The History of Ipswich Bach Choir

George Gray, organist and choirmaster of St Mary-le-Tower Church in Ipswich, founded Ipswich Bach Choir in early 1929. Their first concert, at Easter, was the ‘St Matthew Passion’, a work that the choir has performed on numerous occasions since, most recently at Snape Maltings, Easter 2002, with Witham Choral Society.From 1932 to 1957 the choir performed jointly with the Bury Bach Choir, which later became known as the St Edmundsbury Bach Choir, under Percy Hallam, who was cathedral organist at Bury St Edmunds. They usually gave pairs of concerts, at St Mary-le-Tower Ipswich and at St Mary’s Church or the Cathedral in Bury. In 1935, as a result of their growing reputation, they were invited to perform in London as part of the celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of Bach. On that occasion they performed the ‘St Matthew Passion’ again, which was said at the time to be ‘the first appearance of this kind of any East Anglian choir in London’.Sir Peter Pears, renowned tenor and long-time friend of Benjamin Britten, first sang with the two choirs in 1951 at a performance of Britten’s ‘St Nicholas’ and other music in the cathedral at Bury as part of the Festival of Britain Cathedral Week. Pears subsequently sang several times with the choirs and became a Vice-President of the Ipswich Bach Choir in 1959, and was President from 1979 until his death. John Shirley-Quirk CBE succeeded him in 1986.

In 1957, Merlin Channon took over as conductor of the Ipswich Bach Choir for five years, until he moved away. On his return to Suffolk he was unanimously re-elected and was conductor from 1975 until he retired in 1987. He was also musical director of the Eye Bach Choir with whom the Ipswich Bach Choir have often performed, the last occasion being Merlin’s retirement concert, Verdi ‘Requiem’ in 2005. Michael Hamm took over as conductor in 1962 and was replaced by Audrey Hill in 1967 until she went abroad in 1974.

Since December 1975, the orchestra named on the programme has been the Ipswich Chamber Orchestra. Jessie Ridley replaced Paul Hardman as leader of the orchestra in 1970, having first played with the Ipswich Bach Choir in 1963, or earlier, and has been leader ever since except for 1989 to 1996 when Elizabeth Marsen was leader.

The choir sang at the Ipswich Corn Exchange’s Inaugural Concert on September 22nd 1975 with the Ipswich Choral Society and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Walter Susskind. Ipswich Bach Choir’s main ‘home’ from then became the Corn Exchange, although for their 50th anniversary concert in 1979 the choir returned to St Mary-le-Tower, where they sang the ‘St Matthew Passion’ to coincide with the 250th anniversary of its first performance at Leipzig. To mark the occasion the work was sung in its entirety, which is a rare event. The church was packed, and Jack Hawes, in the Evening Star, reviewed it as “a most moving experience, both musical and devotional, that will long be remembered as a highlight in the history of the Ipswich Bach Choir.” Around this time, the choir acquired its current logo, a profile of Bach surrounded by a laurel wreath.

Paul Trepte, cathedral organist at Bury St Edmunds, became conductor in 1987 and Andrew Fardell followed from 1995 to 2000. During these years the choir continued it’s long established practise of performing major choral repertoire and some less well known works, including a small number of 20th century pieces. In 1996 Steuart Bedford became President and played Mozart ‘Piano Concerto No 17’ at Andrew Fardell’s farewell concert with the choir in 1999.

In 1982, the tenor soloist in a performance of Bach ‘Christmas Oratorio’ and Handel ‘Dixit Dominus’ was one Patrick McCarthy, who subsequently became conductor and musical director in 2000. The Choir celebrated its 75th anniversary in December 2004 with Handel ‘Messiah’ at the Corn Exchange, Ipswich. In recent years the choir has combined with Witham Choral Society to give performances of major choral works at Snape Maltings on several occasions, the last occasion being a joint performance of Handel ‘Israel in Egypt’ in 2010.

We celebrated our 80th Anniversary in 2009 and marked the occasion with a performance of Bach ‘St John Passion’ at St Andrew’s Church Felixstowe.