History of the Choral Society

The choir was originally formed in the latter part of 1910 as The St Austell Musical Society under its conductor Mr S. D. Collins.

The earliest programme we have is of a concert performed at Stenalees Wesleyan Schoolroom on 23rd May 1917. The work performed was Van Bree’s St Cecilia’s Day and it was repeated the next evening at the Public Rooms, the main venue for the society’s concerts in the early years. It was a choir of fifty voices with female voices predominating; not surprising in the middle of a war!

By April 1924, when the society performed Judas Maccabaeus, the chorus was seventy voices and by the spring of 1927, there was evidence that the choir was beginning to engage well known soloists when Miss Gwladys Naish, ‘the celebrated coloratura soprano from the British Broadcasting Association Concerts’, was engaged to sing in The Creation.

In March 1938 Mr. C. H. Baker had taken over as conductor. For that year’s performance of Elijah, the programme noted that ‘late buses would leave Duke Street at 10.45 pm for all parts!’ Among the basses was Fernley Lean, who was still singing with the choir in the 1990s.This is the first programme in our possession where the name of St Austell and District Choral Society appears.

Messiah was the first concert after the war, followed by Hiawatha with baritone Frederick Harvey. Among the violins was Alan Tregaskes, who was to play in the orchestra for many years.

In 1951 Mr. Russell Kessell became conductor and his wife Melba was soon the accompanist. About this time St John’s became the regular venue for sacred works and the society has continued to sing at St John’s regularly ever since. During the 1950s the names of the choir ceased to be listed on the programmes, perhaps because there were as many as ninety singers! In 1957 a partnership began with Treviscoe Male Voice Choir to perform carol concerts at St John’s, which became something of an institution with long queues to gain admission.

After Alan Hutt became the conductor in 1961, the repertoire broadened rapidly. A highlight was the society’s first performance of The Dream of Gerontius in March 1966. In subsequent years it was followed by such works as the requiems of Verdi, Brahms, Fauré and Mozart. Soloists with national reputations, such as Ranken Bushby and Cynthia Glover delighted our audiences. So too did two local very young men who are now more famous: Stephen Varcoe and John Treleaven. The Cornish Guardian commented that Edith White, a local soprano, ‘gave such a spirited and beautiful performance’ in 1962 that she was ‘in no way overshadowed by Mr Ranken Bushby’. As Edith Kellow, she remained a member of the society for many years, eventually becoming our President. The society’s performances were not always perfect, of course. The Cornish Guardian’s headline in April 1962 was ‘Temperamental organ almost wrecked St Austell’s Elijah’!

In 1978 Mrs Jean Sales became the society’s president. We were so grateful for her unfailing encouragement and enthusiasm, which continued into her retirement.

Alan Hutt finally left the society in 1983, but under David Leach the society continued to broaden its repertoire with such works as Poulenc’s Gloria and Holst’s Hymn of Jesus. A highlight was Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony in April 1987, when the orchestra numbered fifty players! In 1985 the second of two concerts with Benjamin Luxon took place at the Cornwall Coliseum.

During the period after 1989, when David Cheetham was with us, the society went on extending its repertoire. This included two great works by Elgar, The Kingdom and The Apostles, as well as Bruckner’s Te Deum and Orff’s Carmina Burana.

The society has been blessed with exceptionally good accompanists over the years. Some, like Eunice Tregaskes and Julia Lean, have been accomplished organists as well as pianists. In 1992 the society was delighted when Paul Drayton became its accompanist. In 1998 it gave the first performance of his The Lady of Shalott, with Naomi Johnston and Ken Trenberth as soloists.

From 2002 Paul Drayton and Simon Dunbavand were joint musical directors for the choir. In those years the choir performed works ranging from Hildegard of Bingen to John Rutter. A memorable concert at St Petroc’s in Bodmin in April 2005 included Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem and Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man. In 2007 the famous piano duo, David Nettle and Richard Markham, played for us in Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle.

For the last few years Paul Drayton has been the sole musical director. We are extremely fortunate to have such a talented musician to lead us. Our accompanist in recent years has been Anthony Trodd and we have appreciated the valuable contributions he has made to our rehearsals and concerts on both the piano and the organ.

In 2011 St. Austell Choral Society celebrated its centenary with a performance which included Saint Nicholas by Benjamin Britten. Other works included Viva la Musica, a new short piece by Paul Drayton and Five Mystical Songs by Vaughan Williams with baritone soloist John Hobbes, who has sung solos for us regularly for many years with great style and accuracy.

Since 2011, concerts have included Haydn’s The Seasons and Mozart’s Requiem. A highlight was the performance of A Ceremony of Psalms by Paul Drayton with Abbey Brass in 2017. This was a work specially written for us and we were privileged to give its first performance.

Nowadays we specialise in smaller works and our concerts include most interesting talks by Paul Drayton about the items we sing, so we have developed a new style of concert giving! Recent programmes have included An Evening in Old Vienna, A Victorian Evening, Remembering Passchendaele, Sea Fever and A Tour of European Music from Palestrina to Fauré.

We are passionate about keeping a window open for the people of the St. Austell area to experience the glories of choral singing, so if you would like to join us, we’d love to welcome you!