’s most illustrious performing arts organisations with a distinguished pedigree tracing back to the pioneering Dunedin Philharmonic Society and its first public performance, Handel’s Messiah, on Christmas Eve 1863. Yours is an extraordinary artistic journey in our young country. You have established a proud history of choral excellence in New Zealand which continues to develop and build from generation to generation. Long may it continue!
Best wishes from all at the NZSO."
- Christopher Blake, QSO, Chief Executive, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

"The Southern Sinfonia congratulates City Choir Dunedin on reaching its 150th year. Countless thousands of people have been enriched over that time by singing in or listening to the Choir. While orchestras make a wonderful sound, few would argue that the most exquisite of all instruments in the human voice. The Choir provides such a tremendous opportunity to experience the excitement, emotion, drama, and sense of fulfillment that comes from being part of a large and creative group of people. For the Southern Sinfonia, the chance to work alongside the Choir means that we can be part of a creative collaboration which makes Dunedin such a special place to make music. All the best for the next 150 years of great choral music-making."
- Stephen Christensen, President of the Southern Sinfonia

"On behalf of the New Zealand Choral Federation, please accept my warmest congratulations on the choir’s 150th anniversary. City Choir Dunedin has been at the heart of musical life in the city since the early days of settlement and is a significant part of our country's cultural heritage. The Governance Board of NZCF was very pleased to hear of your highly successful celebratory concert last weekend and wishes you all the best for the remainder of this anniversary year."
- Christine Argyle, Chair, New Zealand Choral Federation

Handel's Messiah

Our special year ended appropriately with a performance of Handel’s Messiah on December 10, and we welcomed back four soloists who have a special relationship with the Choir – Lois Johnston, Amanda Cole, David Hamilton and Jonathan Lemalu.

Dr Jenny Burchell researched and wrote this interesting article about the performances of Messiah during the Choir's 150-year existence: Handel's Messiah and the Dunedin Choral Society 1863 - 2013.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Messiah in Dunedin - The First 50 Years

The discovery of gold at Tuapeka in May 1861 transformed the small provincial town of Dunedin in every respect. With the arrival of as many as 1200 people in a single day new demands were created for entertainment, as well as for accommodation, and for urgent improvements to the already creaking
(or non-existent) infrastucture. Although the majority of the immigrants were prospectors and therefore transient, a good proportion were business opportunists who settled in Dunedin with the expectation of the sort of cultural activities they had been used to.

Public music in Otago had hitherto been almost non-existent due to obstacles ranging from lack of performance venues to lack of actual music, via lack of performance experience or leadership. There were almost no even semi-professional musicians before 1858, and few amateurs with the experience - or the confidence - to set anything up. A correspondent agitating the subject in the Otago Daily Times in 1862 commented:

That there is amateur musical talent in Dunedin there is no doubt, and it only requires a choral society to develop such talent, and the day may be not far distant when “Handel’s Oratoria,” “The Messiah” besides
good secular music, will be performed by the Dunedin choral society.


The Dunedin Musical Association was formed after further correspondence, but gave only one ‘miscellaneous concert’ in May 1862, before collapsing in January 1863 from the combined effects of lack of rehearsal space, poor administration, a shifting population, and an inability to attract female membership. But in late 1863 two new choirs were formed within days of one another. The driving force behind one of these, the Philharmonic Society, was George R. West, a former Cambridge chorister, now instrument and music-seller, and organist; the choir met in the Assembly Rooms over his Music Warehouse in Princes Street. Messiah was a logical first choice of repertoire for a society aiming to specialise in large-scale works as it was by now staple fare for choral societies and church choirs throughout Britain. It is clear that the expectation was that the members would own copies. At the first rehearsal on 31 October, under the conductorship of W. Haydn Flood - who had newly arrived in Dunedin and was soon to become Organist and Choirmaster of St Joseph’s Church - five choruses from Messiah were rehearsed with, as Dunedin’s Daily Telegraph reported, ‘a precision and accuracy which...was a source at once of amazement and gratification’.

