BBC Symphony Chorus

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BBC Symphony Chorus
Also known as BBCSC, BBC SC
Former name National Chorus 1928–32
BBC Chorus 1932–35
BBC Choral Society 1935–77
Origin London, United Kingdom
Founded 1928 (89 years ago)
Genre Classical
President Sir Andrew Davis
Music director Neil Ferris
Manager Helen MacLeod
Headquarters Maida Vale Studios
Concert hall Barbican Centre
Royal Albert Hall
Affiliation British Broadcasting Corporation
BBC Proms
BBC Radio 3
Associated groups BBC Symphony Orchestra
Not to be confused with BBC Singers or BBC Chorus.

The BBC Symphony Chorus is a British amateur chorus based in London. It is the dedicated chorus for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, though it performs with other national and international orchestras.

Brief history[edit]

In its early years, the BBC worked on developing its choral output, founding the BBC Wireless Chorus, a professional chamber choir of 16, to supply the smaller scale needs. For bigger choral works, the BBC turned to outside organisations, which performed either under their own name, or under the title of "The National Chorus". Participating choruses included the Civil Service Choir, the Lloyds Choir, and the Railway Clearing House Male Voice Choir, which would perform en masse together with the Wireless Chorus.[1] Holst's choral ballet The Morning of the Year has the distinction of having been the first piece of music to be commissioned by the music department of the newly formed British Broadcasting Corporation. Its first performance was as part of a concert given at the Royal Albert Hall by the National Chorus and Orchestra, which was broadcast live, on the evening of 17 March 1927.[2]

By 1928, the BBC had decided there was a need to develop a large amateur chorus of its own. Notices advertising the formation of The National Chorus were placed, auditions were held, a broadcast was delivered in August 1928 discussing the new choir and its upcoming programme, and the choir gave its first performance later that year in Granville Bantock's oratorio The Pilgrim's Progress.[3] A condition of singing in the new choir was that the new member must already be a member of an existing choir.[4][note 1][5]

Chorus Masters of the BBC Symphony Chorus[6]

1. Stanford Robinson 1928–1932
2. Cyril Dalmaine 1932–1933
3. Leslie Woodgate 1934–1961
4. Peter Gellhorn 1961–1972
5. John Poole 1968–1976[note 2]
6. Brian Wright 1976–1984
7. Gareth Morrell 1984–1988
8. Stephen Jackson 1989–2015
9. Neil Ferris 2017–

Its earliest concerts included the UK premiere of Mahler's Eighth Symphony (15 April 1930, under Sir Henry Wood), Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (17 December 1930), Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (25 November 1931) and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (27 January 1932, under Ernest Ansermet).[5] The Missa Solemnis under the baton of Herman Scherchen on 17 December 1930 was the first performance of the Chorus with the new BBC Symphony Orchestra.[6][7] Also noted are first performances of works by Bartók (Cantata Profana) and Stravinsky (Perséphone) under such conductors as Adrian Boult, Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter.[8] Notable performances under Arturo Toscanini include Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (the "Choral") on 3 November 1937 and his Mass in D, Op. 123 (the Missa Solemnis) on 26 May 1939, as well as the Verdi Requiem on 27 May 1938.

The choir's name was changed in 1932 to The BBC Chorus, and again in 1935 to become the BBC Choral Society when a professional choir named the BBC Chorus was established.[5] In 1939, Chorus Master Leslie Woodgate described the operation and function of the various BBC choirs, including the Choral Society, in an interview with The Musical Times.[9] In 1977, it adopted its current name of the BBC Symphony Chorus,[5][10] in recognition of its status as a choir appearing in professional concerts under leading conductors, "with a repertory second to none".[6]

The Chorus was directed from 1989 to 2015 by Stephen Jackson.[11] Under his guidance, it specialised in performing large-scale a cappella choral repertoire, including Rachmaninov's Vespers (All-Night Vigil), Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden and Poulenc's Figure humaine; recorded works by Carl Rütti and Judith Bingham; and commissioned works by Richard Rodney Bennett, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Stephen Montague.[12] By the end of his period of tenure, the chorus had come to be widely regarded as one of the best amateur choruses in the world[13], singing some of the hardest pieces in the repertoire.[14]

