The Philharmonia Chorus was founded in 1957 by Walter Legge as a choral counterpart to the Philharmonia Orchestra which he had founded twelve years earlier. The Chorus’s first concert, a performance on 12 November 1957 of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, completed a cycle of Beethoven symphonies in London’s Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer, and was recorded shortly afterwards with the same performers.
To create his chorus, Legge turned to Wilhelm Pitz, then chorus master of the Bayreuth Festival. Between the first rehearsal in February 1957 and first concert there was a long period of preparation during which Pitz rehearsed the Chorus in not only the scheduled Beethoven but also in choral passages from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. From that preparatory work emerged a chorus unique for its blend of British choral tradition and German musical training and discipline, and for a dramatic quality found more typically in opera than in a symphony chorus. The full yet homogeneous and professionally disciplined sound immediately attracted critical notice.
Under Legge’s management and Pitz’s training the Chorus worked with many of the most distinguished conductors of the time: Wolfgang Sawallisch, Sir Thomas Beecham, Carlo Maria Giulini (a particularly close relationship), Herbert von Karajan, Leopold Stokowski, Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Adrian Boult. Benchmark recordings of the Maria Callas/Tullio Serafin Lucia di Lammermoor, Sir William Walton conducting his own Belshazzar's Feast, Klemperer’s Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mahler’s Second Symphony, and Giulini’s Verdi Requiem and Quattro Pezzi Sacri won particular acclaim. Tours followed to the Edinburgh Festival, to Lucerne, and with Giulini to Parma where the audience in the Teatro Regio paid it the remarkable compliment of showering carnations on this British chorus singing Verdi to Italians.
When Legge relinquished management in 1964, the re-formed New Philharmonia Chorus became a self-governing body independent of the Philharmonia Orchestra with a Council of Management of twelve Directors elected by the members, a system of governance which remains in place today. The first concert of both New Philharmonia Orchestra and New Philharmonia Chorus took place on 27 October 1964, a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony again conducted by Klemperer. In succeeding years the Chorus performed and recorded works with further renowned conductors: Lorin Maazel, George Szell, Daniel Barenboim and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (notable recordings of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Orff’s Carmina Burana and Haydn's Die Schöpfung), and further collaborations with Walton, Benjamin Britten conducting his Spring Symphony, and a landmark performance, later released on LP and then CD, and of Britten’s War Requiem conducted by Giulini, with Britten himself conducting the chamber ensemble.
On his retirement in 1971, Wilhelm Pitz was succeeded as Chorus Master by Walter Hagen-Groll (from the Deutsche Oper of West Berlin), in 1975 by Norbert Balatsch (chorus master of both Vienna Staatsoper and Bayreuth Festival), in 1980 by Heinz Mende (former chorus master of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks in Munich), and then in 1984 by Horst Neumann (chorus master of the Rundfunkchor Leipzig).
Re-instatement of the original name
On 1 September 1977 the Chorus was able to take back its former name, Philharmonia Chorus, and later the same month gave two performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in Belgium with the similarly reinstated Philharmonia Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas.
These years saw the Chorus tour widely throughout Europe: several staged operas in the Roman Théâtre Antique d’Orange, Haydn’s Die Schöpfung in Paris and London to celebrate the UK’s entry into the EEC in 1973, Handel’s Judas Maccabeus with Sir Charles Mackerras at Teatro alla Scala Milan in 1980 followed a few years later by a second appearance at La Scala in Bach’s B minor Mass under Giulini. A 1979 recording of Mozart’s Requiem with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Giulini won the 1981 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance.
In the UK there were engagements with Riccardo Muti, Sir Georg Solti, Lovro von Matačić, Giuseppe Sinopoli (appointed Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1984 and with whom the Chorus appeared in Parma and Taormina), Kurt Sanderling (including the Chorus' second recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony), Sir Andrew Davis, Seiji Ozawa, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Bernard Haitink, Charles Dutoit, and in 1980 the Chorus's first appearance at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Rudolf Kempe Memorial Concert. A second appearance in the same House six years later in Britten’s War Requiem with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle was a Memorial Concert for Sir Peter Pears. These years also saw the Chorus appearing regularly in the UK outside London with notable visits to Cardiff, Brighton, Nottingham, Derby, Cheltenham, Cambridge and Aldeburgh. At Aldeburgh the Chorus gave the world première in 1985 of Britten's unfinished final composition Praise We Great Men, with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Mstislav Rostropovich, and three years later took part in a semi-staged performance of Britten's Paul Bunyan. Two years later in 1988 a particular honour was paid the Chorus: an invitation to perform in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and concert hall, the hall’s re-opening after renovations, and Bernard Haitink’s last concerts as chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
In 1992 David Hill became Chorus Master and Artistic Director. Director of Music at Westminster Cathedral and later at Winchester Cathedral, he was the first Briton to hold the post. He was succeeded by Robert Dean, formerly Head of Music at Scottish Opera and Professor of Singing at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, in 1998. In these years the Chorus performed Rachmaninov’s Vespers in Westminster and Winchester Cathedrals and recorded it, accompanied Luciano Pavarotti “in the Park” and at Leeds Castle, remixed Beatles numbers, and performed before HM The Queen for the 50th Anniversary of VE Day. At London's Royal Festival Hall, its traditional home, the Chorus appeared regularly with Claus Peter Flor and the Philharmonia Orchestra's then Principal Guest Conductor, Leonard Slatkin.
