History of the Ottery St Mary Choral Society

In the Beginning

There was a choral society active in Ottery St Mary from 1869 which held concerts in the Town Hall, but nothing more is known about this organisation.

The Choral Society, in its present form, was founded in October 1904. An item in the Parish Magazine reports that a meeting was held in the Church Institute Library on Friday October 28th 1904, of persons interested in forming a Choral Society for the town and district. Sixty persons expressed a willingness to join and annual subscription was set at five shillings. One of the founder members was a local businessman, Edward J. Manley, who continued to perform with the choir until his death in 1935 and several generations of his family have continued to sing with the Society ever since.

The venue for rehearsals and concerts in the early years was the Church Institute.

A thorough search through old records, press announcements, concert programmes and posters has enabled the Society to trace and assemble an almost uninterrupted record of the choir’s performances from their first concert in 1905 to the present day.

The Highs and Lows

As with many organisations, the choir’s fortunes have varied through time and what follows is a brief overview of the Choral Society’s colourful and amazing history.

They didn’t always pull in the crowds. There were poor audience figures as early as April 1908, and a meeting was called to decide the future of the Society. However, a supportive membership continued to produce one major concert each year up to 1914.

The Great War

The outbreak of the Great War (1914-18) resulted in poor membership and small audiences. The AGM recorded “a heavy deficit of £6” and there was an appeal to members “to rally round their officers to clear the debt.”

To support the War Effort in 1915, a concert of patriotic music brought in a large audience, but the financial result was unfavourable and a mere two guineas (£2.10p) was donated to the Ottery War Department. In the final years of the conflict, no evidence has come to light of any performances. The anxieties and external distractions during these austere and sad times, the personal losses to local families and the aftermath of pain and melancholy would have taken their toll. The Ottery Institute was given over almost entirely to war work.

There was little spirit for entertainment in the immediate aftermath, and remembrance services are the only performances on record during this period. Not only had the war killed and maimed many Ottregians, but the disastrous world ’flu epidemic caused as many deaths again as the war itself.

 New Spirit of Optimism

But, by the 1920s the Society was performing two concerts each year – including an open-air concert in the grounds of Ridgeway House; audience, choir, orchestra and soloists were drenched to the skin in a sudden downpour!

In 1936, German’s ‘Merrie England’ and Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ were postponed due to the death of King George V.

Isobel Baillie – the best

For the 1939 performance of Purcell’s ‘King Arthur’ the Ottery Choral Society were honoured to have as soloist the esteemed Scottish soprano Isobel Baillie. At the time, she was widely praised for the purity and clarity of her tone. She was well established as a singer of ‘The Messiah’, which she performed over 1000 times during her long career. She was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1978.

World War II – our first casualty

By 1940, due to the outbreak of War and lack of available members, combined concerts with other choirs were to be favoured for some time. Blackout regulations made evening performances difficult, and concerts were planned for Sunday afternoons. The augmented Ottery St Mary and Feniton Choral Societies combined with church choirs for two performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ Immediately following these concerts the young organist, Arthur Prigg, joined the Royal Air Force and was killed in action. News of the death of this popular and talented young man came as a great shock to the town.

Ottery and Exmouth Societies united for the Brahms ‘Requiem’ in 1943, and Haydn’s ‘Creation’ was performed in aid of the Exeter Blitz Fund.

Marjory Jaco – a class act

As the dark days of the war turned to victory, the Society’s conductor was Marjory Jaco, a flamboyant musician who would organise performances in many parts of the West Country with tremendous enthusiasm and professionalism. In April 1946, the combined choirs of Alphington and Ottery St Mary staged Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ at St Michael’s Church, Exeter.

Marjory had organised an impressive line-up of soloists for this concert, which included the world famous contralto Kathleen Ferrier, the renowned tenor Peter Peers and the powerful baritone Roy Henderson. The crowning glory was the accompaniment by a section of the popular Boyd Neil orchestra – all these performers were leading artistes at the height of their profession and would be frequently heard in major concert halls and on BBC Radio.

Conductor Marjory Jaco had certainly raised Ottery St Mary Choral Society to new heights, but by 1947, due to many shortages, in particular the abolition of the basic petrol ration, fuel became scarce and membership dwindled.

There was a special concert to commemorate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, which included ‘Long Live Elizabeth’ and ‘Rose of England.’

 Mixed Fortunes

In the late 50s and early 60s, the Society experienced a period of decline with cancellation of concerts and suspension of activities as membership fell to single figures.

