'Guilders' remember........

Many singers have come and gone over the Guild’s 50 year history, but just one has remained constant since the very beginning.
Jacqui Bean was singing with the Stevenage Music Society and was also a member of a small madrigal group when, in 1968, she heard of a proposed Instant Messiah to be performed at St Mary’s Church in Hitchin. Anyone who was interested, regardless of ability, was invited to take part and at the first rehearsal the singers were greeted by an energetic John Railton, who was then the assistant music adviser for North Hertfordshire. He had lost his left arm to cancer at the age of 32, but never allowed this to hold him back. “The music he produced with one hand on the piano amazed me,” says Jacqui. “Rehearsals were always enjoyable as John was so enthusiastic and easy going.”
The performance of Messiah was a great success. “John felt there was a demand for such a choir to perform major works and asked if we were keen to continue on a regular basis,” recalls Jacqui. “Of course we were!”
One of the first tasks for the newly formed choir was to choose a name. Several suggestions had been put forward for consideration and the members voted by a show of hands. Their choice of the North Herts Guild of Singers did not meet with unanimous agreement; Jacqui remembers some people being concerned that the abbreviation NHGS might lead to confusion with a certain local girls’ school....


But the Guild it was to be, and in September 1968 rehearsals began at Hitchin Boys’ Grammar School for a performance of Haydn’s Nelson Mass. One of the singers who turned up was a 16-year-old pupil at St Francis school in Letchworth, who had heard through a friend about the charismatic musician who was starting a new choral society. That schoolgirl was Lindsay Bayles, who remained with the Guild until 2016 and now sings with the Ludlow Choral Society.
“Joining the Guild was an exciting progression for me personally from an all-girls school choir to adult mixed-voice singing,” says Lindsay. “Only six rehearsals later came the performance with the Ealing Youth Orchestra” (which John Railton also founded and conducted) “in St Mary’s; we were undoubtedly rough around the edges but with no shortage of enthusiasm. It was an experience I will never forget and it is why I have kept singing ever since.”
The joint concerts between the Guild and the Ealing Youth Orchestra continued until 1979, and Jacqui Bean has memories of them being great fun but hard work. “One of the more demanding works that I was introduced to was Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis,” she remembers, “and one particularly enjoyable performance was in Malmesbury Abbey. This has remained one of my favourite works.”


Alto Pam Haynes, who joined the choir in December 1974, also has fond memories of that concert – although she still wonders how they ever had the nerve to sing such a monumental work on relatively few rehearsals. “We were driven by John’s enthusiasm and confidence, and kept our doubts to ourselves,” she says. “If he thought we could sing it – we sang it!”
On the way home from Malmesbury the choir's coach developed a problem, and after a ‘comfort break’ at a service station on the M4 it refused to start. Pam’s account of what followed shows how far we have progressed in terms of gender equality: “We got out, the driver put the engine in gear, the tenors and basses pushed; no joy. They pushed again. Just as a cry of “Altos next!” went up, the engine coughed into life.”
The choir learned to expect the unusual working with John Railton – such as the time in 1979 when he composed a setting of the Magnificat, featuring his wife Elizabeth as the soloist. “The middle section was a round,” remembers Pam, “but we never discovered how to get from the round back to our four parts – possibly John had not decided. We had to keep going until he signalled us to stop.” Peter Mackenzie, who joined in 1973 and still sings with the basses when his health allows, recalls the wonderful buzz about rehearsals with John radiating his charm and energy. "He did not spend a lot of time on notes – he expected you to do your homework and pick these up as you went along. It was the music as a whole he was anxious for us to grasp. Where he went we all followed. Heady days!"
Under the Anniversary>Photos tab is a photograph of the choir on one of its two visits to the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen, sporting the new Guild uniform of black and white. Jacqui, along with the other ladies, was asked to make her own checked skirt: “The checks were of differing sizes, but that didn’t matter.” Judith Bigley, now leader of the 1st Alto section, was part of the group which travelled to Llangollen in 1976 - there and back on the same day - and she has one abiding memory of that wonderful experience:"In the queue for the ladies’ loo someone burst into song, and because we were all singing the same set-piece, everyone joined in. Never has the queue for the loo been so enjoyable!"


Judith and Jacqui, who are pictured with the choir in the Archive Photos, were both part of the group which visited the BBC Maida Vale Studio in 1982 to record an entry for the Let the People Sing series. "We sang some movements from the Rachmaninov Vespers, among other things, but I have no idea whether our efforts ever found their way onto the airwaves," recalls Judith. "Just being there was very special." For Jacqui, the Guild's summer concert in 2015 also brought back memories of that recording session because both featured a set of folk songs arranged by John Railton.

Of course, if you sing with a choir for four or five decades then music is bound to come around again. That first Messiah in 1968 has been repeated countless times, particularly in charity performances; other major works have become part of the regular repertoire, including the demanding Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The first performance of this particular work that Judith Bigley remembers was one of the joint concerts with the Ealing Youth Orchestra. "It was in the depths of winter, in a large draughty church in Ealing. We sat through the first three movements getting colder and colder, and when we stood up to sing a cloud of steam came from our mouths! We did get a standing ovation, but maybe that was because the audience felt the need to warm themselves up too."


Another long-serving member who was part of those joint concerts is Jennie Jarrett, who sang her last concert with the Guild in November 2017. She and her husband Derek entertained some of the young orchestra members at their home in Letchworth, and for many concerts after that they would invite conductors and soloists home for tea between afternoon rehearsal and evening performance. Among those conductors would have been John Railton’s successor Ian Moore, remembered by Pam Haynes for his odd socks and for introducing the choir to Thomas Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in Alium. Other memorable directors over the years have included David Lawrence, who brought a physical element into rehearsal warm-ups – often involving standing on one leg and twirling the other; sol-fa queen Marion Wood, who organised the first of the Guild’s foreign ‘tours’; ex-King’s Singer Jeremy Jackman; and the late David Fanshawe, composer and powerhouse behind the African Sanctus, which the Guild has performed twice. Every conductor, whether 'permanent' or guest, has brought something unique and enduring to the life of the Guild, and added to its continuing presence in the musical community.

“Fifty years is a long time to have stayed with a choir,” says Jacqui, whose husband Richard is a mainstay of the tenor section, “and although during this time I have sung for several years with the St Paul’s Cathedral Special Service Choir, the London Motet and Madrigal Club and occasionally with the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, it has been the NHGS that has been my constant association with choral music. I continue to learn and enjoy new works as well as singing again works I learned right at the beginning of my choral life with the Guild.”






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