Dr Simon Lindley talks about the history of Leeds based St. Peter’s Singers, as well as the culture of sacred and secular music over the past forty years, and the choir’s current and recent projects recording and performing.
The Origin and Founding of the Choir
The Choir was founded in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year – the summer of 1977 – by a very remarkable musical leader in these parts, who had sung in the Parish Church Choir for many years. He had come from Morley, his name was Harry Fearnley, and he had been secretary of the famous West Riding Singers, founded probably in the early 1960s. Harry wanted an outlet for men, in what was then Leeds Parish Church Choir, to sing different music: madrigals and part-songs. I was happy to be taken on.
There were enough altos, tenors, and basses at the start to give a really good musical underpinning, and whilst these days it would be far more complicated, we recruited between six and ten soprano singers who were fifth- and sixth-formers in what was then Leeds Girls’ High School, now part of the Grammar School at Leeds. This was a very successful social arrangement, and two of the girls who joined at the outset were within a year or two engaged to university students and subsequently married them. It was a real joy to watch that kind of thing evolve.
Until really comparatively recently, we still had one founder singer left and she retired only a few years ago. She was the librarian at the Brotherton Library at the University but lived in Austwick (not far from Lancaster). She would travel over every Sunday night, then stay with a friend in Headingley – amazingly committed. And there were one or two others. There was one woman who had lived in places such as Knottingley, near Wakefield (the coal-mining area), and Womersley near Darrington, before ending up in Bolsover, near Chesterfield. She would travel on Sunday evenings up the M1 – she never seemed to be away, and was very committed. We had a whole conglomerate of other singers who came very long distances. And there was always a central stable unit, to which were added undergraduate members from the Parish Church and from elsewhere. Probably quite a number of the present members have been in for at least thirty years.
Eight years after the foundation, the choir dipped its toe into the water of substantive, big Baroque and Classical projects. The first performance in 1985 of Bach’s Mass in B minor was a big turning point. There was a lot of help to be had then, with Yorkshire Post newspapers very heavily staffed in those days with big feature writers, etc., so the choir was lucky to have good reviews and news coverage. Most are now online-based, but the reviews make a real difference and we have carved a niche in the sacred music market, although that is not all we sing. We have been based at (what is now) Leeds Minster since we started, and sing for them once or twice a year on special Sundays when the Minster choir is on holiday. The Parish Church (as it was then called) was dedicated in 1841, on 2 September, right before the start of school term – which is less than convenient if you are trying to hold a dedication festival on an annual basis!
So items like those are not what we would call (in our management speak these days) ‘core commitments’, but they do give to the younger singers the chance to do solo work, so there is a spin-off there from the actual music.
The Choir more recently
In recent years, we have become more ambitious, so that it is sometimes necessary to hold rehearsal until the middle of July (whereas they used to run to the end of June). Generally, there are no practices on the eve of any bank holidays, although there is a most peculiar bank holiday in May, which is socialist in origin, and it commemorates Labour Day – this is the May Day bank holiday. We’ve established a reasonable compromise, but we don’t over-rehearse, so people need to do some homework. This in itself is good since it tends to concentrate the mind.
A number of singers have gone on to be professional singers. Additionally, Jane Anthony, who founded the Leeds Lieder Festival project, attracted first-rate students to study with her at Leeds College of Music. Alumni Officers call them staybacks. Newcastle and Leeds have a very vibrant social life for students, and it’s these university cities, not necessarily the leafy ones, that have a real community involvement. There are probably eight to a dozen families in Leeds who are fully occupied in professional music. Three or four of them are heads of big music or creative arts departments at high school. Lucy Appleyard, for example, works for Ben Saunders’ marvellous (Catholic) diocese-wide scheme. She is one of his Choral Directors, based in Huddersfield. It is a good input that we have had into the local cultural community.