It was immediately decided to perform the work, and after a mere eight weeks of rehearsals the first Otago performance of (selections from) Messiah was given on Christmas Eve 1863 in the Oddfellows’ Hall, with accompaniment on the St Paul’s Church harmonium, ‘a powerful double-manual’ instrument, played by Mr W.H. Harrison, although Flood accompanied some of the arias. The choir numbered about 52:

the tenors and basses preponderating, the altos, as usual, being very much in the minority...’ but nonetheless the performance was enthusiastically received, the choruses being given ‘with a firmness and precision highly commendable’. (Daily Telegraph)

At Christmas 1864 the whole work was presented for the first time, this time at the Wesleyan Church in Dowling St and under George West’s conductorship. As in the previous year, it had been hoped to muster an orchestra, but in the event the performance was accompanied by a single violin and a Broadwood piano, lent by Mr West. Due to a series of unexpected circumstances the planned 1865 Christmas performance was postponed to March 1866. This - again with harmonium accompaniment - proved to be the Philharmonic’s last concert containing a single work; following West’s resignation in June 1866 the Society efforts deteriorated into a series of recycled miscellaneous concerts, and in late 1867 it ceased to function.

Although Messiah was not performed as an entity in the next few years, it was probably the most ubiquitous single source of repertoire in Dunedin. The 1860s was a period of intensive building of churches of all denominations; the urgent need for fund-raising was met by concerts in which choruses and solos from Messiah were apt to purpose in both content and availability. With the formation of a new Dunedin Choral Society - again driven by West - in 1871, however, Messiah regained its integrity, appearing as the third concert given by the new Society. This time accompaniment was provided by a semblance of an orchestra. Thereafter the work became pretty much an annual fixture; in 1877 the Society gave two performances at different venues, and in 1878 it was given by the Choral Society at Knox Church (completed in 1876) for the first time.

The 1871 performance was described in reviews as ‘complete’, and subsequent performances were at least substantially complete, though in the performances under the conductorship of Benno Scherek in the 1880s only Parts 1 and 2 were given, ending with the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus. By this time the Society was again in decline, and was declared dormant in May 1888. No Messiah was given that year, and preparation of the 400-strong choir for the music in connection with the NZ and South Seas Exhibition which opened in November 1889 occupied Dunedin’s singers for the preceding seven months to such an extent that no
other major performances were attempted.

In 1890 a performance was given by the Dunedin Musical Association, and in 1891 - it having become unthinkable to have Christmas without a Messiah - a performance was organised by Miss Jennie West, the daughter of George R. West, and a very competent organist, and music teacher. Her reminiscences record the recruitment of singers from the church choirs, and advertisement by nocturnal fly-posting (which had to be removed within 24 hours when the legitimate advertiser threatened her with a summons). The performance was given with a ‘good orchestra’, but also with ‘a row of professional musicians standing at the back of Garrison Hall with score and pencils noting down any delinquencies of mine or the soloists’! The performers numbered 200, and the last trains to Port Chalmers and Mosgiel were held back until 10:30 pm to take the audience home.

Following Jennie West’s example, the 1892 performance - again given by a specially-assembled choir - was directed by Raphaello Squarise, and it was performed at Knox Church in 1893. In 1894 visiting musicians gave performances in August and again in October (to a much diminished audience), but it was not heard at Christmas. In 1895 St Paul’s Cathedral choir and Mornington Presbyterian Church choir joined forces for a performance at St Paul’s after separate rehearsals.

The Choral Society was revived in 1897, but it was St Paul’s Cathedral choir who gave Messiah at Christmas that year, the Choral Society having determined to perform Elijah in December. In 1898 the annual Christmas performance of Messiah finally became the ‘property’ of the Choral Society. In the early years of the twentieth century the performance was usually held in the week before Christmas - several performances were even given on Christmas Day itself. Various features were advertised to attract audiences; in 1907 the orchestra would number 28 performers, in 1909 the Choral Society was ‘assisted
by members of various choirs from Dunedin and the suburbs’, and in 1912 a ‘Chorus of 300 voices’ was advertised. The performance of 1904 was notable for non-musical reasons, however, when a portion of the staging on which the choir was standing collapsed about a third of the way through the performance. Fortunately there were no serious injuries, and the concert continued after some discussion, and a break to re-arrange the singers on the platform. The reviewer noted that the performers remained a little on edge.