In December 1997 the Chorus celebrated its 40th Birthday with its patron HRH The Prince of Wales in attendance at a Gala performance of Verdi’s Requiem with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by James Levine, followed three days later by a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the same conductor. During this period the Chorus performed for the first time with Valery Gergiev and Sir Mark Elder. Several European tours of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony followed with Guilini and the European Community Youth Orchestra, with Sir Yehudi Menuhin and the Sinfonia Varsovia, and in December 1999 with Sir Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, culminating in a Millennium Concert broadcast by BBC Television from Ely Cathedral. Other overseas tours took place to Strasbourg, the first visit to the US (to Baltimore), and in 2000 the Chorus was invited to perform in the Vatican's Paul VI Audience Hall for Pope John Paul II on his 80th birthday. In autumn 2002 the Chorus joined the orchestra and chorus of Norddeutscher Rundfunk and the BBC Singers in the presence of the President of Germany Johannes Rau and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for a concert of reconciliation, Britten’s War Requiem conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, performed in the Turbine Hall of the former Nazi rocket development factory in Peenemünde, north Germany.
In 2004, following a semi-staged concert performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz at the Edinburgh Festival the previous year, Sir Charles Mackerras agreed to become the Chorus’s first President, which post he held with distinction until his death in 2010. The 50th anniversary was celebrated in June 2007 with a performance of Verdi’s Requiem with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti in the presence of its Patron HRH The Prince of Wales. In Autumn 2008 Edward Caswell became Artistic Director, training the Chorus for a performance of Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony in London’s Barbican Centre conducted by John Axelrod in a concert to mark the 70th Anniversary of Kristallnacht.
In April 2010 the Philharmonia Chorus returned to its tradition of German musical training with the appointment as Chorus Master of Stefan Bevier, a former player with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, a singer and conductor.
Earlier the same year was launched the Philharmonia Chorus Professional Singers Scheme, through which specially auditioned professional singers in the early years of their careers join the Chorus as members. The first concert to include members of the Scheme took place in February 2010 in London’s Royal Festival Hall, a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Eliahu Inbal. Performances since have included the UK première of Jeajoon Ryu’s Sinfonia da Requiem(Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nowak), Beethoven Ninth Symphony (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Volkov and Philharmonia Orchestra/Salonen), Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Noseda), Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem (Philharmonia Orchestra/Dohnányi), and Britten's War Requiem and Mahler's Second and Eighth Symphonies (Philharmonia Orchestra/Maazel). The Chorus’s several appearances at the “Easter at King’s” Festival, conducted by Stephen Cleobury and broadcast by BBC Radio from King’s College Cambridge, have included James MacMillan’s recently composed Passion According to St John in the presence of the composer, and Frank Martin’s Golgotha in the presence of the composer’s widow.
In 2012 the Chorus returned to continental Europe, performing Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts with the Orchestre National de Lyon under Leonard Slatkin both in the Auditorium de Lyon and at the Berlioz Festival in the composer’s birthplace of La Côte-St-André. The Chorus also opened Hamburger Symphoniker’s 2012-13 season with a performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius conducted by Jeffrey Tate, a former member of the Chorus, following which he agreed to become the Chorus’s President.
1957-1971 Wilhelm Pitz
1971-1975 Walter Hagen-Groll
1975-1980 Norbert Balatsch
1980-1983 Heinz Mende
1984-1992 Horst Neumann
1992-1998 David Hill (Artistic Director)
1998-2007 Robert Dean (Artistic Director)
2008-2010 Edward Caswell (Artistic Director)
2010- Stefan Bevier
The Chorus has had four Accompanists: first, Viola Tunnard, followed in 1962 by her duet partner Martin Penny, both collaborators with Britten at Aldeburgh. From 1984 to 2012, the Accompanist was Stephen Rose, Senior Coach at the Opera department of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and of the National Opera Studio in London. Timothy End was appointed Accompanist in June 2013.
Patron: HRH The Prince of Wales KG, KT, PC, GCM, OM
Chairman: Richard Harding
This page, written by members of the Philharmonia Chorus, was adapted from material on the Philharmonia Chorus's own website, with the permission of the Philharmonia Chorus.