Leeds is an interesting case: in Leeds there are two choirs of well over 100 voices each: the Festival Chorus and the Philharmonic Chorus. Now, the Festival will tell you that they’re older. They are older in origin, but they do not have a continuous history. I was here when they were reformed in the mid 1970s into an independent choir, but the Leeds Philharmonic – founded 150 years ago next year – has never stopped operations and, much to its credit, in the First and Second World Wars, used to put on community concerts for the troops and local inhabitants at a difficult time when personnel were scarce, money was tight, and professional orchestral players were very few and far between.
The Birth of Opera North in Leeds
I’ve been here long enough to remember working within an environment without the orchestra, chorus, and soloists of Opera North. The City was completely different. All of a sudden, however, in 1978, after I’d been here three years, we got this vast influx of musical professionals. And some of them have never gone: David Greed, for example, the founder-leader is still here. He came straight from the Royal College of Music and by now he must be heading for retirement – I think he is. He’s been extraordinary. He’s also the music director of the Sinfonia of Leeds, and does an enormous amount for everyone: he teaches at Chetham’s School of Music (which he went to as a boy in Manchester). His late father Geoffrey was a lovely man: he was the music advisor for Lincolnshire. And David’s mother Sybil is still alive – she’s quite a good age! But thoroughly “with it”, and often a welcome guest here, at Leeds Town Hall.
Performing New Music
What has kept the singers in good part is doing quite a bit of new music, not aggressively so. At twenty years old in 1997, we commissioned (from Francis Jackson, the York Minster organist emeritus, who is still going strong at age 102!) a piece – a setting of the Latin Stabat mater – for organ, baritone solo and choir, a piece which is about twenty-five minutes long and is very, very powerful. It is quite a significant addition to the repertoire. It is not often performed because it is difficult, but it is a very fine piece. It has a baritone solo specially written for Quentin Brown to sing. This was a good catalyst because we were having a very long restoration of the parish church (now Leeds Minster) in those days. The painting was redone, the glass was triple-glazed to protect it long-term from the vibrations from the traffic, and above all to keep out the traffic noise. Then we had the lighting completely renewed and the organ restored, at a cost of some £260,000. It was a time of much disruption, and Francis’ piece was premiered towards the end of the organ project, and first performed on a temporary electric organ. We’ve subsequently performed it seven or eight times, taking it twice to York Minster.
After the choir had been going ten years, we commissioned some small-scale pieces. First, there was Michael Hurd, who was a Gloucestershire composer who most famously wrote cantatas for children to sing at school, although he did much more than that, too. He wrote us two choral great pieces: ‘A Secular Anthem’ and a piece called ‘Genesis’, which was a setting of a poem by Oxford’s former Professor of poetry, Sir Geoffrey Hill, who also used to teach at the University of Leeds. He was a lovely chap: very widely read and the poetry was glorious. Hurd wrote very well for singers. Penthos was written during the Choir’s 40th anniversary year. The last commission was Tu es Petrus by Philip Moore, the retired organist at York Minster, after Francis [Jackson]. This was successful – it doesn’t suffer fools and needs real confidence. We have sung three of his pieces very regularly over the years, theThree Prayers of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These are really beautiful and composed for a very good mixed voice choir in the home counties. This choral cycle has been sung many times and recorded by fine choirs: the Vasari Singers in London, and the Choir of St. John’s College Cambridge under David Hill – a fine recording.
The Choir’s 2014 CD Recording, One Equal Music
In 2014, we undertook an enterprising project which involved taking the repertoire learned especially for our CD recording (One Equal Music) into the Victoria Quarter, a wonderful place to sing. It was a slightly tricky affair since most of the recording took place late on Summer evenings, which was fine, but on one particular night, there was a great deal of rainfall. The perception that the rainfall wouldn’t be audible to any real degree proved to be wrong, so we had to go back in September. Actually, it was a blessing in disguise, because we came back to it renewed and reinvigorated in September after a break.
