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It was an inspired idea for Hereford Choral Society (HCS) to commission its 175th anniversary history from Timothy Day, a former music curator at the British Library and author of A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History (Yale UP, 2000). Now engaged in a research project on the performing styles of English cathedral choirs, Day was well placed to set HCS in a broader historico-cultural context, and that is precisely what he delivers.

At first glance, 80 pages might presage more of a Festschriftthan a detailed study, but this is a large-format paperback printed in double columns, lacking nothing in detail, and avoiding the obvious trap in this kind of history of resorting to lists. The tone of the book is set in the Preface, which details the confusion that reigned for decades over the precise age of HCS. Generally agreed to have been established in 1838, in 1922 a Roneo’d newsletter headed ‘HCS /Est 1838’ had come out too faint, so someone coloured in the date again, only with ‘1837’, causing the centenary and later anniversaries to be celebrated a year early. ‘It all goes to show how important it is for Hon. Secretaries to remember their reading glasses,’ Day remarks.

He then begins with a social history of music-making in Herefordshire, neatly weaving into it a history of the development of singing in churches and cathedrals down the centuries, and developing the idea that, before the advances of the 19th century, the professional musical arts were the preserve of low-status artisans … and in the social context, only of women. Day reveals how the arrival of Mechanics Institutes from industrial revolution cities put pressure on institutions in non-manufacturing towns to up their game in providing for the ‘honourable and delightful employment’ of people now experiencing the concept of ‘leisure time’ which came with more regulated patterns of work. This was the context in which HCS was born, and Day continues to chart its history, mirrored by the growing professionalism of music in the Cathedral, appropriately enough, given the umbilical link between succeeding generations of organists and choirmen, and the Society; he paints vivid portraits of HCS’s 19th-century conductors from the founder John Hunt through George Townshend Smith to Langdon Colborne, the millennium- spanning George Robertson Sinclair, and then the conductors of living memory – Percy Hull who worked through both world wars, Meredith Davies, Melville Cook, Richard Lloyd, Roy Massey and today’s incumbent, Geraint Bowen; he charts the Society’s association with the Three Choirs Festival, in text which is rich in incidental detail. In a fascinating section on money, Day reveals that today’s ticket prices often cost less in equivalent terms than they did in the 19th century when people had much less disposable income. Orchestral costs continue to escalate, and there are asides which will cause wry smiles among today’s hard-pressed managers: for example, during the second world war, the Cathedral forbade concerts to be mounted with paid admission, proposing that an orchestra of local amateurs should be recruited instead of the professionals who had driven standards up to the levels of BBC endorsement; and back in 1882, a secretary gets hoity-toity with a violinist who agreed to reduce his fee in extremis but insisted it be reinstated and increased in later concerts: ‘Oh really? Who does this Mr Elgar think he is?’ In a hilarious passage which will also provoke vigorous head-nodding, Day quotes an (imagined?) account of a pained discussion about all the usual verger-related obstacles placed in the way of turning the Cathedral pews round for a concert, which canvasses the notion that the Sea Scouts should know how to turn the seats round because they are all confirmed members of the C of E and concludes: ‘Does the concert manager know that he’s only able to switch certain lights on after the verger’s left?’‘Yes, by the way, the concert manager can’t supervise at all if the assistant organist is practising the Christmas voluntaries.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Well, he can’t if it’s Messiaen.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘He can’t guarantee that the pews will be all turned and in order if there’s Dieu parmi nous going on while he’s supervising ...’

In the 20th century, Day goes on to consider the development of the ‘cathedral sound’ in colleges and chapels, and the effect this had on the performing styles of conductors and singers; the personal influence of Elgar and Vaughan Williams on the Society is explored; and the text of the history concludes with a brief review of the emotional impact that the Society has wrought on those who have conducted, sung and listened through its 175-year history. There is an admirably exhaustive list of footnotes and a proper index. To sum up: multum in parvo – Timothy Day’s absorbing and wide-ranging history of HCS sets a standard to which any choral society thinking of commissioning an anniversary monograph should aspire.

GRAEME KAY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Choir & Organ, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing