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“Sorry, my bees won’t let me attend”
(or: Whatever happened to Dr Mann’s Festival Singers?)

“It was indeed a thrilling universe of sound. This whole performance, in fact, came across as one of the high-points in the Phil’s long history”

So wrote music critic James Day after a performance of Mahler’s second symphony by the Cambridge Philharmonic Society in June 2008. The Cambridge Philharmonic Society: a group of nearly 200 members who play and sing music for the sheer love and art of it, aiming, always, at the highest possible standards of performance. Where did it come from, this band of musicians with such elevated aspirations?

On June 20th 1887, Dr H A Mann, the organist at King’s College Chapel Cambridge, assembled a choir with an accompanying orchestra for a festival service commemorating Queen Victoria’s jubilee. They sang Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise and the Te Deum set to music by Dr Mann himself. In the choir were, amongst others, Master Champion, Master Chubb, Miss Balls, Miss Careless, Mrs Hunnybun, and the cheerful bass Mr Merryweather. With at least two reverends (Hudson and Biscoe) in the violins they must have been a happy, enthusiastic and thoroughly moral bunch.

The service went well; so well, in fact that the singers became, for a few years, semi-permanent fixtures in the Cambridge music scene, calling themselves Dr Mann’s Festival Chorus. Members were divided equally between people who worked at the university, and people from the town. But by 1903 something had gone wrong. Dr Mann’s town and gown chorus was losing money and people weren’t coming to concerts. Dr Mann complained of the public’s apathy and resigned. This was too much for some of chorus members, and so they re-formed themselves as the Cambridge Choral Society. And things improved dramatically. Their annual Good Friday performance of the Messiah became a fixture in Cambridge, interspersed with concerts of music by Haydn, Mendlessohn. Even German’s Merrie England got a look in.

On September 29th, 1924, the society changed its name again, calling itself The Cambridge Philharmonic Society, the name it bears to this day. In the 1930s an orchestra became an integral part of the setup but then, surprisingly (sic) players and singers appear to have started bickering with each other. This culminated, later, in the disbanding of the band! Chorus numbers dropped steadily too. By 1936, then, ‘the Phil’ was in deep trouble, and it was only the appointment of Eric Congsby, a popular conductor who brought many singers and musicians back into the fold that allowed the Phil to survive. Now reconstituted with both chorus and orchestra, it continued playing during the second world war; photos show soloists in military uniform (including many members of the US armed forces stationed here), and there are accounts of performances being rudely interrupted by air raid sirens.

Jump forward to 1975. That was the year when the committee decided that the society had real status and, as a result, should find new conductors not only through interview and recommendation, but also by having them lead rehearsals with both the choir and the orchestra so that members could express their own preferences, a practice that continues to this day. All the players and singers are chosen through a rigorous audition process, too, and the society has gone from strength to strength.

So much for the bare history. But the society has been involved with some great names in the past. Raymond Leppard conducted the Phil for two years. Soloists who have sung with us include Heddle Nash, Kathleen Ferrier, Peter Pears, John Carol Case, John Tomlinson, Heather Harper, Philip Langridge, Rita Cullis and Patrizia Rosario. Iona Brown played her violin for us, Philip Jones the trumpet, Emma Johnson the clarinet, and in 1983 the great musician Tommy Reilly played his harmonica in Kings with the Phil. Players as illustrious as Christopher Hogwood, Harold Darke, Boris Ord and David Willcocks, have all added their brilliance to the society’s music making over the years. Recently such eminent young soloists as Alison Balsom (trumpet) and Natalie Clein (cello) have performed with the society. Our last conductor, Martin West, is now the principal conductor for both English National Ballet and the San Francisco City Ballet.

Mind you it hasn’t always been easy. In 1921 a note to the chorus read “Keep one eye on your score and one eye on the conductor especially at the commencement of each chorus and the leads”. Timely advice, still, perhaps (?) useful. A year later the minutes of a committee meeting include the following, “Resolved: that Mr Mason be asked to help the chorus in the practices and on the two nights of the concert and be paid a guinea and a half for his services and another half guinea if the concert is a success.” (my italics). This, of course, is an early example of performance-related pay. In 1933 a motion carried unanimously said that “we continue rehearsals another four weeks providing members attend in sufficient numbers,” and by 1944 things were really hotting up, viz “a proposal that a new rule be made that ladies of the chorus should not wear hats at rehearsals was rejected, and it was agreed that the matter be left to the discretion of the ladies.” Perhaps the most intriguing item in the society’s archives, however, is a telegram sent by a member of the orchestra to the conductor. It said “Sorry my bees won’t let me attend rehearsal to-night.” Those damn bees! I wonder what happened to them – or more importantly, to their keeper.

Today the Cambridge Philharmonic Society comprises a thriving choir and orchestra. Our members come from all walks of life representing town and gown in Cambridge and around. We play up to eight concerts a year concentrating largely on the romantic repertoire, but we have also championed new works such as John Dankworth’s Clarinet Concerto and George Lloyd’s Symphonic Mass. In the last two years we have chosen a composer, first Paul Patterson and then Jonathan Dove, and featured their works in a number of our concerts. We play Bach and Haydn too. Apart from venues in and around Cambridge we have given concerts in Ely, Peterborough and Norwich. In 2001 we travelled to Amersfoort in Holland for a performance of Haydn’s Creation with the Amersfoort Choral Society. In January 2004 we joined forces with the Brussels Choral Society for an all-Berlioz concert in Belgium, and in October 2006 we performed in the Rudolfinum in Prague as part of the Technical University's anniversary celebrations.