Blue Peter[edit]

The Chorus took part in numerous Blue Peter Christmas shows and between 1983 and 2010. The grand finale of the traditional Blue Peter Christmas programme comprised the Chalk Farm Salvation Army Band and children from various schools, assisted by members of the BBC Symphony Chorus, marching "up the hill" and into the studio from the cold outside (lanterns in hand!) singing a Christmas carol around the Blue Peter Christmas tree. Two carols, "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful", were sung in alternate years, except in 1998 when there was a one-off experiment with "O Little Town of Bethlehem".[15] However, for the 2007 Christmas programme, leaving budgetary and studio constraints unspoken, Blue Peter decided on a change to the Christmas show format to host a party recognising the hard work and effort of young carers, relating to a recent Appeal. This event replaced the carol, and the Chorus was not required. In 2010 the closing carol was reinstated, featuring for one final time the Chalk Farm Salvation Army Band and members of the BBC Symphony Chorus, the last Christmas show before the programme moved to MediaCityUK.

The Chorus featured occasionally in other editions of Blue Peter, notably in the programme on Monday 12 March 1984 (edition 1888). To publicise a concert at St Luke’s Church, Chelsea, for The Knightsbridge Fund in aid of the victims of the Harrods bombing, Blue Peter invited the Chorus to the studio to sing the hymn "All people that on earth do dwell" (Old Hundredth) conducted by Brian Wright, accompanied by the Chalk Farm Salvation Army Band, who had been playing outside Harrods.[16]

Janet Ellis became a Blue Peter presenter in 1983. She was asked to audition with Chorus master Gareth Morrell and sing with the Chorus at the Last Night of the Proms on 14 September 1985.

Zöe Salmon was unwrapped from a giant present under the tree as a new presenter in the Christmas 2004 edition of Blue Peter. Shortly after her debut, she famously said "I’ll try anything once", which started a trend in her being asked to do dangerous or embarrassing things. Among consequent challenges, a generation on from Janet Ellis she was asked to learn how to sing, to audition with Chorus director Stephen Jackson, to attend piano and orchestral rehearsals in Maida Vale Studios and to sing with the Chorus in the Last Night of the Proms on 10 September 2005.

Prom at the Palace[edit]

In 2002 the Chorus performed at Buckingham Palace, as part of the Prom at the Palace which marked the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations. The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, formed the backbone of the concert, on 1 June 2002.[17] The concert was broadcast live on BBC One television and BBC Radio 3, and released a month later on audio CD (EMI/Virgin Records) and DVD (BBC/Opus Arte).

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh returned the favour by attending a special BBC Proms concert celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Her Majesty's Coronation on 30 July 2003. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and five massed choirs, including the BBC Symphony Chorus.[18]

Not the Messiah[edit]

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the original Monty Python television programme, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by John du Prez appeared alongside Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam in a remount of Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy) at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 October 2009. It was produced by Geoff Foulkes and directed by Aubrey Powell. It was recorded for release for one night only on 25 March 2010 at digital cinemas across the UK and Ireland and distribution on DVD[19], and BBC Radio 3 also broadcast a recording of this performance on New Year's Day 2010.[20]

The Chorus today[edit]

Although normally associated with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Chorus does perform independently. Venues regularly visited include the Barbican Centre and the Royal Albert Hall. As the resident chorus at the BBC Proms, the Symphony Chorus usually performs both on the first and last night. It makes regular recordings for classical music station BBC Radio 3.

New works play a vital part in the life of the Chorus.[7] Premieres and commissions in recent years have included works by Peter Maxwell Davies, Dame Judith Weir, John Tavener, Hugh Wood[12] and Anthony Payne.

