Bedford Choral Society -  150th Anniversary  - History

Celebrating 150 Years of Singing for the Joy if It

Timeline: 150 Years of Choral Singing in Bedford

The following information is taken from the book “Bedford’s Musical Society: A History of Bedford Choral Society” by Michael Benson, 2015 ; from the Higgins Museum and from Bedfordshire Archives. More details of this important work and the Higgins exhibtion are given on a separate tab on this page.

1867 First meeting of Bedford Amateur Musical Society was held at the Working Men’s Club, Harpur Street and first performance on 30th April at The Assembly Rooms (now the Harpur Centre).

Philip Diemer founded Bedford Musical Society, now known as Bedford Choral Society, conducting performances for 33 years. The son of a tailor, Philip had an enthusiasm for music from a young age, playing the organ at St Peter's Street Moravian Church. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, training alongside composer Arthur Sullivan. In 1858, he returned as organist and choirmaster to Holy Trinity Church, Bromham Road, retiring in 1905. Bedford Musical Society had an 18-strong orchestra and over 100 singers, bolstered by many of his private pupils.

“The performing members desire to express to you… their high appreciation of the zeal and ability with which you have you have conducted its concerts… and… for the uniform kindness and consideration you have shown.” Address presented by the Mayor to Philip Diemer, Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 19 February 1876

Dr Hermann Steinmetz was a co-founder and the first Secretary and Treasurer of the Musical Society for 26 years. He was born in Sachsenhausen (near Leipzig), arriving in Bedford in the late 1850s to teach German at the Harpur Trust schools. In 1873, he joined Bedford Grammar School and was a popular teacher. From 1867 he wrote all the minutes from the meetings, which have survived as a valuable record. He was a leading light in the Bedford Scientific and Literary Institute, giving talks ranging from student life in Germany to Mozart. In

1893, the Bedfordshire Times declared: “The present Musical Society is a speaking testimony to the persevering efforts of Dr Steinmetz who has been its Hon. Secretary through sunshine and rain from the beginning.’”

1874 The Society performed Handel’s Messiah in the newly opened Corn Exchange.

1880 "Amateur" was dropped creating Bedford Musical Society.

1898 Concert at which the famous contralto, Dame Clara Butt, sang.

1899 Concerts reduced from four to three, due to the Cycling craze.

Four generations of the same family were music-makers in Bedford: Robert Rose, Henry Rose, Clara Samuell and Nina Samuell-Rose. The Rose & Co. music shop was established on the corner of the High Street. Robert Rose was the oldest of the founders. He taught music and was organist of both St Peter's and St Paul's Church. His music shop, which also sold pianos, was on the corner of the High Street. Henry Rose was Robert’s youngest son and was organist of St. Pancras Church in London. Henry married Clara Samuell in the early 1880s. Though they were both professors at the Royal Academy of Music, they also returned regularly to teach in Bedford. Clara was a popular soloist with Bedford Musical Society. Her first performance was in 1880, when she sang Handel’s Israel in Egypt. Their daughter Nina Samuell-Rose was also a professional singer. She often sang with the Musical Society before the First World War. Her husband was killed in action six months after their wedding, ending a gifted family line of musicians.

“Mr [Robert] Rose has been called ‘The Father of Music in Bedford’… [He] was a good man of business, exceedingly methodical in his habits, very observant, interested in all that he saw, buoyant in spirits, and clear of intellect.” Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 25 March 1898 “Miss Samuell’s singing, in fine voice and with beautifully clear enunciation was a rich treat and highly appreciated by all.” Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 18 December 1880.

Image (click to enlarge).
The picture is of the Music Cart (which was owned by Robert Rose and was his shop). It is now in the Higgins Musem.

1900 The Corn Exchange organ, for which members of the Society raised money, was installed and "opened". A recital was given by Henry Rose, Robert Rose's son.

Dr Harry Harding, a gifted organist, was conductor of Bedford Musical Society for 23 years from 1900. Born in Salisbury, the son of a saddler, he showed an early aptitude for music. At just 17 years old, he was appointed organist of Sidmouth Parish Church in Devon, and went on to gain a doctorate from Oxford University. He moved to Bedford to become organist and choirmaster of St. Paul's Church in 1889, teaching at both Bedford School and Bedford High School. In 1908, he was made Secretary of The Royal College of Organists.
“[Dr. Harding] knows what effects he wants and is able to get them from his loyal players and singers… an alert and intelligent unity… speaks volumes for the work done at rehearsals and the sympathy… between the members and the conductor”; Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 19 February 1901

1903 Dr Harding prevented the collapse of the Corn Exchange platform immediately before a performance of Mendelssohn's St Paul, by arranging for strong beams to be put up.

