80 years of song
Hertford Choral Society is celebrating 80 years of singing. With the publication of a book on its history and an upcoming Christmas concert, its musical director discusses its success
Marking a major milestone for Hertford Choral Society plus carol concert guide
Community singing is good for our health and that’s both mental and physical. It’s so good for us in fact that enlightened GPs are prescribing ‘join a choir’ to those feeling anxious, depressed or lonely. And it goes without saying that a dose of alleluias is the perfect winter salve for heart and lungs.
‘People do say that a rehearsal with me is like a physical and mental workout,’ says Herford Choral Society (HCS) musical director Derek Harrison. ‘I start with posture and breathing; some musical games and some oohing and aahing. I go at a fairly fast pace.’
Derek has been at the helm of the society for an impressive 41 years, which is just over half the age of the choir itself. He has been involved with singing and music all his life, starting as a chorister in Salisbury Cathedral and later garnering an organ scholarship to Oxford University. His musical achievements are too numerous to list. Most noteworthy of all perhaps is his ongoing success conducting and leading one of Herts’ finest choirs. Today numbering 130 members, it was founded in 1938 by Grace Adams when 12 people got
together to sing at the Parents’ National Educational Union School, located at what is now 4 and 6 Bengeo Street, Hertford. 80 years on, HCS is in rude health.
‘We’re a thriving and robust group of people,’ Derek says with energy, despite the fact he has just come back from a busman’s holiday to Hertford’s twin town Wildeshausen with 40 of the choir’s members. HCS sings in Germany regularly, and strong choral bonds have been formed. After a day or two of rest, the choir will start rehearsing for the next two concerts: Handel’s Messiah and Christmas Cheer, both to be performed at Hertford’s All Saints’ Church.
Derek says that while there is lots of singing going on in Hertfordshire, there is something about a choir as large as HCS that creates a sense of responsibility.
‘The underlying thread of a choir like this is sustaining the core repertoire. It’s important to perform the pieces which require an orchestra of 50 upwards and a choir of 100 plus.’
When it comes to keeping the repertoire going, HCS is doing well. Reading the recently published 80-year history of the choir, Hertford Choral
Society: A history 1938-2018, which is also a fascinating history of Hertford itself, the choir has performed Verdi’s Requiem, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Haydn’s The Creation, Vaughan’s A Sea Symphony,
Britten’s War Requiem and Mahler’s Symphony no. 8, but this only scratches the surface. This illustrious choir doesn’t seem to stop rehearsing and performing and it has so many achievements.
It was judged one of the nine most dynamic music societies in the country. It has performed at the Royal Albert Hall. It has made several recordings. It offers bursaries to young singers and has a dynamic programme of voice coaching workshops that are open to nonmembers. The choir also has great links with Hertford schools and throughout the year it sings with gusto to raise funds for charities.
The choir is made up of one third men and two-thirds women, ranging in age from their 20s to their 90s, and performs four concerts a year at All Saints with professional orchestras and soloists. Rehearsals are on Tuesday evenings at The Sele School. Such is the popularity of this warm-hearted and talented choir that members travel to rehearsals from
north Herts and north London.
So what’s the key to maintaining an even tenor in a large group of diverse people? ‘Retaining a sense of humour,’ says Derek, deadpan.
What does he thinks about the new vocal groups such as Rock Choir? And what about Gareth Malone?
‘All of these other choirs are great. And I think that what Gareth has done is terrific. He’s made people think that, yes, I can sing.’
Derek may be classically trained, but he’s not afraid to mix things up. For the summer gala next June the choir will sing with Blue Steel Band and Accordian5. And the Christmas Cheer concert on December 15 alongside Hertford’s Morgans Primary School Choir will include music by three living composers, one of whom, Cecilia McDowall, is an HCS member.
‘Part of our mission is to introduce the members of the choir and also our audiences to a wide range of music.’
When we talk about the fact that out of
‘The choir are prepared to go along with my hairbrained schemes’
the many distinguished musical directors and conductors HCS has had over the years, Derek has lasted the longest, he smiles and says, ‘We both still like each other, and the choir are prepared to go along with my hair-brained schemes.’
As for those who have never sung or for whom the thought of being faced with sheet music is terrifying, Derek has written a booklet, Welcome to Choral Singing.
So what does he demand of his choir? ‘The approach to attending rehearsals is professional, with a 75 per cent attendance rule. People are doing this as a hobby but we don’t want people just dropping in.’
As professional as the choir sounds, Derek is keen to emphasise that HCS is, and always will be, a community choir.
‘You don’t have to audition,’ he explains. ‘New members are always welcome.’
Hertford Choral Society’s festive concert, Christmas Cheer, is on December 15 at 7.30pm at All Saints’ Church, Hertford.
Hertford Choral Society: A history 1938-2018 is available from hertfordchoral.org.uk (£12 incl p&p).
HCS performing Verdi’s Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall
RIGHT:Many conductors join in the fun at an HCS concertBELOW: Musician Mary Ibberson, founder of Hitchin’s Rural Music School (now Benslow Music), took up the baton in 1940, to create a formal choirBOTTOM:Christmas concert at All Saints with conductor and musical director Derek in white
Members of the choir in May this year
ABOVE: Performing in Wildeshausen in Germany. The society has strong links with Hertford’s twin town