Sir Andrew Davis, conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1989 to 2000, is President of the Chorus. Appropriately enough, this appointment was announced through the medium of song by Davis himself at the Last Night of the Proms, 2000.[note 3][21][22]

Under Davis, the Chorus has performed the major choral works of Elgar; the symphonies of Mahler; Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust and Romeo and Juliet; Walton's Belshazzar's Feast; Delius's A Song of the High Hills; and Tippett's The Mask of Time as well as The Vision of Saint Augustine, A Child of Our Time and The Midsummer Marriage.[7]

The BBC has announced[23] the appointment of Neil Ferris as Chorus Director of the BBC Symphony Chorus from May 2017. Grace Rossiter is to be Deputy Chorus Director. The appointment of Helen MacLeod in the new position of Choruses Manager of the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Proms Youth Chorus was also announced.[23]

Notable recordings[edit]

As well as featuring in dedicated studio recordings for BBC Radio 3, the BBC Symphony Chorus's discography consists of over 120 commercial recordings, many featuring collaborations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Recent commercial recordings include Brett Dean’s Vexations and Devotions under David Robertson; Szymanowski’s Stabat mater, Harnasie and Symphony No. 3 under Edward Gardner; and Holst's First Choral Symphony and Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38, as well as a newly released CD of Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet (Roméo et Juliette), all under the baton of its President, Sir Andrew Davis.[12]

In 2004[24] and 2005,[25] Warner Classics released five new CDs each year of music recorded live at the Royal Albert Hall at the previous year's BBC Proms season, including the Last Night of the Proms. BBC Symphony Chorus contributions to these were as follows:

Disc title
Composer and work
Soloists / Ensembles / Conductor Label Recorded / Released
First Night of the Proms 2003
Prokofiev Ivan the Terrible, Op. 116 – concert oratorio (ed. Stassevich)
James Rutherford bass Irina Tchistyakova mezzo Simon Russell Beale narrator / BBC National Chorus of Wales; BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Leonard Slatkin Warner Classics 2564 61549‑2 18 July 2003 / July 2004
The Royal Prom 2003
Walton Coronation Te Deum
Choristers of Winchester Cathedral; Winchester College Quiristers; Members of Eton College Chapel Choir; BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Sir Andrew Davis Warner Classics 2564 61550‑2 30 July 2003 / July 2004
BBC Proms 2003
Stravinsky Perséphone
Nicole Tibbels narrator Paul Groves tenor / Trinity Boys Choir; Cantate Youth Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Sir Andrew Davis Warner Classics 2564 61548‑2 10 Aug 2003 / July 2004
Last Night of the Proms 2003
Borodin Prince IgorPolovtsian Dances; various other items[note 4]
BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Leonard Slatkin Warner Classics 2564 61552‑2 13 Sept 2003 / July 2004
BBC Proms 2004
Janácek Otcenáš (Our Father) for four-part choir, tenor soloist, organ and harp
Thomas Walker tenor Sioned Williams harp Thomas Trotter organ / BBC Symphony Chorus / Stephen Jackson Warner Classics 2564 61951‑2 21 Aug 2004 / July 2005
BBC Proms 2004
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Leonard Slatkin Warner Classics 2564 61954‑2 1 Sept 2004 / July 2005
Last Night of the Proms 2004
Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs; various other items[note 5]
Sir Thomas Allen baritone Simon Preston organ / BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Leonard Slatkin Warner Classics 2564 61956‑2 11 Sept 2004 / July 2005

Chandos Records have released a series of recordings featuring the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in recent years, as follows:

Composer Work Conductor Label Recorded / Released
Howells Hymnus Paradisi; A Kent Yeoman’s Wooing Song premiere recording[note 6] Richard Hickox CHAN 9744 1998 / 1999
Bernstein Symphony No 3, ‘Kaddish’; Chichester Psalms Leonard Slatkin CHAN 10172 2003 / 2004.
Dyson Nebuchadnezzar; O praise God in his holiness; Three Songs of Praise; Confortare Richard Hickox CHAN 10439 2006 / 2007
Bantock Omar Khayyam Vemon Handley CHSA 5051 2007 / 2007
Foulds A World Requiem Leon Botstein CHSA 5058 2007 / 2008
Marx Herbstchor an Pan; Morgengesang; Berghymne; Ein Neujahrshymnus Jiří Bĕlohlávek CHAN 10505 2008 / 2009
Delius Appalachia; A Song of the High Hills[note 7] Sir Andrew Davis CHSA 5088 2010 / 2011
Szymanowski Stabat Mater, Op. 53; Harnasie, Op. 55 Edward Gardner CHSA 5123 2013 / 2013
Holst First Choral Symphony, Op. 41 H155 Sir Andrew Davis CHSA 5127 2013 / 2013
Szymanowski Symphony No. 3, ‘The Song of the Night’, Op. 27 Edward Gardner CHSA 5143 2014 / 2014
Elgar The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38 Sir Andrew Davis CHSA 5140 2014 / 2014
Bliss Morning Heroes, F 32 (1930) A Symphony for Orator, Chorus, and Orchestra Sir Andrew Davis CHSA 5159 2015 / 2015
Berlioz Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17 (1839); Chasse royale et orage (1857) (Royal Hunt and Storm) Sir Andrew Davis CHSA 5169 2015–6 / 2016