1914 – 1918 The Society did not perform during the First World War, except for three free performances of Messiah for the troops in November 1914. Dr Harding gave regular organ recitals in St. Paul's Church after evensong.

1920 The first Bedford Festival of Music, Speech and Drama (Eisteddfod) was held and promoted by Dr. Harding. This became one of the largest Music Festivals in the country.

1933 Bedford Musical Society disbanded, largely because of a shortage of male singers, due to the numbers of men lost during the Great War.

World-renowned soprano Dame Felicity Palmer is the third generation of a family which left its musical mark on Bedfordshire. Her grandmother, Mary Palmer , was a soprano soloist, as well as a pianist, and a teacher of choirs for Bedford Music Festival. She formed the Mary Palmer Ladies Choir in 1924. Married to William Palmer, editor of the Bedfordshire Times and Independent, she sang with Bedford Musical Society choir for over 30 years. She was distressed by the Society's closure. In a letter to the Bedfordshire Times & Independent, she offered to disband her own choir to allow Bedford Musical Society to survive. This offer was not taken up.

Picture: The Mary Palmer Choir (at Bedford Modern School) in 1925
(Click image to enlarge)

Her choir was very successful, broadcasting on the BBC on three occasions. Their son Marshall Palmer was organist at Woburn Parish Church until 1941, when the new Duke of Bedford refused to pay his salary. Soon after the BBC Music Department came to the town in 1941, he suggested reviving the lapsed Musical Society. Enthusiasts met at the Dujon café (above Dudeney & Johnson’s grocery shop in Bedford High Street). He was taken ill with an ear infection, so his new wife, Sylvia Palmer, stood in for him, cycling over from Woburn Sands. She was the first General Secretary of the reformed Society and Marshall its honorary conductor.

1941 “[Marshall Palmer] formed the new Bedford Musical Society, a project which was very near to his heart and which has already laid the foundation for a bright and healthy future.” The Bedfordshire Times and Bedfordshire Standard, 5 March 1943

Kate and Hans Freyhan were actively involved in the Society for nearly 50 years. As Jewish refugees, they left Germany in the late 1930s. At the age of 23 years, Hans, originally from Berlin, had been “forcibly retired” from his job. He took a teaching post in Brighton. Kate, with their very young son, joined him just before the outbreak of war. They settled in Bedford in 1941 after he had been interned in the Isle of Man. He taught German at Bedford Modern School and was appointed piano accompanist of Bedford Musical Society. Kate taught the recorder while organising recorder sessions at Bedford Modern School, then began conducting small choral ensembles. She became assistant chorus master of the Choral Society in 1948 and continued (as chorus master) until 1974. Hans began as music critic of the Bedfordshire Times in the 1960s and continued almost up until his death.

Picture: Bedford Musical Society at the Corn Exchange in 1948
(Click image to enlarge)

“[Kate and Hans] chose Bedford because they had heard of the schools. For their first few weeks in the town they slept in a church hall. Eventually accommodation was found … at first Miss Parker-Ford refused to have them, but changed her mind when she heard Hans was a musician.” Bedford’s Musical Society: A History of Bedford Choral Society by Michael Benson, 2015

1945 For VJ (Victory over Japan) Day, the Society broadcast on the BBC Home Service a programme which included a madrigals and motets.

1946 Kathleen Ferrier was one of the soloists in the Society's performance of Messiah.

1947 Clarence Raybould, previously assistant conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, was appointed conductor of Bedford Musical Society. Daphne Braggins was appointed chorus master.

1958 Sir David Willcocks was appointed conductor for the Society, with his first concert in March 1959.

1973 Deirdre Knight appointed assistant chorus master, replacing Kate Freyhan.

1985 Ian Smith appointed as chorus master, becoming conductor for the Society when Sir David Willcocks retired in 1987.

1988 Bedford Musical Society was renamed Bedford Choral Society.

2017 Bedford Choral Society’s anniversary concert on 30 April at Bedford Corn Exchange, conducted by musical director, Ian Smith, included Mendelssohn's Lauda Sion, which was one of the pieces performed by the Society in 1867. The concert included a Te Deum, previously commissioned from local composer Paul Edwards and the world premiere of Psalm 150, commissioned from Assistant Chorus Master, Tim Grant-Jones. As a special surprise for the audience, the choir finished the concert with an additional piece from 1867, Handel's Hallelujah chorus, sung from memory.

Page date: July 2017

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