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Back together again: the XXXII Choir (in a larger number)

6 March 2017

In the summer of 2016, more than 50 former members of the University of Bristol XXXII Choir gathered for a day of singing and reminiscing, nearly half a century after the choir was disbanded. They were brought together by Peter Soul (BSc 1965), who has managed to trace nearly everyone who belonged to the XXXII. Here he recalls his time in the choir, tells the story of its 11 year existence, and reflects upon its Grand Reunion.

One morning in the summer term of 1964, we gathered at the foot of the grand stairway in the Wills Memorial Building, opened our copies of Crucifixus by the Venetian composer Antonio Lotti, and began to sing: first the second-basses softly, then joined by the firsts, and so on up through the choir. At the climax of the music, the echo in that vast space seemed louder than our own singing. I like to think that there is a micro-echo of us even now, up near the vaulted ceiling.

Wills Memorial Building vaulted ceiling

The ceiling inside the main entrance to the University: can a tiny echo of the XXXII Choir still be heard up there...?

In my three years at Bristol (1962–65) I sang in choirs large and small, but my strongest memories are of the XXXII Choir: my fellow-members, the music that we sang, and the places we visited. If you could consult the 135 or so students who belonged to it during its short lifetime, most would agree that being in a top-flight chamber choir was an experience they would treasure and never forget, and also that it stood them in good stead in later musical activities: singing, teaching, and even conducting.

How do I know this? Because many told me so, at our reunion last year!. But before I get to this, let me say more about the choir as it was. When Willis Grant arrived at the University of Bristol in 1958 to be Professor of Music, he soon set about moulding the existing Madrigal Choir into a body of student singers which he called the XXXII Choir, thus fixing its size (and ensuring that there was always a waiting-list of students hoping to join). The earliest known group photo is shown below. For 11 years the choir was Professor Grant's (and our) pride and joy.

(Before the reunion, I researched and wrote up Willis Grant’s life-history for the interest of choir members: it's a fascinating musical story, which you can read here.)

XXXII Choir 1961

The first known photo of the XXXII Choir, taken in 1961

A pageant of singing

One of the early engagements for the XXXII Choir in 1958 was to sing in the Great Hall on the occasion of a visit of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh to the University. Among its last performances in 1969 was a lunchtime recital at the Bath Festival.

The years in between saw the choir performing regularly on the stage of the Great Hall, also singing at other university venues, contributing to broadcast services, and otherwise away visiting churches, schools, music clubs, an Oxford college, and cathedrals across the south – naturally including Bristol Cathedral for the university services.

But the highlight of being in the XXXII was the summer tour to the Hannover area of Germany. Willis Grant organised this every two years, from 1961 to 1967. For some singers it was actually their first venture abroad. For everyone the visits were memorable, and quite an eye-opener too when, for example, we were able to view the nearby Iron Curtain. We have warm memories of the welcome we received from our hosts and our audiences.

Herrenhausen

Photographed by Peter Soul in 1965: the beautiful Herrenhausen Gallery in Hannover, in which the choir gave a concert on nearly every summer tour

Sounds old and new

The general repertoire of the XXXII Choir ranged from renaissance period music, through madrigals and folk-song arrangements, to modern composers such as Britten and Richard Rodney Bennett. Professor Grant made several recordings of the choir. The following items, which you can listen to via the title links, illustrate the freshness and virtuosity of its singing:

Naturally, many pieces featured in several concert programmes each, but this allowed us to polish them until they gleamed (musically). We rehearsed each Wednesday afternoon in the large music room in the lovely Royal Fort House. Most choir members would have said that this was the most enjoyable time of their week.

The end of an era

In contrast, the demise of the XXXII Choir in late 1969 was a sad business, brought about in part by disagreements between Willis Grant and the student Music Society, which had started to put on its own concerts. These concerts not only meant a demanding timetable for keen singers, but also led inevitably to clashes of dates for performances.

