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History

In 1887, amid the celebrations for Queen Victoria's Jubilee, a few musical enthusiasts met in the Bolton Arms Coffee Tavern to discuss the idea of forming a Church Choral Union. The founders were great optimists as well as enthusiasts, for Bolton already had a flourishing Choral Society and a Philharmonic Society.

John Mitchell Bentley, Conductor
  John Mitchell Bentley,
          Conductor

J.M Bentley was appointed conductor, and remained in the post until 1903. The membership grew to 60 in 1890 and the name was changed to Bolton Choral Union, which it was felt would have a wider appeal. Haydn's Creation and Handel's Messiah were popular choices, and in 1894 a few members of Sir Charles Hallé's orchestra were employed, raising the numbers in the choir and orchestra to 150.

By 1896, the Town Council decided to allow the Choral Union to perform in Queen's Park, but only after 4pm, in case it should ‘empty the Sunday Schools’. These concerts were an enormous success, attracting audiences of between 20,000 and 30,000, and they continued until 1938. At the last concert on a very wet night, there were (only!) 500 present.

Thomas Booth, Conductor
        Thomas Booth,
           Conductor

Between 1903 and 1910 there were several conductors, but in 1910 Thomas Booth took over and remained in charge until 1938. During this time the Hallé Orchestra was engaged to accompany the choir and Thomas Beecham conducted parts of the concerts and became president for three years. The choir was invited to broadcast with the Northern Wireless Orchestra in 1928 and 1929. It was honoured by the town at the opening of the new bandstand in Queen's Park, and sang at the Empire Stadium, Wembley during the British Empire Exhibition and at the Samuel Crompton Centenary in Queen's Park. Social events at this time included picnics, visits to the opera and Hallé concerts and day trips, all of which seemed very popular. From 1938 the choir was conducted by Thomas Booth, A M Holden, Frank Rushton and Kenneth Long.

The files of the Bolton Evening News give fascinating insights into the choir's past. Yellowing columns of newsprint give concert reviews and AGM reports right back to 1930, the time of Thomas Booth who was a giant in the choir's history. At the 1930 AGM he was exhorting everyone to greater efforts, saying that it was a "testing time" and there was danger of the choir's having to disband. But he also pointed out that the year's performance of Elijah had filled the hall – "and if that didn't, nothing would".

The October 1930 concert of Berlioz's Faust was the climax to two years of work by the chorus; but the News reviewer seemed unimpressed by their efforts, commenting: "As always with Berlioz, the finest things of all were heard in the orchestra."

An advertisement in September 1932 detailed seat prices for subscribers, describing BCU with suitable modesty as "Bolton's Greatest Musical Enterprise". Prices varied from 6 shillings (30p) in the gallery to 17 shillings (85p) in the best seats.

At the 1934 AGM it was suggested that there should be some form of state subsidy for music. There was also a comment that voluntary organisations should be free from entertainment tax. The following year, it appeared that some of these pleas had been heard; the "benevolent action of the Government" relieved BCU of entertainment tax – so there were lower seat prices and an extra concert that year.

The BCU Committee 1920s
                           The BCU Committee 1920s

Messiah was making its annual appearance, and in contrast with today's more delicate approach, it seems that the performances were full-blooded to say the least. The reviewer commented in 1935 on: "the shattering effect of their fortissimos in choruses like 'His Yoke is Easy', 'Lift Up Your Heads', 'Hallelujah', 'Worthy is the Lamb'. The Hall is too small for their unleashed powers; one retires bruised." Nor was he averse to criticising one of the soloists, Isobel Baillie, whom he said failed to fulfil her promise when she went down into the mezzo register.

A series of articles on the choir appeared in 1936 as it approached its 50th anniversary. The 1936-37 season featured PagliacciMessiahMerrie Englandand Carmen. In Messiah that year, "the orchestra, as usual, made use of Mr Booth's additions to the score".

There was clear determination to keep the choir going through the dark years of war. In 1940 the future was assured by "the securing as President of the brilliant young musician, Dr Malcolm Sargent". Later that year, the Messiah reviewer was obviously more approving of Isobel Baillie when he described her as "perhaps the finest living exponent of Handel's masterpiece."

