Our history

The early years

Oxford Bach Choir was founded in 1896 by a group of professional and amateur musicians from within the city and university who felt that the music of J S Bach had been neglected in Oxford, and who wished to encourage performances of his music here. The choir’s first concert took place on 7 December 1896, when about 100 singers performed Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in the church of St. Mary Magdalene, Oxford. The conductor was Basil Harwood, organist of Christ Church.

In these early years it seems to have been quite a small organisation, and the choir as we know it today only began to take shape after 1901, when Hugh Allen, organist of New College, took over as conductor. Allen oversaw its amalgamation with the Oxford Choral and Philharmonic Society, whose origins can be traced back to 1819. The Oxford Bach Choir therefore now represents a continuous tradition of choral singing in Oxford going back almost two hundred years.

Key to top photograph taken at the Parry Memorial Concert given by OBC on 7 March 1948. From l to r:

Mary Archer (OBC Secretary); Joseph Colegrove (OBC Vice-President); Sir Frederick Ogilvie (OBC Chairman, and Principal of Jesus College); Sidney Watson (then Director of Music at Eton; to become OBC Conductor in 1955-70) Dr Peter Peacock; Edmund Rubbra; Ralph Vaughan Williams; Dr Jack Westrup (Head of the Music Faculty, and OBC Conductor 1970-1); Dr Emily Daymond (Parry’s Secretary); Gerald Finzi; Mrs Ponsonby (Hubert Parry’s daughter); Dr H. K. Andrews (Organist of New College); Dr W H Harris (Organist of St George’s Windsor, and OBC conductor 1926-33); Dr Thomas Armstrong (Organist of Christ Church, and OBC conductor 1934-55).

Bach’s music

The music of J S Bach has always lain at the heart of our repertoire. In 1903 we gave the first performance in Oxford of his B Minor Mass, and we have since performed it over thirty times, but we have also regularly performed all his other major choral works, not least his two Passions. However, during our history we have not confined ourselves to his music alone and have performed works by other composers from the sixteenth to twenty-first centuries.

Music of our time

Above all, we have always taken an interest in the music of our own time. Since 1906, the Oxford Bach Choir has given world premieres of some eighteen pieces of music, but we have also given early performances of many other pieces of music, sometimes under the composer’s baton, or in their presence. And so we have been conducted by such figures as Elgar, Parry and Constant Lambert, and sung before Holst, Walton and Howells. Our most recent premiere was in December 2012, when we gave the first performance of two psalm settings written by Benjamin Britten as a student and left unheard until that moment.

Link with Vaughan Williams

The composer who enjoyed the closest links with the Oxford Bach Choir was Ralph Vaughan Williams. Hugh Allen was one of his earliest supporters, and so we gave the second performance of his Sea Symphony in 1911. We also gave the world premieres of two Vaughan Williams’ works, his Sancta Civitas of 1926 and his Prayer to the Father of Heaven in 1948, but we performed his music throughout his lifetime, often in his presence, and have done so ever since.

Up to the present

From its beginnings, the Oxford Bach Choir has been open to town and gown alike, and although the proportion of student members was larger in earlier years, our students remain important and appreciated members.

Since 1914 we have given most of our concerts in the Sheldonian Theatre, and for many years we rehearsed in the lecture theatre in the University Museum, but today we use the Methodist Memorial Church in New Inn Hall Street. Choir members have also given occasional concerts abroad, for the first time at Bed Ems in 1938, and more recently in Germany, Belgium and Portugal.

Principal conductors

  • Basil Harwood (1896–1901)
  • Hugh Allen (1901–26)
  • William Henry Harris (1926–33)
  • Thomas Armstrong (1934–55)
  • Sydney Watson (1955–70)
  • Jack Westrup (1970–71)
  • Simon Preston (1971–74)
  • Edward Olleson (1975–77)
  • Christopher Robinson (1977–97)
  • Nicholas Cleobury (1997–2015)
  • David Crown (2016–17)
  • Benjamin Nicholas (2018–)

World premieres

  • 1906 Ernest Walker: Hymn to Dionysus (composer present)
  • 1907 Basil Harwood: As by the Streams of Babylon
  • 1909 Ernest Walker: Ode to a Nightingale
  • 1917 Hubert Parry: Lord, let me know mine end from the Songs of Farewell (composer present)
  • 1919 OBC joined New College Choir in giving the first performance of Parry’s Songs of Farewell as a complete cycle
  • 1923 Cyril Rootham: Brown Earth
  • 1926 Ralph Vaughan Williams: Sancta Civitas
  • 1938 W. H. Harris: Praise the Lord
  • 1948 Vaughan Williams: Prayer to the Father of Heaven
  • 1948 Bruce Montgomery: Christ’ Birthday (conducted by the composer)
  • 1951 Bruce Montgomery: Oxford Requiem
  • 1964 Bryan Kelly: Canticum Festivum; Mendelssohn: Kyrie
  • 1966 William Walton: The Twelve (orchestral version). Joint first performance simultaneously with one in Westminster Abbey
  • 1978 John Gardner: Two Seasonal Songs (conducted by the composer)
  • 1996 Nicholas Maw: Hymnus (composer present)
  • 2001 Martin Butler: Two Rivers (composer present)
  • 2006 David Owen Norris: Prayerbook (composer present)
  • 2010 Bob Chilcott: Requiem (composer present)
  • 2012 Benjamin Britten: Two Psalms

In addition…

  • 2005 The Oxford Bach Choir was part of a consortium of several choirs which jointly commissioned The Kestrel Road from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. OBC performed the work in June that same year.