Wishing to preserve the integrity of his choir, Professor Grant decreed that no-one would be permitted to sing in both the XXXII and the new student-led chamber choir. But unfortunately he was then unable to retain or recruit enough good voices to maintain the standard he wanted. Finally he admitted defeat and announced that he was disbanding the XXXII Choir (having of course to cancel concerts that had been planned ahead). I cannot imagine how he must have felt.‌

Re-establishing contact

Not that I knew anything of the above outcome until recently. And anyway, as it turned out, one day the choir would reassemble. Partly to mark my own 50th anniversary of graduation, I had the idea of finding and inviting some ex-XXXII people to meet me at the annual Alumni Weekend in Bristol in July 2015. Fifteen of us got together, with such enthusiasm (especially for singing) that I decided to organise a Grand Reunion for as many of the XXXII Choir as I could possibly track down.

So I intensified my detective work, collecting names and tracing their owners. (I've listed some of my people-searching methods here for anyone to read who may be interested in them.) Meanwhile I chose a date at the end of June 2016 and booked the hospitality suite at the University of Reading – which was local for me, and more central than Bristol for people spread around the country.

As the day approached, I took stock: counting myself, I had actually located 117 former choir members. Sadly, I had also established that a further 15 were deceased. There were only three singers I knew of who I could not track down at all, and I doubt if more than one or two others escaped my notice altogether.

Of course, the big question on my mind was how many would sign up for the reunion: in fact a greatly encouraging 54 did so – including four coming from far-off continents, and some from every year of the lifetime of the choir. Together with a dozen of our partners and a few non-XXXII musicians, the final number was 73.

Nearly all of these had told me either that they were still in good singing voice, or that they were prepared at least to have a go. So I planned not only a buffet lunch fit for the occasion, but also more than two hours of singing (at intervals through the day), to be taken in turn by six of us who had become conductors.

'You haven’t changed a bit!'

The XXXII Grand Reunion was (if I’m allowed to say so) a resounding success. It was described to me afterwards by someone as: 'A fabulous, fabulous day.' Most people had not seen any of their choir-friends for fifty years (more or less), so there was much to catch up on. Together we comprised several different generations of students, but this mattered not at all, as we were united by our time in the choir. Below is a photo of the XXXII ex-members present: nine of them were also in the group photo from 55 years earlier.

As for the singing, our six conductors chose nearly as wide a range of music as we had sung at Bristol, for us to work at a little bit and then sing through. You may listen to some of the items (bearing in mind that any faltering of voices should be attributed to the emotion of the occasion):

  • Antonio Vivaldi – Gloria (its first two sections), conducted by Chris de Souza, accompanied by Roy Tipping
  • John Wilbye – Draw on, sweet night, a magical slow madrigal, conducted by Rosemary Thomas (née Welton) 
  • Henry Purcell – Rejoice in the Lord alway, conducted by Delyth Cresswell (née Roberts), accompanied by Graham Blyth, soloists Delyth and Chris de Souza (who had sung the same parts in Hannover in 1965), and myself
  • Edward Elgar – As torrents in summer, conducted by Rosemary Thomas
  • Ernest Moeran – Good Wine (from Songs of Springtime), an Elizabethan drinking-song, conducted by Richard Darke

Our thanks go to David Thompson who recorded all of the music through the day.

The XXXII Choir reunited, on 29 June 2016

Sixty years on...

When shall we XXXII meet again? The current plan is for another reunion in July 2018, at the Alumni Weekend in Bristol. This will be very nearly 60 years from when Professor Willis Grant first assembled and conducted our choir. And I rather think that we shall once again take any opportunity to sing.

Meanwhile, still searching for singers

Does anyone recognise this man

Professor Willis Grant and, behind him, the ‘Mystery Voice’: does anyone recognise this man?

If you were at Bristol in the early 1960s, can you give me any information at all about the three I haven't yet found? They all appear in the 1961 choir photo above: Christine Wright (BA 1962), front centre in the photo, Valerie Brown (a good speaker of German) who is tilting her head, and the man I call the Mystery Voice, seen behind the professor in the photo above. Please contact me at peter@petersoul.co.uk.‌