By Dr Jenny Burchell

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A little history

City of Dunedin Choir performing J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion

5 August 1961, Knox Church
Conductor Prof. Peter Platt
Soloists Dora Drake, Valda McCracken, Ninian Walder, Alistair Stokes, Ed Bohan and Anson Austin
Dunedin Concert Orchestra

17 April 1962, Dunedin Town Hall
Conductor Prof. Peter Platt
Soloists Heather Taylor, Valda McCracken, John Fisher, Arthur Bownie, Noel Signal, Alistair Stokes, Roy Coats
With the University Music Union Choir and the boys of St Paul's Cathedral Choir
Dunedin Concert Orchestra

8 April 1963, Dunedin Town Hall
Conductor Prof. Peter Platt
Soloists Anita Ritchie, Valda McCracken, Walter Robinson, Ed Bohan, Lucas Bunt
With the University Music Union Choir
Dunedin Concert Orchestra (augmented)

24 April 1979, Dunedin Town Hall
Conductor Peter Warwick
Soloists Robert Oliver, Roger Wilson, Ruth Hawkey, Sally Banks, Peter Williams, Haward Harvey
Dunedin Civic Orchestra

2 April 1980, Dunedin Town Hall
Conductor Peter Warwick
Soloists Anthony Benfell, Roger Wilson, Pam Blanchard, Judith Borick, Harvey Brown
With the trebles of ST Paul's Cathedral and Knox Church Choirs
Dunedin Civic Orchestra

The above five performances were sung from the Choir's own scores of the Elgar/Atkins edition in English.

20 March 2005, Dunedin Town Hall
Conductor David Burchell
Soloists David Hamilton, Pepe Becker, David Hansen, David Griffiths, Grant Dixon, Shaun Dixon
Southern Sinfonia.

This performance was in German.

All performances were organised by the Dunedin Choral Society, later called Scola Cantorum and then City of Dunedin Choir, with members of the University Music Union and Cathedral Choirs joining in some performances.

Thanks to Hugh Montgomery for researching the archives.

Saturday, January 1, 2000

A little history

The Early Days


City Choir Dunedin has been entertaining audiences for more than 150 years. The present choir traces its origins back to the Dunedin Philharmonic Society, which gave its first public performance − Handel’s Messiah − on 24 December 1863. The name ‘Dunedin Choral Society’ was adopted for the choir’s second incarnation in 1871, and is still in use as its title of incorporation. The choir has performed under a number of other names, however, including ‘Schola Cantorum’ (1967- 93), and most recently ‘City of Dunedin Choir’ (1993-2012). It now performs as ‘City Choir Dunedin’. As befits a city choir, it attracts people of all ages, from all walks of life, and from around the Otago region.

According to the Choir's archives stored at the Hocken Library Mr H.S. Chapman, Supreme Court Judge, was President of the original Choral Society from its inauguration in 1871 until his death in 1881.

Uchter Knox, 5th Earl of Ranfurly
Vice-Regal Patronage

The various incarnations of the Society made repeated attempts to secure Vice-Regal (and even Royal) patronage, but although they sang to (and on occasion at the request of) the current Governor-General from as early as 1867, they did not achieve Patronage until 1897 when Governor-General Uchter John Mark Knox, 5th Earl of Ranfurly, consented to become Patron.

Successive Governors General were Patron until 1935 - the 1914 incarnation of the Society had Vice-Regal patronage by 1915 - with the Mayor of Dunedin as Vice-Patron from 1921. The Mayor became the Patron in 1936, shared with Professor Victor Galway from 1946 until his death in 1959. With the centenary in 1963 the Society again acquired Vice-Regal patronage (with the Mayor as Vice-Patron). The Hon. Dame Silvia Cartwright was the Choir's last Vice-Regal Patron (2001-2006); the Patron is now the Mayor of Dunedin.

The Musical Directors

Over the years the choir has been led and inspired by many talented and dedicated musical directors including Victor Galway, Alfred Walmsley, W.H. Walden Mills, Edgar Clayton, Peter Platt, Jack Speirs, Peter Warwick, Raymond White, Judy Bellingham, Peter Adams and, currently, David Burchell.

Undoubtedly the drive and vision of its directors are among the reasons for the choir's longevity and success, combined with the commitment of singers, behind-the-scenes committee work, audience support, and financial assistance from national and local arts funding agencies, the Dunedin City Council, other local bodies, and community trusts, for which the choir is most grateful.

150 Years

City Choir first entertained audiences 150 years ago. Read more about City Choir's celebration of 150 Years in 2013.