The Sir Arthur Sullivan Society's new complete recording of Sullivan's The Light of The World was made at Watford Colosseum on 21–25 April 2017. The BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Concert Orchestra were conducted by John Andrews.[26] Sir Andrew Davis will be recording Sir Arthur Bliss's cantata The Beatitudes with the Chorus following a public performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in May 2017.[7]

A number of BBC Symphony Chorus recordings have received awards, including the following:

Composer Work Orchestra / Conductor Label Year Award
Tippett The Mask of Time BBC Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Davis EMI British Composers 1986 Gramophone Awards 1987, Winner – Contemporary
Wagner Götterdämmerung Hallé Orchestra / Mark Elder Hallé 2009 Gramophone Awards 2010, Winner – Opera
Elgar The Dream of Gerontius BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis Chandos Records 2014 BBC Music Magazine Awards 2015 – Winner, Choral category;
Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2015 – Winner, Choral

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Radio Times synopsis of the 1928 broadcast on the National Chorus, the new organisation and its first season's work reads as follows:
    READERS of The Radio Times will remember announcements of the new National Chorus, which is destined to provide a permanent, amateur chorus, the members of which will be at the same time members of the existing amateur choral societies, to perform in important works on a big scale. For some time it had been the custom to get together a chorus formed of parties drawn from some of the big London choral societies, who sang with the professional Wireless Chorus; but it was felt that the time had come to establish a permanent amateur chorus that could be called upon for the performance of the most important choral works. Ever since the announcement was made the work of giving auditions has been going on, although the actual selection will not begin until the last audition is over. In this evening's talk the full significance of this development, momentous in the history both of broadcasting and of choral singing – for permanent choirs of two hundred and fifty are not formed every day – will be explained, and the first season's work of the new organization will be outlined.
  2. ^ Responsibility for the BBC Choral Society was devolved to John Poole in 1968, but Peter Gellhorn carried on as official chorus director until 1972.
  3. ^ The traditional Last Night speech included a reprise of "This is the Very Model of a Modern Music Festival", originally sung at the Last Night of the Proms, 1992, to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General". Sir Andrew proclaimed:
    If now you will allow me to be serious, not frivolous,
    To honour the participating artists would be chivalrous.
    . . .
    These concerts simply would not be the same were you not resident
    With Stephen Jackson's choristers, of whom I'm now the president.
    and the Chorus confirmed this three times in their refrain:
    Oh, well I never! He means us, and yes, he is the president.
    Oh, well I never! He means us, and yes, he is the president.
    Oh, well I never! He means us, and yes, he is the presi-president.
    Stephen Jackson was the Chorus Director at the time – it is "his choristers" who are singing with Sir Andrew, who was in turn appointed to be their president as a parting gift.
  4. ^ Full details of BBC Symphony Chorus contributions to the Last Night of the Proms 2003 CD follow:
    Borodin Prince IgorPolovtsian Dances; Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D major, Op. 39 No. 1; Fauré Pavane, Op. 50; Parry (orch. Elgar) Jerusalem; Henry Wood Fantasia on British Sea Songs (additional numbers arr. John Wilson, Percy Grainger, Stephen Jackson; Rule, Britannia! arr. Stephen Jackson)
  5. ^ Full details of BBC Symphony Chorus contributions to the Last Night of the Proms 2004 CD follow:
    Elgar Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D major, Op. 39 No. 1; Parry (orch. Elgar) Jerusalem; Puccini Madama Butterfly – Humming Chorus; Gilbert and Sullivan The Mikado – ‘I’ve got a little list’ (with new lyrics by Kit Hesketh Harvey); Trad. National Anthem; Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs; Henry Wood Fantasia on British Sea Songs (additional numbers arr. Stephen Jackson; Rule, Britannia! arr. Stephen Jackson)
  6. ^ This was re-released in 2012 as CHAN 10727 X as part of a collection titled "Classic Chandos – The Hickox Legacy".
  7. ^ The full titles are –
    Appalachia, Variations on an Old Slave Song with Final Chorus for baritone, chorus and orchestra, revised and edited by Sir Thomas Beecham; and
    A Song of the High Hills for chorus and orchestra, edited by Sir Thomas Beecham.


