The birth of the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society
When the Hall opened in 1871, choral music was provided by the National Choral Society of French conductor and composer Charles Gounod, but very soon it was felt that a permanent Royal Albert Hall choir was required. Gounod was requested to arrange this. A prospectus was sent out, asking for good singers, well versed in sight-reading, and 1,400 members were enrolled.
The first concerts in 1872 by the newly formed Royal Albert Hall Choral Society weren’t met with great public enthusiasm, because Gounod included much of his work in the programmes. The first concert, on 8 May 1872, attended by Her Majesty Queen Victoria, did not contain any works by British composers, living or dead. The relationship between the Hall and Gounod quickly worsened, ending with his resignation and the appointment of home grown composer and conductor Joseph Barnby.
Joseph Barnby conductor
Thus began a very fruitful and popular period in the history of the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society, with large works such as Handel’s Belshazzar and Bach’s Passion Music drawing great crowds and exhibiting the suitability of the vast auditorium to engender a community spirit and move the audiences with music on a grand scale. Those present were invited to stand and join with the Choir in the appropriate places, a popular practice that was unique to London at the time.
Throughout the mid 1870s, the Corporation of the Hall and Messrs Novello promoted a series of popular concerts, including on 15 May 1875 the first performance in London of Verdi’s Requiem, conducted by the composer and sung by the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society. This was the beginning of many ‘firsts’ for the Society at the Hall – the first broadcast, a performance of their annual carol concert on 20 December 1924 and the first recording, made by the Gramophone Company of the Society accompanied by the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra performing part of Handel’s Messiah. In 1879, the long tradition began of the Society performing Messiah on Good Friday which has continued nearly every year to the present, excluding the war years of 1940 and 1941. In 1888, the Royal Albert Hall Choral Society was renamed Royal Choral Society by H.M. Queen Victoria in recognition of their outstanding performances.
On 22 March 1900 came the first complete performance of Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha, a musical setting of Longfellow’s poem, which was one of many concert performances. But all this was just a precursor for what was to follow in 1924 when Thomas Fairbairn, a producer of operatic spectacles, was requested by the National Institute for the Blind to organise a charity event. Fairbairn brought Hiawatha to the Hall, utilising the large auditorium to feature a real waterfall, 10,000 square feet of backcloth, a snow storm, a ballet, hundreds of ‘Native Americans’ and a medicine man played by a genuine Mohawk called Chief Os-Ke-Non-Ton who was a trained singer. For a fortnight each year from 1924 until 1939 (excepting the General Strike year of 1926), Hiawatha packed the Hall and provided the Corporation with a large proportion of its annual profits. The Royal Choral Society made their own costumes, and changed in tents in Hyde Park.
Sir Malcolm Sargent
Sir Malcolm Sargent, called ‘the finest British choral conductor of his generation’, and a frequent performer at the Hall, had a 40-year happy association with the choir starting in January 1925 until 24 March 1967, when he conducted Messiah with the Society for the last time.
Throughout its history, the Society has played a major part in the musical life of London and the country. It continued to give a full programme of works throughout 2 World Wars; it was one of the first choirs to present choral works at the Proms.
The Royal Choral Society today is London’s oldest Choral Society and from the beginning, performing premieres of new choral works has been a feature. Following a long line of distinguished conductors including Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Henry Wood, Verdi, Malcolm Sargent and Ralph Vaughan Williams, the present Music Director, Richard Cooke, took over the baton in 1995.
The Royal Choral Society will be marking its 140th anniversary with a special celebratory performance at the Royal Albert Hall of Verdi’s Requiem on Monday 25 June. To celebrate our long history with the choir, we are delighted to support the Royal Choral Society in their anniversary year by offering the Hall free of charge this year’s annual free hire for a charity for this performance. Click here to buy tickets.
Royal Choral Society: Making Music Since 1872