A reflection of the times in which the Choral Union was carrying on is given on the reverse of the 1940 concert report cutting; it features a recipe for Baked Turnips au Gratin and a pattern, price 1/- post free, for a "warm nightie-pyjama with a jacket to slip on in an emergency".

In 1943 Frank Rushton urged members to try to secure some new young and fresh voices: "people who would not be afraid of the blackout and bad weather, who would come to rehearsals and pay full attention to what was going on and not treat them as a sort of night out or conversazione."

Our treasurer will yearningly read this report of the good times – in 1943 the balance sheet for the previous season showed a profit of £21.8s.1d. Those were the days!

The BCU Picnic 1920s
                  The BCU picnic 1920s

Times were still stringent in the years immediately after the war, but the fellowship of those who love music is universal. The Civic Light Opera Co. of Burbank, California decided to brighten the 1948 festive season for "brethren choristers" and sent a parcel of supplies to BCU containing, among other items, dried peaches, frosting mixture, cookies, cake mixture, fruit juice – and soap. These gleefully received luxuries were distributed at rehearsal (how did they decide who got the soap?).

Times changed a lot during the next decade, and the standard of living began to rise to such a stage that many households had their own television set. Moving with the march of progress, BCU rearranged its 1955 Messiah concert to avoid clashing with the television production. Isobel Baillie made a "long-awaited return to Bolton. Despite keen competition no-one has yet surpassed her in the singing of these well-known arias".

Financially, a milestone came in 1953. At the beginning of the year Bolton Entertainments Committee decided to make a £50 grant to BCU. In August this was raised to £75. Nevertheless, the following year: "on the threshold of its 70th season BCU, the oldest musical society in town, is fighting for survival" against rising costs, dwindling support, and the competing attractions of television. "But there is no lowering of its standards."

The Modern Era

Michael Greenhalgh
     Michael Greenhalgh

Michael Greenhalgh took over as the conductor and musical director of Bolton Choral Union in 1972, having previously been its accompanist. Since then he has steered the choir through at least four major concerts each year, including memorable performances such as the Berlioz Te Deum in Bolton Parish Church with an augmented choir of over 200 singers, a performance of David Fanshawe's African Sanctus in the presence of the composer and many performances of Handel's Messiah and the Bach B Minor Mass, two of his favourite works. Michael was previously Director of Music and then Head of Performing arts at Blackburn Tertiary College and has encouraged many young musicians on their way to successful musical careers. Michael's services are always in demand and he is constantly conducting and playing for local groups. He is much admired and respected by all musicians and audiences in the town and has made an enormous musical contribution to its cultural life over many years.
           
New and more adventurous works like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem, David Fanshawe's African Sanctus and Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man have been performed alongside the standard repertoire including Mendelssohn's Elijah, Verdi's Requiem, Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, Handel's Messiah, Mozart's Masses and Requiem, Bach's Passions and Mass in B Minor. The choir also sings new music by local composers, including Martin Lessons' Sing Me The Universal (commissioned for BCU).
           
The Queen's Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in 2012 to perform works associated with the Coronation in 1953 such as Parry's I Was Glad and Elgar's Coronation Ode. BCU was one of the first choirs to perform Karl Jenkins' The Peace Makers in 2013. Next Michael Greenhalgh's Festal Mass was premiered alongside Howard Goodall's Eternal Light: A Requiem. This was followed by a concert to commemorate the outbreak of WW1, including Dona Nobis Pacem by Vaughan Williams.
           
Since then BCU has performed Bob Chilcott’s Little Jazz Mass and On Christmas Night, John Rutter’s Feel the Spirit, Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man, Orff’s Carmina Burana, Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Nelson Mass and Maria Theresa Mass, Requiems by Brahms, Fauré and Duruflé, and two works by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo: Sunrise Mass and Luminous Night of the Soul.
           
The music we perform ranges through more than 300 years and embraces a very wide range of styles – with something for everyone. A complete list of music performed since 2000 can be found in the 'Archives' section by clicking here.

 

 

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