But there was a total reversal in the Society’s fortunes when John Eustace became organist of Ottery Church and immediately reformed the choir with a membership of 34. Combined concerts with other groups saw enthusiastic performances of Stainer’s ‘Crucifixion’ and Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ Back to two major concerts a year, Haydn’s ‘Creation’ and Gounod’s ‘Mass for Easter’ quickly followed.

 New Heights

Brigadier Peter Lavis was elected chairman in 1967, a post he held for more than 14 years to 1981. A most popular and influential chairman, his leadership and the hard work of his energetic committee were rewarded as the membership rose dramatically.

Chris Teuten joined as musical director in 1974 and the choir went from strength to strength. In 1977, the ‘block-buster’ production of Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ played to three sell-out performances, their third and final concert, by popular demand, staged at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter.

These were heady days for the Society with a powerful choir of 90 choristers, and when Peter Lavis stood down in 1981, he left the choir in good shape. He continued as a generous supporter of the Society, keeping records of their achievements and attending many of the choral performances for another 20 years until ill-health intervened. He will long be remembered with deep affection by all who sung with him, for his leadership, his persuasive charm and the ability to get things done.

 John Wood – a fine musician

Musical Director Chris Teuten’s farewell concert in 1983 featured Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ with a large choir and full orchestral accompaniment. John Wood took over as Musical Director. He was a man of great musical knowledge and experience. Sadly, he became very ill and died in 1987, a great loss to the Society and to music in the West Country; a superb organist and one of Devon’s finest musicians.

Brian Northcott, head of music at University of Plymouth, was conductor of both Ottery and Exmouth Societies throughout the 1990s. This led to some most enjoyable music-making, not only in performances by each society, but united in a series of large-scale concerts performed in Exeter Cathedral. John Neal took over as chairman in 1995.

 Choir in Crisis

Exmouth and Ottery choirs combined in joint performance of Walton’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ at Exeter Cathedral. This was to be Brian Northcott’s last concert as conductor of the Ottery Society. The Society was in crisis; membership was down to 28 (only three men). Members rallied with an energetic recruitment drive and then appointment of Malcolm Matthews as musical director – the Autumn season began with a membership of 50.

In January 2000, Handel’s ‘Messiah’ was performed as a Community Concert in Ottery Church to celebrate the Millennium. A total of 80 choristers took part, which augured well for the future of Ottery St Mary Choral Society in the new century.

Successful Centenary Season

The year 2004 was the Society’s Centenary season and Kyle Hayes took over as Chairman. Four concerts were planned to celebrate this event:

October 2004 ‘The Messiah’ (Handel), December 2004 ‘Festival of Carols’, March 2005 Concert of Celebration including ‘Nelson Mass (Haydn) plus supporting programme.

This wonderful year of celebration was brought to a fitting climax with a performance of the ‘Verdi Requiem’ in the magnificent setting of Exeter Cathedral with Ottery’s 80-strong choir, augmented by choristers from other local choirs, raising the voice-numbers to almost 200 with the splendid orchestral backing of the EMG symphony orchestra.

A Souvenir Programme and CD recording of the event were received with enthusiasm, a fitting finale to an unforgettable season of celebration.

That year, money was raised to provide new tiered staging for the choir and community use.

 BBC ‘Songs of Praise’

In the summer of 2005, the Ottery Parish Church took on the appearance of a film studio as Choral Society members joined the core choir and congregation for the BBC Television recording of “Songs of Praise”. This was a memorable and enjoyable occasion.

 Playing Away

December 2005 saw the ground-breaking and highly successful tour to Ottery’s twin town, Ilsfeld, in Southern Germany. The choir presented works recently performed in Ottery, which were augmented with piano duets performed by Kyle Hayes, Margery Whittington and Ann Muir. This, their first overseas trip, served to bond together the choir which has reflected positively in subsequent concerts.

in 2007 the society began performing in the amazing Classics Galore concerts in Exeter as the main choir. Staged every two years to raise funds for the local Force cancer charity, we have helped raise £90,000 so far.

Now well into the second decade of the millennium, the 80-strong choir plus orchestra, performs two or three concerts a year under the baton of MD Malcolm Matthews.  Annie Bassett chaired the society from 2011 to 2016 and instigated various exciting new changes, such as our own website, members’ email communication, full colour programmes, enlarged concert staging in Ottery Church etc.

David Wade took over as chairman in 2016 and the Society looks forward with confidence.

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