There is some demanding stuff on this recording: a very graveyardish Magnificat by Arvo Pärt, which goes along very slowly and really quite quietly for most of the time, on the same tonality with the same A-flat going all the way through, in an Orthodox Christian style. That took some doing. There was some music by Sir Edward Bairstow, the famous Minster organist in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and by Sir William Harris, who taught the Queen music and was organist of St. George’s Windsor, and there was a lot of music for a double choir.
The Victoria Quarter space was wonderful. For a number of years, we went to entertain guests of Harvey Nichols on Sunday evenings in December, after business hours, singing Christmas Carols in the stunning peace and surroundings of the Victoria Quarter, decorated and lit up for Christmas. That was how we discovered what may well be the best acoustic in Leeds, and one that most closely resembles that of a great Cathedral, there in the midst of all the commercial activity. Now, unfortunately, other business priorities have intervened to bring an end to those events, and we are on the lookout for other such opportunities to replace them.
I also work in Sheffield. The Leeds Guild of Singers was founded in 1948 by Dr Melville Cook in order solely to perform the Mass in B Minor on the actual day of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in Leipzig, so in 1950. In Sheffield, there are 11 choirs (all employing professional conductors, accompanists, soloists, and orchestras.), whereas in Leeds there are two big choirs and two smaller. Now don’t ask me where the audiences come from because I haven’t a clue, but each has completely separate audiences, and comparatively few go to anybody else’s concert. I quite often go to the Oratorio Chorus concerts, held in the Cathedral. It’s good to make sure what other choirs are doing. I recall going to to see Britten’s Company of Heaven in Sheffield, which includes two professional acting reciters, and I walked through the door of the church and was asked what I was doing there. I think they thought I was a spy!
Before our big recording, One Equal Music, we had released two CDs for a York firm, both Francis Jackson pieces with organ, actor and choir: Daniel in Babylon, which is absolutely riveting and A Time of Fire, which used to be called Tyndale, and which was about martyrdom in the Reformation. The words were all written by John Stuart Anderson, who was well on in years when he came up and recorded them with us.
Like a number of other stalwarts, I joined in 1984-5, and was soon in awe of Dr Lindley’s musicianship. I well remember how my first rehearsal began with the opening movement of Bach’s wonderful cantata ‘Sleepers wake’ and Simon effortlessly, and it seemed completely instinctively, delivered an utterly vibrant realisation of the orchestral score on the piano that went way beyond what was written in the piano reduction. He is a musical force of nature, but also a real grafter who over the years has put in huge personal resources to further the cause of choral and organ music in the region.
Over the years there have been many highlights. Everyone has different favourites, but memories that stand out for me include the late and much lamented Kate Woodruff’s singing of the Angel in our three performances of The Dream of Gerontius, two performances of the St John Passion to a non-paying audience of over 800 in Leeds Town Hall lunchtime recitals, singing Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium to the Harvey Nichols diners in the hush of a quiet Victoria Quarter, and hearing for the first time the opening moments of Penthos.
As with any organisation, we have evolved over the years, trying to be more organised, better at communication and more responsive to those who want to sing with us and to those who might be attracted to listen to us. The challenge is to keep evolving and refreshing.
So it pleases me a lot that the two major undertakings of the last few years – the recording of One Equal Music in the Victoria Quarter in 2014 and the first performance of Penthos last autumn – have involved considerable artistic and financial risk at the outset, yet succeeded, and have justifiably reinforced our ongoing reputation for innovation and enterprise.
What does the future hold for St Peter’s Singers? It’s hard to be sure, of course, but we will be looking to build our audience, continuing to delight with (we hope) a well-judged mix of popular and innovative, interesting programmes that fire people up for classical music. Next up, a well-deserved second performance for Penthos next year on Good Friday – how good it is to be able to celebrate such rich creativity within our midst!”
Composer Matthew Oglesby joins Dr Lindley for our feature on Penthos here.
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.