  1. ^ BBC Genome, January 27, 1928, 5XX Daventry, 20.00: National Concert
  2. ^ Martin Graebe, “Gustav Holst, Songs of the West, and the English Folk Song Movement” in Folk Music Journal, volume 11, number 1, pages 5–41
  3. ^ BBC Genome, November 23, 1928, 2LO London and 5XX Daventry, 20.00: B.B.C. Symphony Concert, Part I: The Pilgrim's Progress: First appearance of the newly reconstituted National Chorus
  4. ^ BBC Genome, August 30, 1928, 2LO London, 19.00: The National Chorus: the new organization and its first season's work
  5. ^ a b c d Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten: Volume One 1923–39, ed. Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed. Faber, 1991: p. 169.
  6. ^ a b c The BBC Symphony Orchestra 1930–1980, Nicholas Kenyon, BBC, 1981, pp. 513–517: Appendix F: The BBC Symphony Chorus 1928–80
  7. ^ a b c d Pass the Baton! Celebrating the BBC Orchestras and Choirs: BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Radio 3, November 27, 2016, 6.30 p.m., including a talk by Sir Andrew Davis on his time with the BBC Symphony Chorus
  8. ^ Naxos Records, Profile of the BBC Symphony Chorus
  9. ^ "The B.B.C. Choral Society: Interview with Leslie Woodgate". The Musical Times. 80 (1157): 493–495. July 1939. doi:10.2307/923391. Retrieved 16 January 2015.  JSTOR archive.
  10. ^ The Times, Thursday August 11, 1977, page 14: "The BBC Choral Society, formed in 1928 as the National Chorus, changes its name to the BBC Symphony Chorus from October 12."
  11. ^ Private Eye, Tuesday December 8, 2015, page 19, Music & Musicians
  12. ^ a b c BBC Total Immersion Day: Richard Rodney Bennett, November 27, 2016; Philip Glass at 80, January 28, 2017; concert programmes, BBC Symphony Chorus biography
  13. ^ The Times, January 8, 2016, Chorus of disapproval after Radio 3 gets rid of choir leader
  14. ^ The Times, July 21, 2006, Look, I’m at the Albert Hall!
  15. ^ Richard Marson, Blue Peter: 50th Anniversary, Hamlyn, 2008, page 67
  16. ^ Biddy Baxter and Richard Marson, Blue Peter: Inside the Archives, Kaleidoscope Publishing, 2008, page 215
  17. ^ BBC press release, April 4, 2002: The Queen’s Golden Jubilee 2002: The Queen’s Concerts
  18. ^ BBC press release, July 28, 2003: Queen makes rare visit to BBC Proms
  19. ^ IndieLondon, Not The Messiah (He's A Very Naughty Boy) – Eric Idle interview
  20. ^ Not the Messiah, BBC Radio 3 Programmes
  21. ^ Oestreich, James R (24 September 2000). "A Model Festival for London. But for New York?". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 February 2009. 
  22. ^ The Last Night of the Proms 2000, DVD Video, BBC/Opus Arte OA 0851D, released 2001
  23. ^ a b BBC press release, March 2, 2017: Neil Ferris announced as new Chorus Director of the BBC Symphony Chorus
  24. ^ BBC press release, April 4, 2004: BBC Proms 2004
  25. ^ BBC press release, April 4, 2005: Proms CDs on Warner Classics
  26. ^ The Sir Arthur Sullivan Society, Events, Festivals & Projects

External links[edit]