William Bush founded the Chelmsford Singers in 1927 from the Male and Mixed Voice choirs which had previously existed under the conductorship of Mrs T.H. Waller in order to compete in the Essex Musical Festival competitions. This they did with great success over many years as well as presenting regular concerts in the Cathedral. At times the Singers entered two rival choirs into the competition, held in the Corn Exchange, which stood on the site of the present Chancellor Hall.
Mr Bush, described as Chelmsford’s most devoted servant of music, was also organist and choirmaster at St. Peter’s Church, now the Church of the Ascension, and is remembered with great affection as the proprietor of Dace’s music shop, situated at that time in New London Road. Choir members were sometimes auditioned in a room over the shop. Mr Bush relinquished the conductorship, due to failing eyesight, in 1945. The Chelmsford Singers staged a concert in honour of his eightieth birthday in 1965 and sang at his memorial service in the Cathedral in 1966.
Dr. Roland Middleton succeeded William Bush in 1945, the first of a succession of Chelmsford Cathedral Directors of Music to conduct the Singers. He was succeeded in 1949 by Stanley Vann. In this 1951 photograph of the Chelmsford Singers Stanley Vann is seated tenth from the left, flanked by William Bush, founder and first conductor of the choir and Mr Arthur Woolford, for many years the Singers’ non-singing chairman. Dr. Vann, a stately, dignified figure was described as sometimes bringing off performances by the sheer magnetic force of his personality. When he moved on to Peterborough Cathedral in 1953 his place was taken by Derrick Cantrell. Derreck Cantrell, described as a gentler and less extroverted personality than Dr. Vann, continued to extend the Singers’ repertoire, with works as diverse as Fauré’s Requiem and Holst’s Hymn of Jesus.
Philip Ledger arrived in 1962, at the time the youngest cathedral organist yet appointed, and the choir enjoyed a stimulating and demanding three years under his baton. He literally ‘blew a wind of change through the singers’ ranks’, to quote Peter Andrews of the Chelmsford Weekly News in his Golden Jubilee article, in which he cited the B minor Mass performance of 1964 as the apotheosis of his time at Chelmsford’, enthusing over the ‘power of the opening Kyrie, the hush of the diminuendo in the Et Crucifixus, the soaring sublimity of the Sanctus and the tranquillity of the final Dona Nobis Pacem’. Dr. Ledger went on to a distinguished career at the University of East Anglia, King’s College, Cambridge and, subsequently, as Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
John Jordan, also still in his twenties, took over in 1965 and conducted the choir until 1981 when he turned to a globe-trotting career as a roving examiner, later to become organist of King’s Lynn parish church. He was an ebullient musician and an energetic and enthusiastic conductor.
The period under Graham Elliot also saw the re-ordering of the Cathedral and the introduction of the annual Chelmsford Cathedral Festival. Pressure of work caused Dr. Elliot to relinquish the baton in 1993 when we welcomed Peter Cross, who had often worked with the Singers in earlier days. In 2001 Edward Wellman, Assistant Director of Music at the Cathedral took over as Conductor. In 2004 he was succeeded by Peter Nardone, who subesquently left to take up the post of Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral in 2012. After a term once again under the baton of Peter Cross, James Davy took over as conductor, moving south to Chelmsford from Blackburn Cathedral.
Many fine local musicians have accompanied the choir over the years including Cecil Hart, both Mr and Mrs F. Billington and Phyllis Wright, who held the post of Deputy Conductor from 1956 to 1976. Most notably, Geoffrey Beckett accompanied the Singers faithfully for 30 years until his retirement in 1981. Since then various members of the Cathedral staff have held the post, including John Webster, Timothy Allen, Neil Weston and Oliver Waterer (lately Director of Music, St David’s Cathedral), and more recently the organ scholars Simon Harvey, Samuel Kimuli, Christopher Pocock, Stewart Corrie and Christopher Strange.
Some distinguished soloists have performed with the Singers over the years including Isobel Baillie, Peter Pears, Janet Baker, Ian Paterson, Robert Tear and John Shirley Quirk. Most recently we were delighted by the singing of James Bowman. Singers who have performed with us as students have gone on to distinguished careers, for example Stephen Roberts and Tracy Chadwell.
The Chelmsford Singers have always been and remain closely associated with the Cathedral. Apart from the Cathedral being our principal concert venue, we have been privileged to have successive Provosts and Deans as our President.
TOWN AND FAMILY LINKS
A number of Chelmsford families have retained close family ties with the Singers, for example the Hickman family and the Emmisons and, most notably, the Woolford family. Mr Arthur Woolford was for many years the choir’s non-singing chairman, whilst both his wife and daughter were long-standing choir members.
An annual dinner, held until the mid-sixties, gave way to post-concert receptions and, more recently, to summer concert suppers in village churches and other locations. The Golden and Diamond Jubilees were suitably celebrated with supper in the Shire Hall following the concerts.
CHELMSFORD CATHEDRAL FESTIVAL
The Singers have on several occasions taken part in the Cathedral Festival. On the final evening of the first festival in May 1984 they performed ‘This World’s Joie’, conducted by the composer, William Mathias. Bach’s B minor Mass was performed in 1985 and Vaughan Williams’ Benedicite formed part of the opening concert of the 1986 festival. In 1991 former conductor, Dr Philip Ledger, returned to conduct a performance of Britten’s Spring Symphony with the Essex Youth Orchestra. May 1996 saw the choir performing in the town centre as part of the Festival Fringe. .