One of the six BBC Performing Groups, the BBC Singers are based at the BBC's Maida Vale Studios in London. The only full-time professional British choir, the BBC Singers feature in live concerts, radio transmissions, recordings and education workshops. The choir often performs alongside other BBC Performing Groups, such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and is a regular guest at the BBC Proms. Broadcasts are given from locations around the country, including St Giles-without-Cripplegate and St Paul's Knightsbridge.
The BBC Singers regularly perform alongside leading international orchestras and conductors, and makes invitational appearances at national events such as the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in Westminster Abbey. Notable former members of the group include Sir Peter Pears, Sarah Connolly, Judith Bingham and Harry Christophers.
In 1924, the BBC engaged Stanford Robinson as Chorus Master. He formed a choir for a performance of Rutland Boughton's Immortal Hour. This choir, known as 'The Wireless Chorus', was thereafter established as a full-time professional choir. In 1927, the BBC created an octet named 'The Wireless Singers', drawn from members of the Wireless Chorus, for performances where fewer singers were required. Guest conductors of both groups during these early years included Sir Edward Elgar, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and John Barbirolli.
In 1931, the Wireless Chorus was invited to perform at the Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, the first time this event had been held in Britain. Following the success of the event, it went on to establish themselves as the leading proponents of contemporary music in the UK, a reputation upheld by the BBC Singers today.
With the arrival of Leslie Woodgate as general chorus master in 1934, the group was renamed the BBC Singers, and divided into two octets, known as Singers A and Singers B, one specialising in less standard repertoire including Renaissance polyphony and madrigals, the other in light music and revue numbers. Singers A were typically paid £1 per week more than Singers B. In 1939, Woodgate described the operation and function of the various BBC choirs, including the professional choir, in an interview with The Musical Times.
During the Second World War, the choir was forced to relocate several times from its base in Maida Vale, briefly taking up residence in Bristol, Bangor and Bedford. In 1945, the choir gave the premiere of Francis Poulenc's wartime cantata Figure humaine from the Concert Hall of Broadcasting House. After the war, from the late 1940s onwards, the BBC Singers began to tour across Europe, under the direction of conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter. In England, the choir it worked with George Enescu, Sir Thomas Beecham, Otto Klemperer and Igor Stravinsky. From 1946, they became a regular feature of the BBC's new radio arts network, the Third Programme.
During the middle years of the twentieth century, the choir premiered major works by Darius Milhaud, Frank Martin, Paul Hindemith, Gerald Finzi, Sir Michael Tippett, Pierre Boulez, Sir Arthur Bliss and Karol Szymanowski. Pierre Boulez began a lifelong association with the choir in 1964.
Woodgate died in 1961. That same year, Peter Gellhorn took over the choir. He re-organised the professional contingent, scrapping the A-B division in favour of a single force of 28 voices, which was renamed the 'BBC Chorus'. Following the appointment of John Poole as chorus master in 1972, the choir reverted to its previous name, the 'BBC Singers'.
The appointment of Bo Holten as Guest Conductor in 1991 introduced a new focus and approach to Early Music. The BBC Singers now work regularly with Early Music specialists, including Peter Phillips (Tallis Scholars) and Robert Hollingworth (I Fagiolini).
Stephen Cleobury, chief conductor of the choir from 1995 to 2007, now has the title of conductor laureate with the choir. Bob Chilcott is the current principal guest conductor of the choir. David Hill was the most recent conductor from 2007 to 2017. Sofi Jeannin first guest-conducted the choir in January 2017. In May 2017, the BBC announced her appointment as the choir's next chief conductor, the first woman to be named to the post, effective July 2018.
Choir Directors and Chief Conductors
- Stanford Robinson (1924-1932)
- Leslie Woodgate (1934-1961)
- Peter Gellhorn (1961-1972)
- John Poole (1972-1989)
- Simon Joly (1989-1995)
- Stephen Cleobury (1995-2007)
- David Hill (2007-2017)
- Sofi Jeannin (2018–present)
Over its history, the BBC Singers has performed and commissioned more than a hundred new works. These include pieces by Benjamin Britten's A Boy was Born (1934), and works by Michael Berkeley, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, John Casken, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Thea Musgrave, Edmund Rubbra, Robert Saxton, Sir John Tavener, Sir Michael Tippett and Iannis Xenakis.
Select list of commissioned works:
- Judith Bingham – A Winter Walk at Noon – First broadcast 2 March 1986
- Benjamin Britten – A Shepherd's Carol & Chorale: Our Father Whose Creative Will – First broadcast 24 December 1944
- Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – Apple-Basket: Apple-Blossom – First broadcast 23 December 1990
- James Dillon – Viriditas – First broadcast 24 April 1994
- Nicola LeFanu – The Story of Mary O'Neill – First broadcast 4 January 1989
- Thea Musgrave – For the Time Being: Advent – First broadcast 18 July 1987
- Edmund Rubbra – Veni, Creator Spiritus – First broadcast 5 August 1966
- Sir Michael Tippett – The Weeping Babe – First broadcast 24 December 1944
- Iannis Xenakis – Sea Nymphs – First broadcast 16 September 1994
In 2002, Edward Cowie became the BBC Singers' first Associate Composer, with the functions of composing new works each year for performance by the choir, and participating in workshops with young composers from schools, universities and music colleges. Judith Bingham was the next to fill this position, in 2004. Gabriel Jackson took the post in 2010.
- Judith Bingham – Remoter Worlds – David Hill (conductor) 2008, Catalogue No. Signum Classics SIGCD144
- Judith Weir – The Welcome Arrival of Rain – BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor) 2008, Catalogue No. NMC D137
- Leoš Janáček – The Excursions of Mr Broucek – BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jirí Belohlávek (conductor) 2008
- Elizabeth Maconchy – Music for voices – Odaline de la Martinez (conductor) 2007, Catalogue No. LNT127
- Sergei Rachmaninoff – Francesca di Rimini – BBC Philharmonic, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor) 2007, Catalogue No. Chandos 10442
- Bob Chilcott – Man I Sing – Bob Chilcott, (conductor) 2007, Catalogue No. Signum Classics SIGCD100
- Brian Ferneyhough – Choral works – Lontano, Odaline de la Martinez (conductor) 2007, Catalogue No. Metier msv28501
- Michael Tippett – Choral Images – Stephen Cleobury (conductor) 2007 Catalogue No. Signum Classics SIGCD092
- Paul Dukas – Ariane et Barbe-bleue – BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (conductor) 2007, Catalogue No. TELARC 80680
- Benjamin Britten – Death in Venice – City of London Sinfonia, Richard Hickox (conductor) 2005, Chandos 10280(2)
- One Star, At Last – A selection of carols of our time – Stephen Cleobury (conductor) 2005, Catalogue No. Signum Classics SIGCD067
- Alexander Levine – Kolokolà – James Morgan (conductor) 2005, Catalogue No. Albany TROY736
- Tom Service (24 September 2014). "The BBC Singers: 90 years young today". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 May 2017.
- G, H. (July 1939). "The B.B.C. Choral Society: Interview with Leslie Woodgate". The Musical Times. 80 (1157): 493–495. doi:10.2307/923391. JSTOR 923391. JSTOR archive.
- "Sofi Jeannin - Chief Conductor from July 2018" (Press release). BBC. 9 May 2017. Retrieved 9 May 2017.
- Sean Street, Historical Dictionary of British Radio, pp.54-55