History of the Choir

The Nottingham Harmonic Society was founded in 1856 by a group of music enthusiasts. In those days there was no recorded music, no radio, so no means of hearing music other than travelling to hear an orchestra in some centre large enough to support one, or to try to perform the music yourself. Very few people had the ability to travel far, so many small groups of musical people assembled to practice and perform together.

In 1846, one such group started to assemble under the leadership of a Mr Alfred Lowe, who brought together several smaller groups into a choir to practice part songs and madrigals, and to extend their general musical knowledge. At about the same time, a separate, differently focused group was flourishing – The Mechanics Institute. They had grown and had built a centre for themselves which included a Lecture Hall. This building became a centre for literary, social and artistic life in the town. Mr Lowe was also a pivotal member of this body. Singing Classes were started in the Institute, which inevitably drew in the Part Song and Madrigal group assembled by Mr Lowe. Instrumentalists also joined, and The Nottingham Sacred Harmonic Society was formally founded ten years later, as a choir and orchestra for the musical education of the people of Nottingham.

During the first fifty years of existence, Charles Hallé was a semi-regular visiting conductor, Sir Arthur Sullivan conducted a performance of his oratorio The Martyr of Antioch and in the same season Dr Hans Richter conducted a concert of music by Dvorak.

By the turn of the century the Society had become sufficiently well known and proficient that Henry Wood, later to become Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Promenade Concerts, used to travel up from London by train each week to rehearse the Choir and Orchestra. The works they performed included the Handel Oratorios, the large choral works by Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart etc. but also relatively modern works for the time: Wagner Operas (in concert form), Parry and Gade, thus fulfilling the society’s educational role.

Through the 1930s the choir was under the baton of a series of well-known conductors and choral trainers such as Roy Henderson and Sir Hamilton Harty. The appointment in 1937 of Herbert Bardgett saw the beginning of a long and distinguished period of musical achievement under the guidance of this remarkably gifted choral director. The Nottingham Harmonic Society thus established itself as one of the leading choruses in Britain.

The late Noel Cox took over from Herbert Bardgett in 1949 and remained the society’s conductor and trainer into the 1970s. His increasing responsibilities at the Royal Academy of Music eventually made it impossible for him to continue his leadership.

In 1986 the Society gained another notable musical director: Neil Page, who took up his post following his appointment as Director of Music at Uppingham School in 1985. Early in 2007 Neil announced he wished to retire, after twenty-one years, at the end of the 2006/2007 season. A new music director was appointed: Murray Stewart, who took up his post at the begining of September 2007. In the Autumn of 2008, Murray was offered a prestigious appointment in Denmark, so he stood down as Music Director after the Carol concerts in 2008.

Advertisments for a new Director of Music were placed, but clearly no one could be appointed in time for the Spring 2009 concert. Given the circumstances, the planned concert in Southwell Minster in May 2009 was cancelled. This had been going to be in conjunction with The London Pro-Arte Brass Ensemble, which Murray Stewart also conducted. For the Brahms and Beethoven concert in March 2009, Paul Hale, Director of Music at Southwell Minster and conductor of the Nottingham Bach Choir, stood in as temporary Director of Music and Guest Conductor.

In April 2009 Richard Laing was appointed as the new Music Director, and the following eight years have seen an increasing number of performances as part of the Nottingham Classics series of concerts.

A more complete list of recent accompanists and music directors can be found here.

Nottingham Harmonic Choir has regularly performed with guest conductors in addition to its Principal Conductor. In the more recent part of its long history Adrian Boult, Malcolm Sargent, Owain Arwel Hughes, Norman Del Mar, James Loughran, George Weldon, Laszlo Heltay, Richard Hickox, Sir Charles Groves and Sir David Willcocks are among those who have worked with the choir. In the last few years the society has been privileged to be directed on several occasions by John Wilson and Sir Mark Elder.

The full choir, numbering over 200 singers, performed at the opening of Nottingham’s magnificent Royal Concert Hall, which has become the venue for the majority of the society’s concerts. In addition to the Royal Concert Hall, the Choir has accepted invitations on numerous occasions to perform in other venues including the Royal Albert Hall.

With great sadness, in 2021 we announced the death of our long standing President, Professor John Morehen. He took up the position of President in 2008 and, with his great musical expertise and approachable manner, brought so much to the role. John skilfully performed at the piano and organ at our Family Carol Concerts and also gladly accompanied us when needed at rehearsals on many occasions. He presided at our Annual General Meetings and one member commented ‘it says something that I enjoyed the AGMs under his guidance! No mere figurehead, I always appreciated the time he gave us as accompanist, attending our concerts and the friendly words to us all.’ You can read the full Obituary (published by The Telegraph). Also, read more about John on his webpage: http://www.morehen.com/